The house at 4758 S. Princeton, just west of the Dan Ryan, was old and needed renovating, but it was the only major asset LuBertha Ridley had. Then the county let someone take it away from her.

The fight to get it back, being waged by Cook County public guardian Patrick Murphy, revives age-old questions about the fairness of the county’s property-tax system. “In the case of LuBertha Ridley you have a woman well past 80, with increasing signs of dementia, losing her property because she can’t read–she didn’t understand the notices the county sent her,” says Anne Barrett, an intake paralegal at the public guardian’s office. “I’d say there’s a flaw in a system that allows that.”

As Barrett points out, the rules and regulations governing tax-delinquent properties are hard enough for a lawyer to understand, let alone an illiterate elderly woman. “I don’t really know a lot about Mrs. Ridley,” says Barrett. “I know she’s from Mississippi and she doesn’t have much formal education. She’s able to sign her name, but not much more than that. She told me she was a housekeeper for a long time.”

According to Barrett, bills weren’t a problem when Ridley’s husband, Jessie, a factory worker, was alive. After he died, in the 1980s, Ridley developed her own system for paying them. She apparently cashed her monthly social security check–her only income–at a currency exchange, where she bought money orders to pay each bill, including her property-tax bill.

The annual taxes on her property, which she owned outright, weren’t high–about $21 a year. But for some reason she missed a payment in 1996. The county sent her a form letter informing her of the delinquency and warning that if she didn’t pay the bill she could lose her property. It’s not clear whether she ever got that letter, since such notices are often sent to the wrong address. But two years later, on April 7, 1998, the property was sold for about $300 to National Indemnity, a real estate company that specializes in buying tax-delinquent property. Shortly after that the county sent another letter to Ridley, notifying her that the property had been bought at a scavenger sale. To redeem it, the letter pointed out, she only had to pay the back taxes–$21. She never responded to that letter either.

National Indemnity eventually sold the property to SKM, another company that specializes in tax-sale properties, for about $18,000, according to Jonathan Smith, an SKM attorney. On May 23, 2001, a Cook County judge officially assigned the deed to SKM, and this past January a Cook County judge issued an order for possession. A county bailiff was to inspect the building to make sure no one was living there and change the locks. A bailiff went to the house and found that LuBertha Ridley was still there. It’s not clear what happened that day, but shortly afterward Thomas Ridley, one of her sons, showed up in court on her behalf.

According to the public guardian’s office, Thomas Ridley (who could not be reached for comment) told the judge his mother hadn’t understood the notices that had been sent to her and had become aware of the pending eviction only when the bailiff showed up. The judge put a hold on the official transfer of the property to SKM and directed Ridley to the public guardian’s office, which can act as a representative for people who are mentally or physically unable to handle their business affairs.

On April 8 Thomas Ridley called Anne Barrett, and soon the public guardian’s office was on the case. “When Thomas talked to Anne, that got the ball rolling,” says Daniel Belko, a staff lawyer for the guardian’s office.

Barrett went to court for the next transfer hearing, which LuBertha Ridley attended. According to Barrett, Ridley was clearly unable to understand how she’d lost her house. “She was a very nice lady, and we talked a little about her life,” she says. “She had a color scheme set up to help her with the bills. She said, ‘When an overdue bill comes it’s in a red or pink envelope.’ In her mind, you were in trouble if you got red or pink. She relied on other people to help her at times like that. She has four sons, but mostly she’s on her own. It’s amazing what people do to survive.”

The guardian’s office had been down this road before. Mary Lowe once owned a home on the far south side of the city, and because of mental incompetence, according to Peter Schmiedel, the deputy public guardian, couldn’t understand she’d fallen behind on her property taxes. “When we took the Lowe case we did an investigation, and we found that her mental incompetence was common knowledge,” he says. “We spoke to her mail carrier, and she said, ‘Yes, that’s the crazy lady. We’d go by there sometimes, and she’d be outside naked.’ We did more digging and found out that she had a long history of hospitalization in various state hospitals.”

In 1997 the guardian’s office sued on behalf of Lowe, asking that the sale of her property be voided. While the case was dragging through the courts Lowe died. Eventually a judge ruled against the guardian’s office, which has appealed. “We feel that an important principle is at stake,” says Schmiedel. “Our argument is that the notice Mary Lowe received was insufficient. The woman was denied her due process because she was suffering from some insane delusions–that is, she could not have any way of knowing that she was on the verge of losing her property. How is it fair therefore to let her property be taken from her?”

LuBertha Ridley’s case raises some of the same issues. “How can you allow her to lose her property if she couldn’t understand the letters telling her she was in danger of losing her property?” asks Belko. “That doesn’t make sense.” He and Schmiedel say the county should have safeguards to protect people like Ridley. “Some of these cases stand out like sore thumbs,” says Schmiedel. “In the case of LuBertha Ridley you have a woman who’s been paying her taxes all these years and all of a sudden she misses a payment. Then she ignores all the letters she received from the county. That should raise some questions. Someone should ask, Why isn’t this person paying this modest amount of money? What’s going on? Who in their right mind would let their house go for $21 in taxes?”

Schmiedel says he doesn’t know how many homes are lost each year because their owners aren’t mentally competent, but he suspects the number is growing. “Our population is getting older, and there’re a lot of dementia issues that come with an elderly population,” he says. “We have to take a stand on this–don’t let these people lose their homes. Is this the society you want? Where someone works their whole life to buy one piece of property only to lose it because they can’t understand a form letter? Society should take care of people like that. If we don’t protect the elderly what kind of society are we?”

Ironically, even if a judge voids the sale of her home Ridley may never move back in. On May 9 a judge made the public guardian’s office her temporary guardian, and she’s to be put in a nursing home this week. If the sale is overturned, the property would eventually pass to her heirs.

SKM’s Smith says that voiding the sale would unfairly punish his client, who did nothing wrong. He points out that companies that buy up delinquent properties–generally known as scavengers, a label they disdain–benefit the city and the county. “The press likes to paint us as villains, but we really do a great service,” says one buyer who asked not to be named. “In many cases we take run-down property that’s been delinquent for years and we put it back on the tax rolls. How is that so bad?”

Many of these companies also see nothing unfair in the current system, which they say bends over backward to protect the interests of delinquent owners. “I think the tax-sale law is sound and fair,” says Smith, who also represented the buyer in the Mary Lowe case. “It’s been around for about 100 years. It’s good for the county, it’s good for the city, and it’s good for the taxing district. I think the system even works for the delinquent property-tax payer. They have a redemption period for two and a half years. That’s quite a bit of time. If the county had no leverage, who would pay their property taxes?”

Smith thinks the system ought to treat all taxpayers the same, including the mentally disabled. “You have to have accountability,” he says. “Ms. Ridley has to be held to the same standards as everyone else. If not, then she wouldn’t have to pay her taxes.” He’s also skeptical that Ridley was as defenseless as the public guardian’s office suggests: “When it came to crunch time–time for her to be put out–her son was there in court.”

But lawyers for the public guardian’s office say protections must be instituted so that people like Ridley know what they’re facing before a bailiff comes to evict them. “I think these cases are wake-up calls,” says Belko. “There’re going to be countless other elderly people just like LuBertha Ridley. Their homes are at stake. They spend their whole lives paying their taxes, and then they get old and miss a payment–for that they should lose their home? I’m sorry, if a disabled old woman can lose her house for $21 there’s something very wrong with the system.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.