Fix or sell? Illinois’ high property taxes make either tough

Fix or sell? Illinois’ high property taxes make either tough

The nation’s second-highest property taxes could come down if Illinois cut school bureaucracy and reformed public pensions. Until they do, fixing the housing stock is a tough sell.

Vincent Mazzaferro is an engineer. He can see the potential in things – even when they’re falling apart.

So, when it came time to buy a home, he picked a fixer-upper in Elmwood Park where he lives today with his fiancée.

Mazzaferro’s love of refurbishing unloved properties also led him to the opposite end of Cook County in 2019, when he decided to buy a five-unit property in Thornton, Illinois, population 2,338.

He bought the place for $125,000, hoping to turn it into high-quality, affordable rental units. Mazzaferro knew the property would require a lot of work and lacked the basics, such as good flooring, drywall or proper plumbing. He estimated each of the units would need at least $20,000 in repairs to catch up on years of neglect.

So he was stunned when he got his property tax bill – for $20,000, or 16% of the purchase price.

“$20,000 annually in property taxes is what you pay for on a mansion,” Mazzaferro said. “This is not a mansion.”

His monthly payment on the property is $3,030. The principal is $600 and the interest is $400, but his taxes are $1,650. That means taxes make up more than half of what he’s paying each month.

How does a person end up with a $20,000 property tax bill on a $125,000 house? It defies logic and the answer is complicated.

“My recourse is asking them to assess it fairly,” Mazzaferro said. “And they’re just throwing my appeal out the window like it doesn’t exist.”

Over 60% of Mazzaferro’s property tax bill goes toward two school districts and costs $11,534.

Thornton Township High School District 205 serves 4,722 students in three schools in grades 9-12. Thornton School District 154 serves just 226 K-8 students in one school.

This isn’t an efficient way to run four small schools.

If those two school districts were consolidated and the savings were passed on to local homeowners, Vincent could see his property tax bill cut by nearly $4,200.

Illinois has 859 school districts and 25% of them serve just one school. Florida, which serves over 700,000 more students than Illinois, has 75 districts. Florida averages 38,000 students per district.

In addition to Illinois being home to the second-highest property taxes in the country, one of the most painful facts about owning a home here is that tax dollars don’t go to the services people expect and value.

Consider the situation in Elmwood Park, where Mazzaferro lives and paid $10,373 in property taxes in 2019.

Roughly 41% of property tax dollars for the village of Elmwood Park went to fund pensions. The police pension fund is less than 30% funded and the fire fund is less than 40% funded. Elmwood Park leaders cited police and fire pensions directly as the reason why taxes went up in 2019.

Most attention surrounding Illinois’ pension crisis focuses on the $144 billion hole Springfield is staring down. But the pension crisis is a local problem, too, worth $63 billion that causes property taxes to rise each year.

For Mazzaferro, with two property tax bills costing him over $30,000, he can’t make the numbers work in Thornton.

“I see potential in fixing [up that property] because I want to add value to the community, but I’ll have to sell it,” he said. “I can’t afford it because I can’t raise rents enough to cover the renovations and the taxes.”

“High taxes drive the money out. And I can’t reinvest. I can’t reinvest in the property, or the community, and no one else can afford to, either.”

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