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Chicago's Home Prices, Taxes Spark an Exodus From Cook County

Thursday, April 06, 2006
Bloomberg

April 6 (Bloomberg) -- Arturo Castro is part of the reason that the population of Cook County, Illinois, with Chicago at its core, is shrinking more than any other U.S. county. Castro, who couldn't afford home prices where he was renting in Cook County, paid $170,000 for a 100-year-old, five- bedroom house in Waukegan in Lake County, an hour's commute from Chicago. ``I traded convenience for price and room,'' says Castro, 41. Cook County is losing people from its inner suburbs for the first time as residents leave for bigger houses and more land at lower prices at the edge of the metropolitan area, demographers say. The county had the biggest population drop among U.S. counties last year: a decline of 73,000 from 2000, or 1.4 percent, to 5.3 million, federal Census Bureau estimates show. The 956-square-mile (2,476-square-kilometer) county, the second most populous in the U.S., was the only county among the nation's 10 largest to lose residents from 2000 to 2005. County commissioners say higher house prices and taxes contributed to the exodus from communities next to Chicago. ``The area of loss is no longer just the city, it's the inner suburbs,'' says Ken Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago, who analyzed the data and expects the exodus to accelerate. The drop is a reversal from the county's 5.3 percent population gain during the 1990s, Johnson says. Cook County comprises Chicago and suburbs including Winnetka, Evanston and River Forest. `Wake-up Call' Higher property, business and sales taxes in Cook County are pushing residents out, says Larry Suffredin, a Democrat and Cook County commissioner representing Winnetka and other northern suburbs. ``We've got to take this as a wake-up call and really go back and look at this whole property-tax system,'' he says. The average price of a single residential property in Cook County rose 37 percent to $285,870 in 2005 from $208,100 in 2000, county data show. The county's median residential property tax climbed 22 percent to $2,833 in 2004 from $2,323 in 2000, according to the most recent county assessor's data. Cook County houses are more expensive than the national average. Across the U.S., the median house price increased 53 percent to $208,300 last year from $136,000 in 2000, says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. ``The Midwest has seen the steadiest increase,'' Molony says. ``It has more room to grow.'' City Too Expensive Downtown Chicago is luring singles and couples, while families who want more affordable homes are moving out, often to counties with higher job growth, says Saskia Sassen, who teaches at the University of Chicago. Lower house prices drew Cynthia Schacher, 31, and her husband Mark to Libertyville in Lake County last April after the birth of their first child. They had been renting in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood and found city properties prohibitively expensive, she says. While city families have sought greater living space in U.S. suburbs for decades, the Cook County data show a key change from the pattern because inner suburbs, not just Chicago, are losing people for the first time, Johnson says. The county's loss is the broader area's gain, Sassen says. The population of the metropolitan area outside Cook increased 11 percent to 4.36 million in 2005 from 2000, with the greatest gains on the outer edges, Johnson says. `Driven People Out' Kendall County, located on the southwest metropolitan fringe and separated by one county from Cook, was the third- fastest growing county in the U.S. from 2000 to 2005, expanding 46 percent, census estimates show. The biggest counties in the western U.S., including the most populous, Los Angeles County, aren't declining because they attract more U.S. migrants and immigrants, and have younger populations that produce more children, Johnson says. The largest counties in the U.S. South and Southwest, such as Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, are drawing more people seeking a warm climate, and businesses and jobs follow, he says. Castro, the Waukegan homebuyer, says his move makes economic sense even with a longer commute to Chicago, where he works as a loan officer. He purchased a handheld organizer that lets him make calls and answer e-mails for work from the road. ``Price has definitely driven people out of Cook County,'' he says.


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