The health of Chicago’s economy is an important issue facing voters in the Feb. 28 mayoral election — from the departure of blue-chip corporations to vacant storefronts along the Magnificent Mile to grocery store deserts in swaths of the city.
Hello, I’m Dave McKinney, and I’ve covered Illinois politics and government at WBEZ since 2017. I’ve paired up with city government reporter Tessa Weinberg on a piece examining Chicago’s economy and how the field of candidates aims to improve it as part of WBEZ’s deep dive into issues confronting the next mayor.
Economic issues also came up in the People’s Agenda, WBEZ’s survey of Chicagoans on what they care about this campaign season. About a quarter of respondents said they wanted mayoral candidates to address economic and pocketbook questions, like this one from 48-year-old Albany Park resident Bushra Khan:
Question: The property tax hike is making it very difficult for the city of Chicago residents to survive here. How do you plan to tackle this issue?
Answer: Property taxes have steadily been on the rise. In Chicago, they increased 115% in the two decades since 2000, according to a 20-year analysis the Cook County Treasurer’s Office published in 2020.
For the 2021 tax year, the median residential bill increased by about 7.8% to $3,599, according to the Cook County Treasurer’s Office — although increases weren’t felt evenly across the city. The median commercial bill rose by more than 19%, to $11,496.
Khan, who owns a condo and rents out a two-flat in Albany Park, said she has had to look for ways to earn extra cash on top of her job at a hospital. She has struggled to afford the steep increases in her property taxes — especially during the pandemic when tenants were unable to pay rent for months at a time. She doesn’t want to leave the city, but affordability is top of mind.
“I’m losing my sleep over it,” Khan said “Constantly struggling. Can I really live here?”
Hearing about pocketbook anxiety from constituents drove some aldermen to urge Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to forgo a property tax hike last year. In the 2023 budget, Lightfoot ultimately decided to drop an expected 2.5% property tax hike, citing better-than-expected city revenue.
But despite the election-year reprieve, Lightfoot told WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times in response to a mayoral questionnaire that she would not reverse the annual automatic increases that are tied to the rate of inflation.
“We must be fiscally responsible and honest with taxpayers,” Lightfoot said in a written response. “That means not forgoing annual increases tied to inflation only to hit homeowners with much larger hikes every few years.”
Near uniform opposition
It’s a policy nearly all her opponents said they would undo.
The city can’t survive if it’s constantly raising taxes and driving residents out, businessman Willie Wilson said in his economic development plan. Raising property taxes would only serve to exacerbate the housing crisis, “leading to a death spiral for our city,” Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson wrote in his plan on how to tackle the city’s finances.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Kam Buckner said in the questionnaire that the city shouldn’t rely on the Consumer Price Index, noting it tracks inflation across U.S. cities, “including mega-expensive” ones like New York and San Francisco.
“These increases aren’t accurate and are punitive to Chicagoans,” Buckner said. “Home rule governments such as Chicago have leeway to use the index derived from inflation in the Chicago region — and we should.”
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said he would kill the automatic increase and ask aldermen to vote instead on whether to increase property taxes. At a forum last month, Vallas said property tax hikes have had “a devastating impact” on businesses, and he vowed to cap individual property taxes.
“At the end of the day, it has a disruptive impact,” Vallas said. “It’s not only driving rents up, but it’s driving people into homelessness.”
To reward homeowners’ loyalty to the city, activist Ja’Mal Green proposed implementing a tiered tax reduction that would go into effect three years after someone has retained their primary residence in Chicago.
“Homeowners will see a 6% reduction of their property tax and for each year thereafter, another 2% will be added to the reduction, up to a maximum of 40% for 20 years of residency,” Green’s website reads.
Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García said he would not not repeal the increase, at least not immediately. Sixth Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer said he would not roll it back, but said it should be capped at 3%.
“We focus on the cost of taxes, but there is a heavy cost too if our bond rating drops,” Sawyer wrote, later adding: “If we run a surplus, we can talk about a rebate or reduction.”
Fourth Ward Ald. Sophia King also said she would reverse the automatic increase tied to inflation.
WBEZ’s Dave McKinney covers state politics and Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics.