Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a response from the Cook County Assessor's Office.
Two organizations whose mission is to help homeowners in two predominantly Hispanic and economically struggling Chicago neighborhoods have filed suit against the office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, asserting the office’s assessment practices have discriminated against Hispanic and black homeowners by under-assessing properties in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods and communities, pushing a greater tax burden on those with less means to legally protect themselves.
The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association filed their complaint on Dec. 14 in Cook County Circuit Court. They are represented in the action by attorneys with the firms of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, and Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, both of Chicago, and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
The lawsuit asks the court to order Berrios to fix its alleged discriminatory assessment methods; appoint an independent monitor to oversee the Cook County property tax assessment process; and publicly disclose the information and methods the assessor’s office has used to determine assessments, so “residential property owners and independent parties” can try to “replicate” the assessments published by Berrios’ office.
The lawsuit further asks the court to award plaintiffs “all available monetary damages,” plus attorney fees.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a series of articles from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica disclosing alleged discrepancies in the way Berrios’ office has assessed properties for taxation in Chicago and elsewhere in the county, revealing a purported pattern of over-assessing property in poorer neighborhoods and communities, while under-assessing homes and commercial property in wealthier areas.
That series also noted Berrios’ system has served to enrich politically connected lawyers specializing in property tax assessment appeals, including those headed by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Alderman Ed Burke.
Berrios is head of the Cook County Democratic Party. Burke chairs the city of Chicago’s Finance Committee and heads political action committees, Burnham Committee and the 14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. And Madigan serves as chair of the Illinois Democratic Party.
According to the lawsuit, Berrios’ alleged pattern of unequal assessments has meant poorer homeowners – and particularly in neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Hispanic – pay relatively more than they should for their property taxes than property owners in majority white communities, where wealthier homeowners can afford to pay lawyers to appeal and reduce their assessments.
The lawsuit includes a chart, purportedly illustrating how average property tax assessments decline as the percentage of whites living in a community increase. For instance, the lawsuit said, properties in which Chicago neighborhoods with a white population of 30 percent or less were over-assessed by nearly 10 percent. In contrast, properties in areas in which the white population was 70 percent or more, were routinely under-assessed, by as much as 5 percent, on average.
In Brighton Park, “an overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood” on Chicago’s West Side, the lawsuit said, this meant 46 percent of homes that sold from 2011-2015 “were over-assessed by at least 20 percent,” while 7 percent “were assessed at more than double their market value.”
The lawsuit noted this difference can mean tax bills that are hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than they should be.
This alleged pattern of “over-assessment of residential properties in Hispanic and African American neighborhoods is covertly shifting cots of government services to minority and less affluent property owners, many of whom can ill afford it,” the lawsuit says. “This disproportionate burden on African American and Hispanic neighborhoods affects affordability in homeownership and the rental market and, ultimately, the availability of housing.”
The lawsuit further asserts these alleged problems had been revealed in at least two studies conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois since 2008, yet the assessor’s office has repeatedly defended its methods and results.
“In fact, the (Cook County Assessor’s Office’s) assessments do not comply with industry standards,” the lawsuit said. “Defendant Berrios’ assertions are disproved by IDOR’s annual sales ratio studies, as well as by the successive, independent statistical analyses performed by the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune.
“The CCAO’s actions -- needlessly hiding processes from public scrutiny, to avoid the accountability of public debate and criticism -- reveal the Assessor’s professed commitments to checks and balances as empty rhetoric.”
The lawsuit accuses the assessor of violating the Illinois Civil Rights Act, the federal Fair Housing Act, and homeowners’ rights to equal protection under the U.S. and Illinois constitutions.
A spokesman for Berrios responded with a statement: "We again state that property assessment in Cook County is done correctly and fairly. We do not comment on possible or pending litigation."