Two Chicago-based housing assistance organizations have asked a Cook County judge to reject the attempt by lame duck Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios to sidestep their discrimination lawsuit, saying their legal action over allegedly racially discriminatory property tax assessment practices is more than just a dispute over property taxes.
Late last month, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association responded to Berrios’ motion to dismiss their lawsuit.
In December, the organizations had filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, asking the judge to order Berrios to fix his office’s alleged discriminatory assessment methods; order 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.
In March, Cook County voters chose to end Berrios’ tenure in office, as challenger Fritz Kaegi secured the Democratic nomination to serve as the county’s next assessor. No Republican was on the ballot for the assessor’s office in the March 2018 primary, meaning Kaegi appears poised to cruise into office, replacing Berrios, following the November general election.
Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios
Berrios faced a barrage of criticism concerning his office’s assessment practices, particularly stemming from a series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica, which revealed a purported pattern of over-assessing property in poorer neighborhoods and communities, while under-assessing homes and commercial properties in wealthier areas.
That series also noted Berrios’ system has served to enrich politically connected lawyers specializing in property tax assessment appeals, including firms headed by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Alderman Ed Burke.
Democratic nominee for Illinois governor, J.B. Pritzker, has been accused of using that system to lower property taxes on a home he owns in Chicago.
According to the lawsuit against Berrios’ office, the alleged pattern of unequal assessments has meant poorer households – and particularly those in neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Hispanic – have paid 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, and their tax bills.
The lawsuit included charts purporting to establish this pattern, showing Chicago neighborhoods with a white population of 30 percent or less were over-assessed by nearly 10 percent, while properties in neighborhoods with a white population of 70 percent or more were routinely under-assessed, by as much as 5 percent, on average.
The lawsuit noted this difference can mean tax bills that are hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than they should be, placing a heavy burden on low- and middle-income households, and threatening their ability to own or even rent the homes.
The lawsuit further alleged these problems have been noted in other independent studies, including those conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, and by data from the Illinois Department of Revenue.
The lawsuit accuses Berrios’ office 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.
Berrios responded to the lawsuit in February, asking the court to dismiss the action.
In reply, the plaintiff organizations said the assessor’s arguments fall short, noting they believe U.S. Supreme Court precedent gives them standing to sue, even if neither they nor their “members” have suffered any direct injury from the assessor’s alleged practices. They noted their organizations have been “diverted resources and expended time and money to counteract Defendant Berrios’ unlawful assessment practices,” in dealing with “issues related to fair housing and housing affordability in Hispanic or African-American neighborhoods in Cook County.”
“Diversion of Plaintiffs’ resources to advocacy and counseling to combat the Assessor’s discriminatory and regressive assessments is precisely the kind of injury to their organizational missions – advocacy for (affordable) housing free from discrimination – that has been held sufficient to confer standing…,” the plaintiffs wrote.
Further, the plaintiffs argue Illinois law gives them no alternative way to address the situation, beyond pursuing a judge’s order requiring the assessor’s office to end the alleged practices causing the alleged injuries to homeowners and the organizations advocating for them.
While Berrios’ dismissal motion characterizes the lawsuit as “essentially a tax objection device,” and thus, is more appropriate for litigation under the Illinois Property Tax Code, the plaintiffs note they are not requesting any refund of anyone’s property taxes.
Their complaint, they said, is “neither a tax objection nor a class action complaint,” which is not allowed under state law.
And the plaintiffs further asked the court to reject the assessor’s assertion his office should not be included under the provision in the Illinois Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination from any “unit of State, county, or local government in Illinois.”
“Defendants argue that the Assessor is not covered by the ICRA because he is an elected official,” the plaintiffs said in their brief. “… Defendants improperly ask this Court to read into the ICRA the following italicized words: ‘No unit of State, county or local government in Illinois, except for those offices headed by an elected official, shall….’
“… The Assessor’s argument, if accepted, would mean that he is not a part of any unit of government. But by both the terms of Article VII of the Illinois Constitution and common sense, ‘the Assessor’s office must be a part of some category of government.’”
And the plaintiffs asked the judge to reject Berrios’ contention his office can’t be sued under the federal Fair Housing Act because “the Assessor does not engage in providing housing to any individual and doing so would be beyond the scope of his authority.”
The FHA law, plaintiffs said, “is not limited to persons ‘provide housing,” but has also been applied to allegedly discriminatory property tax systems, as well as mortgage and insurance “redlining” and discriminatory zoning practices, among other “practices which have the effect of making dwellings unavailable on the basis of race.”
Plaintiffs 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.