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Property tax hikes shock some North Side homeowners

Josephine Sennet

Josephine Sennet recently received a letter from the Cook County assessor's office stating that the estimated market value of her home had shot way up. That's likely going to mean a big increase in her property taxes, a problem for someone on a fixed income. Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

A week or so ago, retired Chicago Public Schools teacher Josephine Sennet received a letter from the Cook County assessor’s office, and what she read floored her.

Since the last reassessment in 2015, the estimated market value of her home in the Lakewood Balmoral neighborhood had shot up about 51 percent, likely meaning a huge increase in future property taxes. Reactions have been similar across this North Side enclave of handsome, historic homes.

“I haven’t added on anything,” said Sennet, 78, who has lived in her home since 1972. “I don’t have a grand, glorious kitchen. All the bathroom fixtures are what came with the house.”

Sennet, who lives on a fixed income, wonders if her reassessment notice — among about 30,000 sent out to house and condo owners in the North Side’s Lakeview Township in recent days — is a veiled message from outgoing Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.

“Berrios is going out of office, and he’s giving the North Side a kick because we didn’t vote for him,” said Sennett, echoing a common suspicion among residents here.

Berrios lost his re-election campaign in March to challenger Fritz Kaegi of Oak Park. Kaegi spent much of his campaign hammering Berrios for hiring his own family members and for a property tax assessment system found to be rigged against lower-income minority homeowners.

Joe Berrios

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios at a news conference he called in June 2017 to address allegations about property assessment. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Berrios has been assessor since 2010, following stints on the Cook County Board of Review and as a state representative. His last day on the job is Dec. 30.

This week, Berrios’ spokesman, Tom Shaer, said a suggestion his boss might be taking a parting shot at critics is “complete nonsense.”

“That is an uninformed opinion,” Shaer said. “In fact, our critics claim we under-assess higher value homes.”

Among other things, the reassessments, done every three years, reflect a healthier real estate market following “the worst housing crash in history,” according to Berrios’ office. The median sale price for a single-family home in the township increased from $610,000 in 2015 to $790,000 last year, the assessor’s office said. And the median assessed value of homes increased from $59,683 in 2015 to $78,717.

“Homeowners are happy when their property increases in value. But when it’s time to reassess for tax purposes, such increases in value are suddenly unwelcome,” Shaer said. “It’s human nature. In other words, the good news is, your home is worth more; the bad news is, your home is worth more.”

Fritz Kaegi

Fritz Kaegi on election night in March at Apollo 2000. Kaegi defeated incumbent Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios for the Democratic nomination. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

But several real estate agents the Chicago Sun-Times spoke to agreed the reassessments seem unusually high, even with an improving economy. One veteran agent who specializes in North Side properties said home prices actually appear to be falling.

“What’s happening, unfortunately, over the last year — and at a rapidly accelerating pace — is people not having confidence in the real estate market, and we’re noticing a big slowdown in sales,” said Realtor India Tougne. “Although the inventory is low, the prices are not going up in a corresponding fashion.”

Tougne said concerns about everything from the recent state budget woes, to Chicago Public Schools funding issues and “Chicago corruption” are discouraging people from buying in the city, prompting them to rent instead.

One client, Tougne said, had an offer of about $1,325,000 for a home back in 2016 in Lakewood Balmoral but hesitated long enough for the buyer to back out. The owner then made some improvements and put the home back on the market last year.

“We just finally sold it after almost a whole year for $1,000,050,” Tougne said. “Boy, was she kicking herself.”

“I don’t have a grand, glorious kitchen. All the bathroom fixtures are what came with the house,” said Jacqueline Sennet, who lives on a fixed income, and wonders why her reassessment notice shows such a big increase in market value for her Lakewood Balmoral home. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Not everyone shares Tougne’s opinion.

One homeowner, who has seen the estimated market value of his property increase by 36 percent since 2017, says there’s plenty of demand for homes in his family-friendly Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Andy Malloy is equally upset with the assessor’s office and home buyers so eager to live in desirable neighborhoods that they’re willing to pay inflated prices.

“There’s just a knee-jerk [reaction] that’s happening, of people overpaying for homes,” said Malloy, who lives with his wife and two young children in a “starter” home. “It’s a good problem to have. I get it. [But] I don’t think everything is apples to apples.”

By that, Malloy means the assessor’s office isn’t looking closely enough at individual homes — seeing whether they’re a total rehab or left mostly untouched — before determining market value.

The assessor’s answer to Malloy’s complaint — and others who think they’re getting a raw deal — is likely a familiar one.

“We urge you to file an appeal, and if you have something that shows that figure needs adjustment, we will handle your appeal fairly and efficiently,” Shaer said. “Most successful appeals here do not involve attorneys.”

That deadline for Lakeview Township is June 7.

Meanwhile, Sennet says she’s wondering how she’s going to afford the expected increase in property taxes based on the reassessment.

“I talked to a real estate agent and said, ‘If you can get someone to buy my house for $1 million, let me know,'” Sennet said. “But I don’t want to move. This is where my friends are, where my kids grew up.”