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Illinois Policy Institute/ Austin Berg

A new study shows 13 percent of Chicago-area homeowners with mortgages owed at least 25 percent more than their homes were worth.

A new report pointing out the heavy debt burden under which too many Chicago-area homeowners are struggling illustrates the urgent need for property tax relief in Illinois.

The Chicago area had more homeowners seriously underwater on their mortgages in 2017 than any of the other 10 largest U.S. cities, according to a report in Crain’s Chicago Business. Crain’s cited a new study by Attom Data Solutions, a property information service, which found 13 percent of Chicago-area homeowners with mortgages owed at least 25 percent more than what their homes are worth. This amounted to more than 261,000 homeowners.

New York came in a distant second at more than 175,000 homeowners seriously underwater, or 7 percent. The national average was 9 percent, according to the study.

Unfortunately, the Chicago area also performed poorly for the number of homeowners with mortgages who are “equity rich,” or who owe less than half the value of their homes. Chicago finished second-to-last among the 10 largest cities on this metric in the study, with only 17 percent of Chicago-area homeowners with a mortgage qualifying as equity-rich at the end of 2017. This compares with 25 percent nationally.

This isn’t the first year the Chicago area has fared badly in such a study. In 2016, Attom Data Solutions found 17 percent of Chicago-area homeowners with mortgages were seriously underwater, Crain’s reported. This echoed state numbers, which showed more than 16 percent of homeowners with mortgages across Illinois were seriously underwater in 2016.

Chicago’s huge number of seriously underwater homeowners reflects persistent problems experienced statewide, including a comparatively weak housing recovery, accompanied by ever-growing property taxes.

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Home prices in Illinois, while up since 2013, are still down 10 percent compared with the market peak in 2006, according to data from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Illinois has lagged the nation for growth in home prices since 2009.

Meanwhile, the average household property tax bill in Illinois increased 51 percent over the decade. Worse, those taxes grew more than six times faster than Illinoisans’ incomes from 2008 to 2015, meaning property taxes were taking up a larger share of household income – the real property tax burden. Illinoisans’ real property tax burden shot up 38 percent from 2008 to 2015.

Illinois’ housing market is unlikely to come roaring back with so many people leaving the state. From 2006 to 2016, Illinois lost nearly 276,000 households on net, according to IRS data. With fewer people choosing to stay in Illinois, the demand for homes could shrink, which would dampen the sluggish growth in home prices.

Illinoisans need reforms to make owning a home more affordable, and staying in or moving to the Land of Lincoln more attractive. Lawmakers should pass a property tax freeze as a first step, and take steps to bring the cost of government down to a level taxpayers can afford. This means real pension reform, and changes in collective bargaining and prevailing wage laws, among other reforms to local government cost-drivers.

Until that happens, too many Illinoisans will find themselves drowning in a sea of high taxes and debt.

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