Last year, when Chicago was in the grips of crippling riots and Black Lives Matter protests, Maria Pappas was asked why she wasn’t out marching.
She famously responded to a Chicago Tribune reporter that she was done marching and that as Cook County Treasurer— one of the most powerful political offices in the region— if not the nation— she wanted to do something more substantive to support disenfranchised black residents of her region.
“It ain’t happening,” she said in a Tribune interview. “I’m 72 years old — I’m done marching. I grew up in the ’60s. I’ve seen people march day and night. If you don’t have something concrete that comes out of your marching, then you shouldn’t be marching.”
Cook County comprises the City of Chicago and more than 130 suburban municipalities. If the county were a country, it would be one of the largest government entities in the world with its massive court system (the largest unified court system in the world), its expansive public hospital and prison systems— also amongst the largest in the world and almost 2 million parcels of taxable of real estate— which the Treasurer’s office manages.
While all hell was breaking loose on Chicago’s streets, Pappas had a hunch that she acted on. She instructed a team of staffers to study the property tax registry of the County and see how various forms of disenfranchisement— crime, lack of awareness, the exodus from neighborhoods and other factors— were tied to delinquent taxes and ultimately, the loss of one’s home.
Her hunch was right. Statistics proved that almost 85 per cent of all properties on the county’s tax sale list— those properties which were delinquent and whose taxes were set to be auctioned, were in predominantly black and Latino wards.
She immediately sprung into action— moving her government agency to begin a productive effort to help people save their homes. While identifying the tens of thousands of homes on the delinquent tax sale list, she also matched records and determined that many of these homeowners were actually owed money by the county in the form of various exemptions that are offered.
For Pappas, it was mainly about accessibility and education– making information easy to access via her website, as well as educating people how government works and what they were entitled to as homeowners.
In many cases, Pappas’ office found that people who owed a few hundred dollars on their tax bills and were about to lose their homes were actually owed money by the county– thousands of dollars in fact since exemptions can be claimed as far back as four years in arrears.
A massive public affairs campaign was undertaken by the Treasurer’s Office called Black Houses Matter which included visiting churches, speaking on a weekly radio show and literally, hitting the streets seeking out homeowners. The goal was simple– to keep people in their homes.
Over the course of the past year, more than $76 million dollars have been returned to taxpayers in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods and thousands of evictions were prevented as a result of Pappas’ efforts, which caught the attention of the ABC7Chicago– one of the most watched stations in the region.
Together with the Treasurer’s Office, a phone bank was organized by the television station that was initially set to take place on a single day for four hours. The phone bank was flooded with hundreds of thousands of calls and an extra day was added– followed by two additional days.
So far, the phone bank alone has returned more than $6 million to Cook County taxpayers.
As cliche as it may sound, Pappas is making government work for the people and is doing what perhaps, no other elected official in the country is doing– particularly at a time of great national unrest and when people– especially disenfranchised people– need it most.
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