Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, who issued two studies last year that found gross inequities in the state’s property tax code, spearheaded the passage of groundbreaking legislation that would help homeowners who fall behind on their property taxes and close loopholes tax investors have exploited at the expense of local governments.
Pappas’ Property Tax Equity Legislation — now a collaborative effort with the Chicago Community Trust philanthropic organization — was passed by the Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday, May 24. Governor JB Pritzker is expected to sign it into law. State Sen. Ram Villivalam and state Rep. Kam Buckner, both Chicago Democrats, were original sponsors of the legislation.
The legislation would cut in half the onerous interest rate charged in Cook County for late property tax payments. That interest rate would drop from 18% a year to 9% a year. That change will save struggling property owners between $25 million and $35 million a year, with most of those savings benefiting Black and Latino communities.
Slashing the interest rate was a core recommendation from
“Maps of Inequality: From Redlining to Urban Decay and the Black Exodus," July 2022 study by the Treasurer’s research team.
“The vast majority of property owners who fall behind on their property taxes are in predominantly Black and Latino communities,” Pappas said. “These changes will prevent millions of dollars of generational wealth from being stripped from these households. Property tax law must be made more fair and our legislation does that.”
Another significant piece of the bill would overhaul the state’s system for selling unpaid property taxes to private investors by closing a series of loopholes that they have exploited for years. These “tax buyers,” mostly hedge funds, private equity firms and real estate investors, have drained about $40 million each year from governments that serve predominantly Black and Latino communities.
Those recommendations stem from a study the Treasurer issued in October 2022, “How Wealthy Investors are Making Millions Exploiting Illinois’ Property Tax Law.”
Illinois law requires that unpaid property taxes be offered for sale to private investors. These tax buyers pay the taxes and receive a lien against the property. Most owners redeem the taxes, repaying the tax buyer with interest, plus court costs and fees. If they don’t pay up, the tax buyer can go to court to take ownership of their property.
However, most tax buyers do not want to own the property, so they use loopholes they helped write into a section of the property tax code known as “sales in error” to overturn the sale, often citing frivolous or insignificant reasons. If the sale is overturned, tax buyers get all of their money back from local governments, typically with interest. The property is returned to the delinquent property tax roll.
Using sales in error, tax buyers in Cook County have received refunds totaling about $277.6 million, including at least $27.7 million in interest, during a seven-year period from 2015 to 2022. Of that money refunded, about 87% was siphoned from local governments serving predominantly Black and Latino residents, impacting schools and public safety.
A third piece of the bill would make it easier to move abandoned residential properties back onto the tax rolls and into productive use more quickly by making changes to the biennial Scavenger Sale, which began in 1943 and is used only in Cook County.
The Scavenger Sale, a last-ditch auction of chronically delinquent properties, is a failure, Pappas said. The new law would allow local governments to take control of properties if they are not purchased in the Annual Tax Sale. Government could clear liens more quickly and put the properties into the hands of people and organizations to develop them.
“This is without a doubt, the biggest property tax reform legislation Illinois has had in decades,” Pappas said. “We thank Senator Villivalam and Representative Buckner for sponsoring and guiding legislation that will help to ease the financial burden on property owners and restore our neighborhoods.”
The property tax reform legislation was drafted by Pappas’ office following the release of the two studies by her research team last year. Pappas put the team together nearly two years ago to investigate flaws and inequities in the sprawling and complex property tax system. The Pappas studies can be found at cookcountytreasurer.com.