Moved by elderly, disabled, Willie Wilson makes tax loans ‘gifts’

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What began as a tax relief fund on Thursday became a gift.

Willie Wilson, the Chicago businessman, philanthropist and former mayoral candidate, who put $150,000 into a loan fund to help low-income Cook County residents avoid having their property taxes sold, turned that money into a gift.

Originally, those who were to get the money were supposed to pay it back without interest. But after seeing the recipients gathered together, Wilson told them they won’t need to repay the money.

The first wave of payments was made Thursday at Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ office, making good on the fund Wilson announced last week, when officials lambasted a new state law that chopped a 12-month grace period down to eight months.

Wilson was moved by what he saw when the homeowners filed in for a press conference. They were mostly elderly, living on fixed incomes, many disabled. Most were unemployed. Others had hit hard times.

“After I looked at the people, I realized these are mostly senior citizens, folks just barely making it. They don’t have the money to pay back, and it breaks my heart,” Wilson said, surprising everyone, and triggering many tears of gratitude.

Philanthropist Willie Wilson talks to some of the dozens of Cook County homeowners whose taxes he paid on Thursday, deciding to gift them with the $1,000 payments he initially proposed as a no-interest loan. | Provided photo

“I’m really, really thankful,” said Arlene Jones, 61, of West Pullman, a widow who had camped outside the West Side Justice Center waiting for the agency administering the fund to open on Monday, after seeing it on the news Sunday.

“I’m retired, living on my husband’s pension. I’m raising my 16-year-old grandson and taking care of my disabled sister,” said a tearful Jones. “I’m trying to spread out my little money, and it just doesn’t stretch as much as needed.”

Jones had a certified check for $980 she had saved up, unable to come up with the rest of her $1,732 tax bill that was to be sold at auction on Monday. Wilson paid the balance.

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin — who, along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and inner-city pastors had sounded the alarm on the potential impact of the legislation passed last year — had kicked in $5,000 of his own money toward the loan fund.

“These are struggling property owners who for some reason could not pay their taxes, many of them having paid off their homes, but unable to pay tax bills under $1,000,” said Boykin, who also gifted his own contribution to recipients.

“And we have these tax buyers out there seeking to buy their taxes, charge them interest of up to 18 percent and add fees and penalties that double or triple their bills,” he said. “We urge Springfield to move the grace period back to 12 months, and give people an opportunity to come up with the money.”

Also gifting their contributions to the fund were the Rev. Robert Patterson of Spirit of Truth Missionary Baptist Church, who kicked in $2,000, and the Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, who kicked in $1,000.

Janette and Willie Wilson (at lectern), Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, City Treasurer Maria Pappas and Tanya Woods, executive director of the West Side Justice Center, with some of the Cook County homeowners who had their taxes paid as a “gift” from Wilson and his wife. | Provided photo

Almost 50,000 homeowners in Cook County are delinquent on their 2015 property taxes, which were due in 2016, officials say. They have until April 3 to pay, before their tax debt is sold at auction.

Investors purchase the delinquent bills, then they can charge interest and fees, which if not paid, can lead to residents losing their homes.

“To see all these people. They came in wheelchairs. The came crying. It was a very touching moment,” said Pappas, noting a push by her office and faith leaders to find and alert 6,400 homeowners whose bills were returned by the post office.

“These are people who don’t know their taxes are getting sold on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Pappas said.

Cook County homeowners are urged to check the treasurer’s website to make sure their home or homes of others they know are not listed for sale.

Resources for those needing help are available at the West Side Justice Center and the Cook County Bar Association.

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