Some effects of high and misconfigured real estate taxes

Delinquent taxes soaring in Cook County

Reportedly, taxes of 163,036 parcels in Cook County were not paid on time. This comprises 2018 taxes which should have been paid in 2019. and amounts to 8.7% of all parcels in the County. For a dozen south Cook County municipalities, this amounts to 20% or more of total parcels.  Counts by municipality are posted separately for south, west, and north Cook.  All sources show the percentage of parcels with unpaid taxes within the City of Chicago as 9.9%.

Separately, the reports show that only 7.8% of the delinquent taxes offered for auction in 2018 were bought by investors, which might imply that the remaining parcels are considered worth less than the taxes owed.

Unfortunately the source doesn’t tell us  how many of the parcels are vacant, residential, commercial, or other uses, and gives no historical context, so we don’t really know how any of these figures compare to prior years. But regardless, the current numbers are alarming.

Suppose that the real estate tax system was changed, so that improvements would be tax-free while the value of land as vacant would be heavily taxed to make up the difference.  For vacant parcels, construction of houses or other structures would not increase the tax.  For parcels which contain improvements, taxes likely would be lower than now, and improvements would again be tax free.  Just a thought.

Maybe expanding tax-exempt institutions raise land prices?

Crains tells us that a strikingly-designed two flat, less than 30 years old, is worthless.  Well, they didn’t say it quite that way, but it was sold for $1.9 million to a buyer who will demolish it. So the $1.9 million was for the land.  I don’t know whether any developer of housing or anything else taxable would have paid nearly that much for the site, but the buyer was tax-exempt Illinois Masonic Medical Center.  Their exempt status of course made the land more valuable to them. Which raises the interesting question of whether buying land in the path of such an institution’s expansion might be a profitable strategy.  Of course, a fair-minded community might decide to tax land used for hospitals at the same rate as land used for housing and other useful things.  But we’re not there yet.

“Taxes – De Standaard” by Stijn Felix is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

 

Putting government pension costs into perspective

Wirepoints recently issued a helpful report showing state and local government pension debt per Chicago household.  They estimate the burden at $144,000 per household.  This is a big number, but one could suppose that a prosperous household, over decades, could bear such a burden.  Some could, but probably not those below poverty level.  Take them out of the picture and the per household amount rises to $172,000.  Excluding households with incomes below $75,000, or below $200,000, and the per-household amount rises further, to $393,000 and $2,022,000 respectively.

Here’s their chart: pension debt chart

Of course this doesn’t consider land values, nor businesses.  If prime Chicago land is worth $1,000/sq ft, that’s 5.38 sq miles.  But more typical land value is much less, probably no more than $25/sq ft. (it seems that nobody has tried to estimate citywide values). That would be 112 square miles.  Once we subtract land owned by governments, churches and other exempt nonprofits, we might be approaching the total value of all land in Chicago. And that’s just for pensions, not bonded debt, nor needed capital improvements.  Real estate buyers know, or certainly should know, about these encumbrances.

Of course money can be raised from business taxes, but that’s hardly a way to grow economic opportunity for Chicagoans. I would consider any tax revenue from “gaming” as a kind of business tax.

The lesson Wirepoints draws from this is that pensions have to be downsized somehow, which required amending the state constitution.  And they go further, comparing government salaries to those of the private sector:

some local gov't salaries compared to average workers

So it looks like we’re going to have to confront a large number of people with guns and firehoses and control over our children, who have been getting a lot of money from us for years and may prefer not to moderate their demands.

Tho I don’t know how, this problem will be solved. Maybe MMT will yield a continuing stream of funds to bail us out.  Maybe inflation will accelerate such that the fixed 3% compounded pension increase isn’t a burden.  Maybe Chicagoans will decide that they just don’t want so many government “services.”  Maybe politicians will decide to remove all taxes from productive economic activity, taxing only the value of land and other privileges (such as the private monopoly over street parking fees), which will grow the economy (while reducing the need for emergency services) sufficient to make pensions a non-issue.

And when it is solved, those who own land and other privileges will benefit most.

Tribune clarifies how TIF’s work

 Great story by Hal Dardick in today’s Tribune explaining the real reason the Lincoln Yards TIF had to be Rahm’d thru the City Council before the new Mayor took office. The area just barely qualified as a TIF, and pending new assessments were going to rise enough that it would no longer be eligible. According to the story, it’s uncertain whether the new Mayor could have stopped the project, but she settled for what appear to be minor concessions.

Of course, the whole idea behind TIF’s is that money can be pulled from general revenue into giant slush funds, which the Mayor (and others) can manipulate with little oversight. Meanwhile, there’s little left for routine maintenance, replacement of infrastructure and funding of government schools and other services.   Which increases the “need” for TIF’s.

Dardick’s article goes into considerable detail, includes a link to a recent report by Lincoln Institute (no relation to Lincoln Yards, afaik). He does say “land” when I think he means “land + improvements.”

One counterfactual that Dardick doesn’t bother with: What would have happened if Joe Berrios was still Assessor? Would he have nudged down some values to keep the area eligible?  Or, to look at it the other way, suppose the current Assessor, who appears to be more conscientious, had been in office since 2013. Perhaps the earlier figures would have been higher, so the increase would be less?

We’ll never know, and it shouldn’t matter. In a well-run city, TIF’s wouldn’t be needed, and a well-informed electorate wouldn’t tolerate them.

 

Notes on Cook County Assessments

Selection from Olcott’s Land Values Blue Book, 1936 edition, Numbers represent values per front foot, to be adjusted as described in the book.

Assessor Fritz Kaegi appears to seek assessments that are more consistent with applicable laws and ordinances, and easier for taxpayers to understand. This might be a good thing, tho one hopes that, once taxpayers understand how assessments are done, they’ll demand a more helpful system, one which doesn’t punish homeowners and businesses for building or improving.

Traditionally, Continue reading Notes on Cook County Assessments

Buyers can’t afford houses, so land prices go … up?

Crains reports today that rising land costs, as well as increases in construction costs and uncertainty about real estate taxes, is slowing construction of single family housing on the north side.  One might think this would result in lower land prices, but a builder is quoted as saying lots in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, which recently sold in the $700,000 range, are now going for $900,000 and up. This makes it difficult or impossible to build a new house selling for the $1 to $1.5 million that buyers seem willing to spend.

So if it’s not demand for houses, what is driving up the price of land? Possibly more multi-family is being built? Or other uses? (Other than the City’s massive database — which doesn’t specify type of structure nor how many units, except as inconsistent text fields — I can’t find any statistics on housing construction within the City.  Must be somewhere…)

Or possibly the supply of vacant lots, or deteriorated structures on lots that could be made vacant, has depleted?  Or purchase and sale of vacant lots is used to launder money?

The article also notes that land costs are much lower in an isolated part of Bridgeport/Chinatown, specifically Throop & Hillock, where a recent development of attached and detached houses paid $55,300 per unit for land.

City of Chicago exacerbates impact of lousy transit as a cause of poverty

image credit: Josh Koonce https://flic.kr/p/7HrANR

Good reporting from Wirepoints, based on articles from Reason and Pro Publica, about the City of Chicago pushing low-income motorists into bankruptcy. These sources focus on the twin injustices of punitive ticketing and fines, and aggressive impoundment of innocent motorists’ cars. Of course parking restrictions, liability insurance requirements, and traffic rules need to be enforced, but it’s pretty clear that Chicago Police and other municipal actors see this as a source of revenue to pay their salaries and pensions, more than as an enforcement mechanism. The statistics imply a racist motive as well.

But that’s not the point.  The point is, why do people with low incomes need to own cars? Why can’t they get where they need to go by transit? The answer, of course, is that in most affordable neighborhoods transit is sparse:  Buses run slowly and infrequently, and quit early. Rail is only a bit faster, and most lines also lack 24-hour service.  Relatively few jobs are reliably accessible within an hour, or even two hours travel time. And with the demise of neighborhood retail, cars are almost essential for shopping.  Schools, libraries, other government facilities have large free parking lots even it they’re poorly-located for transit and pedestrian access. So of course people who can’t afford to own and operate automobiles find they’re compelled to have them.

This doesn’t justify the municipality stealing money and property from residents already living on the economic edge.  It just makes it worse.

Some Cook County assessments are maybe about as bad as we thought

We have a new report(pdf) today from the Civic Consulting Alliance, pointing out that residential assessments  (excluding condominiums and large apartment buildings) done by Joe Berrios and his crew are of poor technical quality, don’t make effective use of modern techniques, and tend to treat expensive properties more leniently than less expensive ones.  The Tribune article gives pretty good context and describes the contents of the report, so I won’t try to duplicate it. Rather, I’ll focus on just a few things that caught my eye.

The study uses data that apparently has never been made public.  That is, it belongs to the public as represented by Joe Berrios, but the public hasn’t been permitted to see it.  And we’re still not permitted to see it.  In fact, the consultants and the Assessor seem to have spent more than two months negotiating a five-page nondisclosure agreement (reproduced at the end of the report) to make sure we wouldn’t see it. But we are able to see some detailed analysis, in the study appendix, that’s more useful than the raw data for understanding how assessments actually work.

We get some useful detail on the bias in favor of expensive properties.

The above figure, which is Appendix Table 5 in the report, shows the inaccuracy (left half, shorter bar means less inaccurate) and bias in favor of expensive properties (right half, shorter bar means less bias).    We can see that the bias in favor of expensive properties exists for all four categories, but is  most serious for multi-family and mixed-use (residential with a storefront, for example).  But for such properties, there’s no reason to expect that the expensive property contains the wealthier taxpayer.

Also as previously observed, the report notes that more appeals are filed by owners of more expensive properties:

This implies that wealthier homeowners are getting a bigger tax break, proportionally, than less wealthy homeowners. I suspect it’s true, but I really don’t see any way around it within the current assessment system.  The wealthier homeowner has more to gain from a successful appeal (or, what is the same thing, more to lose by failing to appeal.)  She may also be more comfortable dealing with government officials and forms (and perhaps with the tax lawyers who send mailings to homeowners).

But isn’t the same true of the income tax? The wealthier taxpayer is more likely to know, or learn, tax-avoidance tricks, and/or to use a skilled tax preparer.   The difference is that parcel-level assessment data is, to some extent, public information, but income tax returns in the U S no longer are.

Of course the main remedy for problems of inequitable assessments comprises:

(1) Assess only land value, ignoring the value of any improvements on the parcel.

(2) Post the assessments, including all information used to calculate them.

 

 

Robust management and planning needed for transit

Westbound on Cermak at Wabash (Menace of Privilege photo)

BACK ON THE BUS: SPEEDING UP CHICAGO’S BUSES showed up this morning from Active Trans. Of course it says transit needs more money, and doesn’t connect the dots on cost-effective investments.   From the executive summary:

Chicago needs a healthy and growing bus system. Fewer Chicagoans riding the bus means more people driving and more cars on our already congested streets, especially in and around downtown during peak periods. Our hub-and-spoke rail system continues to be a good option for people who live and work along the CTA train lines and in the Loop, but many neighborhoods lack access to it. Without more investment in bus service, Chicago risks more people abandoning transit for transportation options that are more expensive and less efficient, healthy, and green.

The report acknowledges that part of the problem has been CTA’s substantial service reductions, but seems mainly to look at  “how do we move buses around faster” rather than “how do we provide service that lets people travel where they want, when they want, under civilized conditions and at a reasonable cost.” But, hey, moving buses faster is probably a good start.

Three transit recommendations

The report provides three main recommendations: Dedicated bus lanes, traffic signal improvements, and faster boarding. Continue reading Robust management and planning needed for transit

Another outrage that a land value tax would eliminate

One of many sophisticated dogs named “Wrigley” Image credit: Liz CC BY-NC 2.0

Expanding on a subject covered here nearly six years ago, Tim Novak of the Sun Times writes about  assessment deals in Wrigleyville.  Actually, not just 32 properties in Wrigleyville, but apparently on 13,984 parcels countywide, each of which reportedly contains commercial use along with at least one, but no more than six, apartments.

Because Cook County taxes residential (and vacant) property at 40% of the rate applicable to commercial property, and because, 17 years ago, the Cook County Board decided to pretend that commercial property containing one to six apartments is residential, taxes on these 32 Wrigley-area properties (and, presumably, on all 13,984 parcels) are only 40% of the amount they would otherwise be.  Furthermore, Novak visited some of the properties and found evidence that they don’t contain any apartments at all. Which Assessor Berrios thanked him for reporting.

Novak also visited an auto repair shop across the street from Wrigley, whose owner owes $78,000 in back taxes and claims to fear losing his property.  Of course I don’t know the owner’s personal financial situation, but given high land prices in the neighborhood, it seems he could sell his site for a couple million dollars, take the money and buy (or buy land and build) a better facility a mile or two away.  Across from Wrigley may have been a good location for car repair in the 1970s, but not so today.

Three conclusions:

(1) Sun Times needs to sell papers (and attract web traffic) and putting “Wrigley” in the title probably doubles or quadruples the number of people who’d read an article about “tax break.” But the issue is taxes, not commercial baseball.

(2) Once again, let’s be thankful that real estate tax and assessment data is (mostly) accessible to the public.  Who knows what kinds of scandals there are on the income tax and sales tax returns filed by the politically-connected property owners, their accountants or attorneys? Unless Wikileaks takes an interest, we’ll never see them.

(3) All this would be solved with a land value tax.  Everybody pays the same rate — a big rate — based on the value of their land, exclusive of improvements, and perhaps no other taxes are needed.  If there were inequities, the Sun Times — or the Civic Federation — could publish maps making them readily visible.

 

Yes you can pay for big infrastructure projects from local real estate tax

 

August 2017 view south from Jackson Blvd bridge. It turns out this structure is the remnant of an underground bypass to handle river flow. Click image to enlarge. (photo by Menace of Privilege)

Building The Canal to Save Chicago by Richard Lanyon is a great book about a critical infrastructure project. It’s the story of what we now call the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, built at the close of the 19th century to protect Chicago’s water supply.  Of course there’s more to it than that, including effects on flooding, navigation, and downstate.

The book is full of photographs of the work, and one cannot ignore how dirty, strenuous, dangerous (and noisy) it must have been.  Power shovels, dredges, locomotives, various devices for moving soil out of the channel– all powered by coal, burned without emission controls of course. Over 5,000 people were employed, and there were deaths — unfortunately no count is provided.

We get some useful details about the costs and funding.  Substantially all of the construction (which began in 1892 and was substantially complete in 1900) was done by contractors under competitive bidding. The work day was set at 8 hours, with extra pay for work beyond that time. Minimum wage was to be 15¢/hour.

Adjusted to today’s (2015) GDP/capita, that 15¢ equates to about $37.50, but other approaches would yield vastly different numbers.  Of course, due to the primitive equipment available, the workers could not have been nearly as productive as equivalent workers would be today.

Total cost of the project was reported as $33,530,000 (page 355 — excluding work east of Damen). This could equate to $8.38 billion today. It was paid entirely (page 338) from property taxes imposed on the approximate area benefited (including bonded debt paid from these taxes), without federal or state financial assistance. Initially the tax rate was 0.5% of assessed valuation, later raised for a five-year period to 1.5%.  If based on actual property value, this would be a very hefty tax, but traditionally property in Cook County has been assessed at a modest fraction of market value.

I say “property tax” rather than “real estate tax” because, up until the 1970s, Illinois taxed personal property as well as real estate.  The tax was poorly-enforced and hard to administer, and was replaced by a corporate income tax surcharge.  I suspect that personal property never amounted to more than a small fraction of the tax base.