How We Compare—Flat Tax: In the Chicago area, property taxes eat up a percentage of income larger than in almost any place else, except for suburban New York City. Here’s how our region stacks up. Sources: The Tax Foundation; American Community Survey


When the 2009 assessment letters arrived in the mail a couple of months ago, they served as a reminder of a tough reality about Illinois existence: homeowners pay a boatload in property taxes.

In fact, we probably could buy a decent boat with the $5,790 median taxes paid in Lake County. The national median is $1,755—about 30 percent of Lake County’s. Among counties with at least 20,000 inhabitants, the lowest property taxes in the country are in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, where the median is $115.

Even more significant is the percentage of household income that local homeowners put toward property taxes, ranging from 4.8 percent in Cook County to 6.5 percent in Lake, more than twice the national average of 2.8 percent.

John Horbas, the director of research for the Cook County assessor, Jim Houlihan, argues that the root of the problem is a lack of state funding for public education. Illinois ranks 49th among the 50 states in support for public education, with the state forking over less than 30 percent of the expense. Federal funds pay about 8 percent, but that leaves 62 percent of the bill on the shoulders of local taxpayers. County clerks set rates according to local needs, so cash-strapped districts such as Richton Park and Ford Heights in the south suburbs are particularly hard-hit. There, homeowners pay up to 10 percent of their income in property taxes that largely go to schools.

Houlihan says he’s so troubled by the uneven tax burden that he won’t run for reelection next year but instead will work toward education-funding reform. “The problem is that good neighbors are forced out of their neighborhoods because they can’t pay, it deters new businesses, and worst of all, [children’s] education opportunity depends on the wealth of the Zip Code they live in,” he says. “That’s not equal or fair, and it’s something we really need to change.”