Jefferson Park group discusses problems with vacant property tax breaks
by BRIAN NADIG
The Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association at its June 24 meeting formed a committee to push approval of legislation that would allow counties to investigate owners of vacant properties who are not trying to sell or lease their land in order to receive tax breaks.
Several residents raised concerns that owners of vacant commercial parcels have little incentive to redevelop their properties because they can save on their property taxes by having their land assessed as vacant property instead of commercial land with businesses. Since the early 2000s, several buildings in the Jefferson Park business district have been demolished, and the land is being used as a gravel parking lot or storage yard.
"You can’t keep letting these landlords get these tax breaks year after year," said area resident Dobra Bielinski, who owns Delightful Pastries, 5927 W. Lawrence Ave. "Landlords are actively pursuing not to rent it out."
Bielinski said that taxing bodies are losing revenue as long as these properties are underutilized and under-assessed and that it can lead to higher tax rates to make up the difference. "You and I are paying their taxes," Bielinski said.
Earlier this year state Representative Robert Martwick (D-19) introduced the "Vacancy Fraud Investigative Unit Act," which grants counties the authority to investigate property owners who have received vacancy tax relief for 2 consecutive years and are not actively seeking buyers or tenants. The bill is in the House of Representatives rules committee and is not expected to be considered until after the state budget crisis is resolved.
The act would allow counties in Illinois to seek the payment of back taxes for any vacancy relief received while the owner was not actively trying to sell, lease or alter the property.
The county also would be able to impose a penalty that could not exceed 25 percent of the amount of back taxes owed.
"Several owners of vacant properties do not actively seek tenants, yet continue to receive property tax relief for the term of the property’s vacancy. This practice has led to neighborhoods blighted with vacant commercial or industrial properties.
"The General assembly finds that this practice is against public policy, burdens home owners and actively operating businesses and lessens taxing districts’ tax base," the legislation states.
Martwick has said that the idea for the legislation came from a conversation which he had with Alderman John Arena (45th), who had expressed his frustration with landlords who were unwilling to lease their property.
It is not clear what impact the law would have on some of the area’s vacant parcels.
The law may not affect a gravel lot where commercial vehicles are being parked at 5237 W. Lawrence Ave. because a sign is posted on the property promoting the land for development opportunities. Under the proposed law, a for sale or lease sign can used as evidence that attempts are being made to develop the property.
In addition, concerns were raised at the meeting that a 25,000-square-foot gravel lot at 4849 N. Lipps Ave., is being used as a parking lot for tenants of the 10-story Veterans Square office building, 4849 N. Milwaukee Ave. The lot is classified with the Cook County Assessor’s office as commercial land and its assessed value was last lowered due to vacancy 8 years ago, according to county records.
Several association members urged residents to call 311 and report properties which do not meet building and zoning code standards and are being used as unimproved parking lots. The association and Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce have sent letters to the city expressing concern about the use of gravel parking lots in the business district, said association president Judy Skotzko.
At a community meeting last year, Arena described the gravel lots as "quasi" legal and has said that he does not object to the use of these properties for parking as long as efforts are being made to redevelop them.
There have been reports that a four-story, retail-residential building is in the works for a gravel lot at 5201-13 W. Lawrence Ave., which includes properties owned by the city and the Mega Group, a local develop. Soil testing recently was conducted on the site.
Bielinski said that Martwick’s proposal would draw attention to "a statewide problem." Also at the meeting, it was reported that an Arena aide has informed a group of residents that a revised plan for a proposed apartment complex at Long Avenue and Argyle Street has not been submitted but that a community meeting will be held after there is a plan that has "merit."
Residents living near the site have objected to the height and density of the 48-unit, 4 1/2-story complex. "Long-Argyle (residents) have formed their own group, and the JPNA is supporting their efforts," Skotzko said.
In an interview, a project representative said that an architect is working on the changes.