Last week, a report on property taxes by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas found that the predominantly Black and Brown suburbs of Berkeley, Bellwood, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood and Stone Park were all ranked among the top 12 suburbs in the county that experienced the biggest increases in their median residential property tax bill for the 2020 tax year.
The increases among the six ranged from a low of $1,040 in Broadview to a high of $1,868 in Bellwood. In Maywood, where I live, the median property tax bill shot up by $1,543.
In Oak Park and River Forest, by comparison, the median tax increase for residential properties was $249 and $305, respectively, according to the Pappas study.
At a meeting in Hillside on Aug. 23, Joe Tamburino, the village’s mayor, found himself transformed into a regular citizen during public comment.
The taxes on his humble house went up by $2,000, he said, in response to a citizen who had complained to him about their own tax bill.
The current property tax crisis got me thinking about reporting I did on this issue five years ago, a significant portion of which I’ve reproduced for this column.
“Middle-class Blacks are being robbed when they live in segregated black neighborhoods,” said Daniel Lauber, a River Forest-based fair housing and zoning attorney and former senior village planner in Oak Park, at a town hall meeting on integration held at the Oak Park Public Library in 2016.
“They are not achieving a level of wealth that can be achieved in white neighborhoods,” Lauber said. “It’s a tragedy that a huge portion of the Black middle class is being robbed of full middle-class status (and) of participating in the American Dream.”
In 1966, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., came to Chicago after being invited by local activists who had pitched their own civil rights battles against racism and discrimination in the city’s schools, police department and housing market.
That last area would dominate the attention of what became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement — an alliance launched in 1966 between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and an array of Chicago-based activists like school teacher Al Raby and Jesse Jackson Sr.
In the summer of 1966, the group conducted a series of marches and demonstrations throughout Chicago. They were stoned, spat upon and insulted by the white residents of the areas through which they marched.
King even famously moved into a slum apartment unit in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood to publicize the subpar living conditions in which most of the city’s African Americans suffered.
The demands included calls for real estate listings to “be available on a nondiscriminatory basis,” for a “program to rehabilitate present public housing,” and a program “to increase vastly the supply of low-cost housing on a scattered basis for both low and middle income families.”
The Chicago Freedom Movement disbanded in 1967, marking what has been largely considered a failure by many observers of the period. But that consensus has slowly changed as many historians and policy experts take stock of some of the movement’s successes, such as its critical role in the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discriminatory real estate practices.
That piece of federal legislation is a big reason why Maywood integrated. That most local, state and government officials failed to actively enforce its dictates, and to be proactive about realizing its ideals, is why Maywood became largely segregated, and why it suffers from high property taxes and a depleted capacity to serve its citizens, say some local housing experts.
In the 1990s, Lauber published a study exploring the dynamics behind the transformation of all-white neighborhoods into all-Black neighborhoods within a matter of a few decades.
Since 1968, suburbs like Maywood and Bellwood “have experienced either block-by-block resegregation or scattered black in-migration,” Lauber wrote in “Ending American Apartheid: How Cities Achieve and Maintain Racial Diversity.”
“Until the passage of civil rights and fair housing legislation in the 1960s,” Lauber explained, it wasn’t illegal for realtors to outright refuse to service blacks looking for housing or for banks to simply deny them mortgages.
“It was not unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race in the sale or rental of housing,” he adds. “Restrictive covenants in property deeds that prohibited the transfer of property to blacks or Jews were enforceable until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that the courts and government could not enforce them.”
Back then, discrimination in lending and real estate was considered normal, even natural, with Blacks and other minority consumers confined to very specific geographic areas “while the rest of the market was open only to whites.”
After outright discrimination was outlawed, more subtle forms of discrimination began to replace it. The dominant means of maintaining segregation became what’s called “racial steering.”
That’s the practice of steering white homebuyers to all-white communities, or areas within a community, while steering Blacks into integrated, or all-Black, communities or areas in a community.
The driving force behind racial steering, Lauber notes, were attitudes often coded into seemingly harmless language and social cues. For instance, to this day, many Oak Park residents disparage living “East of Ridgeland,” because that means one lives in the less desirable part of the village — the part closest to the all-Black West Side of Chicago, local housing experts say.
What’s now often called “white flight” was driven by just these seemingly harmless social cues that, when decoded, often translated into racist attitudes that equated Blackness, or the proximity to Black people, with criminality and lower property values.
It was a given, Lauber noted, for real estate agents to explain with straight faces that property values often decrease when Blacks move into neighborhoods. The resulting re-segregation was explored in a 1981 Chicago Tribune article.
“Acute turnover of white to black occurred in Bellwood, Broadview, Maywood, Calumet Park, Harvey, and Markham,” the Tribune reported.
Between 1970 and 1980, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, Maywood’s population went from roughly 41% Black to 75% Black. During those 10 years, Bellwood went from less than 1% Black to more than 35% Black. Broadview went from less than 5% Black to around 30% Black.
Today, Maywood and Bellwood are around 82% Black and Broadview is around 73% Black. Not coincidentally, within the last 30 years, those suburbs have figured prominently in the Tribune’s archives among stories detailing murder, government corruption and poverty.
In 2016, I spoke to Rob Breymaier, the former executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, about these changes. He cautioned against making hasty reductions regarding the relationship between rapid racial turnover and the bad news headlines.
“Those suburbs ended up being all-Black because of white flight,” Breymaier said. “It isn’t just the movement of homeowners out of the community, it’s a lot of investment. We’re talking about a loss of taxes and property value. And after [this precipitous loss of value], those communities are then asked to keep up with this same level of services with less fiscal capacity to do so, which is extremely unfair, and they get blamed for not accomplishing this.”
Lauber, in his study, cited research that found that “anticipation of wholesale racial change causes the economic base to pull out of neighborhoods.’
“This divestment by the business community,” he writes, “reflects its self-fulfilling prophecy that the newly Black community cannot support many of the businesses that [had] long been located in the community. Consequently, the municipality’s tax base shrinks from the loss of business and employment in the expanded ghetto.”
Breymaier added that the reality of how all-Black suburbs actually operate with depleted resources could be counterintuitive, even to the general perception among the residents who live in those communities.
“The reality is that those places are probably doing more, pound for pound, than many wealthy places are in trying to [service residents],” he said. “In a place like Maywood, the real issue is that we’re not considering its real value. Racism is getting in the way of us considering its real value.”