For generations of black Chicagoans, the suburb of Matteson was a beacon. Moving there meant you had made it. It was a place where black wealth was not only accepted, but celebrated.
The pride of the village since its opening in 1973 was the Lincoln Mall on U.S Route 30 and Cicero Avenue. Anchored by stores like Carson Pirie Scott and Montgomery Ward, it was the place to see and be seen.
That’s the Matteson Patricia Hill grew up admiring.
She was raised in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. And when she and her husband were raising their two daughters, they chose Matteson, buying a two-story home in a quiet residential neighborhood for $315,000 in 2003.
But things are different now. Visions of the community’s future no longer bring comfort. Instead, they inspire crippling fear.
“This is supposed to be the American Dream for me and my family … I’m holding on to everything I can, but I’m losing because of this house,” Patricia said.
“It’s a nightmare.”
She believes her home is now worth $215,000. Her property tax bill is more than $10,000 a year. And she has twice been on the cusp of foreclosure.
“Everyone is in shock when I tell them the property taxes. They say it must be an error,” she said.
“It’s not. [This house] is all I have. It’s my net worth. It’s who I am. The stress, the sleepless nights. It never goes away. I just turned 66 yesterday and I can’t even think about retiring.”
A new survey by WalletHub ranked Illinois property taxes as the second highest in the nation for the third year running. And data released in February from the Federal Housing Finance Agency show the average annual housing appreciation rate in Illinois since the end of 2007 has been a microscopic 0.2%, besting only New Jersey and Connecticut.
Illinoisans have seen their home values sputter or decline. But property tax bills have only been going up – fast.
Rev. Anton Seals is another South Side Chicago native who moved his family to Matteson to settle down. His home value has been virtually flat since he bought it 10 years ago for $280,000. The raw property tax bill on that home is $15,000, but a disability and senior exemption drops it to around $10,500 a year.
“Suppose your vision was to get out of the city, where there was a lot of gunshots and violence,” Anton said.
“We move to this quiet neighborhood where everything seemed to be going well. But over 10 years we’ve lost so much. You’ve worked this hard for this long, your taxes are going up and your property is being devalued.”
Patricia and Anton talked about the psychological distress of never feeling like their home is truly theirs. Compounding that uneasiness is an exodus of businesses from the area in recent years.
Lincoln Mall is now an empty lot. The village just competed the demolition of its last vestige. Meanwhile, new businesses require large tax breaks and subsidies to open their doors.
The same story is unfolding in communities across the state. Illinoisans know there’s a problem.
So state lawmakers in the spring created the 88-member Illinois Property Tax Relief Task Force. It was charged with finding solutions by the end of 2019. But no official report has been released to the public yet.
Seals, a community organizer by trade, has taken matters into his own hands.
Three years ago, he started putting out word to start a citizens’ group on the neighborhood messaging app Nextdoor. The Concerned Neighbors of Matteson, or CNOM, now meets every month at the Matteson Public Library. The nonpartisan group has three main goals: Tax relief, economic development and voter participation.
“This is a ministry mission for me,” Seals said. “I was critically ill and CNOM is what kept me going. It gave me something to fight for.”
Some claim a lack of school funding from the state is the cause of Illinois’ high property taxes. But that argument can sometimes ignore where leaders are wasting billions of existing education dollars. Chicago’s south suburbs point to the two real drivers of property tax hikes statewide: pensions and school district bureaucracy.
Illinois was the only state to spend over $1 billion on school district administration in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And it spends more on pensions as a share of state and local government spending than any other state, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
One infamous example played out in south suburban Calumet City, where superintendent Troy Paraday was making $430,000 a year to oversee 1,200 students. After being fired for financial misconduct, the 57-year-old Paraday collected nearly $220,000 in pension benefits in his first six months of retirement in 2019, according to the Daily Southtown.
Thankfully, there are solutions on the table in Springfield.
House Bill 4005 is a bipartisan proposal that would let local voters decide on school district consolidation (not school consolidation) after a statewide review process. HJRCA 38 is a constitutional amendment that would allow for modest pension reform, such as later retirement ages and smaller cost-of-living adjustments.
For communities like Matteson, time is of the essence. Patricia’s neighbors are simply walking away from their homes. That depreciates her home value while upping her tax bill.
“Walking away is quitting,” she said.
“I will not give up. We want to make a change. We have invested too much to leave this all behind.”