Chicago keeps a low residential property tax rate to keep residents?

As the Chicago Tribune highlights the low residential property tax in Chicago compared to nearby communities, could this be a tactic to stem the population decline of the city?

Chicago homeowners pay less in property taxes than the vast majority of their suburban neighbors, even with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s record property tax increase applied. But business properties are taxed differently in Cook County, resulting in higher tax rates on those parcels in Chicago than nearly all collar county suburbs. Those conclusions emerge from a Tribune analysis of tax rates applied on 2015 bills in 388 city and suburban locations in Cook and the five collar counties.

While housing owners pay less, the business owners of Chicago pay more than their counterparts in the suburbs:

The story is different, however, for those who own city manufacturing plants, offices and shopping centers. They already pay more in property taxes than their counterparts in most suburbs outside Cook County. That gap will only become wider after Emanuel’s tax hike, with Chicago business property owners being taxed at higher rates than those in all but seven collar county towns…

There are plenty of collar county suburbs with room for all types of business development that start to look even more attractive than Chicago, at least in terms of property taxes. In places like Joliet, Downers Grove and Naperville, tax bills on business properties would be half that of equally priced parcels in the city…Deputy Mayor Steve Koch dismissed the business tax differences found in the KPMG study, saying they were not enough to sway business location decisions. He noted recent decisions by Motorola Solutions to move to the city from Schaumburg and ConAgra Foods to move to Chicago from Omaha, Neb., when everyone knew the big property tax hike was coming.

The Tribune suggests one reason for the low residential property tax rates is to not anger voters:

“Because we didn’t have in our leadership the political will to actually tell taxpayers and voters that (more money was needed), frankly folks were sold some snake oil, and they got to believe they could have very low taxes and still have adequate service, and after a while that doesn’t really work,” Martire said. “They should have been (raising property taxes) for a long time, and the pain would have been significantly lower.”

Politicians do need votes. But, to return to the suggestion I made in the opening sentence, I wonder if this is also about keeping residents in Chicago. City leaders argue that businesses are not going to avoid Chicago just because of higher taxes. Chicago has other benefits including other notable businesses, lots of office space, lots of human capital, and numerous attractive cultural and entertainment options. In other words, enough businesses will pay these higher property tax rates in Chicago because there is still money to be made in the city.

Yet, homeowners also consider property tax rates as they look for housing. While Chicago doesn’t suffer from the kind of affordable housing issues as San Francisco or Manhattan, it is still quite expensive in some neighborhoods while suburbs throughout the region provide all sorts of additional housing options as well as jobs and other amenities. Why should many residents stay? Lower property tax rates may just help. And for its international prestige – the seventh-rated global city – Chicago has lost plenty of people in recent decades with a peak of just over 3.6 million in 1950 to just over 2.7 million people today.

Votes and people staying could go together: residents who think the politicians are on their side and then show it by not raising their residential property taxes may be more likely to stay in Chicago.

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