Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How Obama Bought a Mansion that He Couldn't Afford (and Michelle's Connections to the Chicago Daley Machine)

From noquarterusa.net and the Chicago Tribune: "The Obamas’ new home has received a lot of attention in the corporate media and on the blogs. This post will discuss other perspectives.

Hyde Park, where the Obamas have lived since 1994, is home to the University of Chicago (UC) Law School and at least one of UC’s hospitals. Leo Struass taught in the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The Federalist Society was born at UC, and it is the alma mater of many Neo Cons, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Kenwood, where the Obamas’ new home sits, is a small neighborhood, only 1.09 miles in area. It is bound on the south by Hyde Park, on the north by North Kenwood, and on the west by the neighborhood of Highland. Kenwood was once one of the most elite neighborhoods in all of Chicago.
The Obamas had decided that politics was Barack’s ultimate future while still dating. In 1991, then Michelle Robinson, who was then Obama’s fiancĂ©e, left her job at the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. She went to work for the city of Chicago, first as an assistant to Mayor Daley, then as the Executive Director of Public Allies Chicago, a nonprofit that provides leadership training to young adults interested in public service careers.

In 1996, she left the Public Allies to help create a student volunteer program at The University of Chicago. By the time of this interview, she was the Executive Director of Community Affairs for The University of Chicago Hospitals. This is how Michelle portrays her change of career:

She was devastated when her father died from MS complications. “That’s when I started analyzing my life, sitting in a firm,” she recalls, adding that in that same year she also lost one of her best friends from college to cancer. She soon left the firm to pursue a much lower-paying path in the public sector.

The fact is Michelle was actively recruited for City Hall by a close friend, Valerie Jarrett, who was Mayor Daley’s Deputy Chief of Staff at that time. Valerie later became the Finance Chair of Obama’s 2004 US Senate campaign and then First Treasurer of Barack’s political action committee, Hopefund.
It helps to have friends at City Hall. Among other positions, Michelle was appointed twice to sit on the board of the Commission of Chicago Landmarks for two consecutive terms. Michelle maintained this board seat from 1998 to March 2005, although normally a member only serves one 4 year term.

Flush from the success of Barack’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the Obamas decided it was time to find a residence more fitting for their anticipated new status. Barack’s 1995 autobiography Dreams of My Father soared, and they knew Alan Keyes was no threat to their future success in the US Senate elections.

Sitting on the Commission of Chicago Landmarks board, Michelle knew of a permit, waiting for review and approval to sell, for a designated Historical Georgian revival home built in 1910 with four fireplaces, glass-door bookcases fashioned from Honduran mahogany, and a 1,000-bottle wine cellar owned by a doctor in Kenwood. The Commission is supported not only by donations and taxes but also by charges for permits. It’s a pretty extensive process, and they want a complete history of the house and property when a permit is requested. Once the Board approves a permit, the application goes to the city planning or zoning commission if more than a simple sale is involved.

The doctor who owned the Kenwood home wanted more than the Obamas could afford. As Barack has stated in numerous press interviews, buying the home would be a stretch. Barack contacted his patron Tony Rezko, despite knowing he was under investigation at the time, in order to see what could be done so the Obamas could afford their dream house. Sub-division was likely the agreed-on solution. In order to divide the lot, which the doctor purchased as one entity, he would have to:

– Hire an approved architect and general contractor, who had been involved in renovations and sub-divisions in Kenwood previously

– Have the lots surveyed and new plot plans drawn

– Re-start the Landmark Commission permit approval process

– Hold a public hearing (required).

On page 51 of the Commission on Landmarks Ordinances, one finds a justification for the doctor agreeing to subdividing the land.

The applicant bears the burden of proof that the existing use of the property is economically infeasible and that the sale, rental or rehabilitation of the property is not possible, resulting the property not being capable of earning any reasonable economic return.

Pages 51 and 52 of the Landmark ordinances show how many proofs and other forms of extensive documentation are required in order to subdivide the land. Can any rational person believe the doctor would have been willing to go along with having his property sub-divided, and all the work and time involved, without compensation and assistance? Who paid for this?

With Michelle sitting on the Landmarks board, Commission approval wasn’t expected to be an issue, even though I have not located notice of the Public Hearing from any of the involved boards. From there it would go to the City Planning Board and the Zoning Boards, which also require public hearings. Each of these steps average between 6 weeks and 3 months to complete.

The doctor’s property was located in what Chicago Zoning Terms refer to as Residential Single zone 1, or RS1. This means the house the Obamas bought required 6,250 sq. ft of area. Even if it had the designation lowered to RS2, it still would have required 5,000 square feet, as seen on page 5 of Chicago’s zoning ordinances. Starting on page 8, the ordinances specify setbacks and how much space must be available on each side of a building. The open space on the building’s sides normally conform to Fire Regulations, so that equipment can access all portions of a building during crises.

Public Records at the Chicago Commission on Landmarks, the Chicago Planning Department and Chicago Zoning Boards would show the exact dates of permits, hearings and approvals. Michelle was so confident she listed the Obamas’ condo, which was located on the first floor of a Hyde Park Brownstone. In October 2004, Michelle expressed surprise to a Chicago interviewer that the Condo had sold so quickly, which meant they either had to put off a closing date or write in a lease agreement for a specified amount of time in their Condo purchase contract.

2004 was a year flush with success for the Obamas: the autobiographical book sales increased; the DNC speech had been well received; Obama won his US Senate seat; and Michelle received a recent promotion to a $316,962-a-year position as Vice President at The University of Chicago Hospitals. Their income was over 1.67 million dollars, with anticipation of even greater gains ahead.

All that needed to be done, in the name of the doctor, on the Kenwood property was completed by March 2005, and the house was finally listed. Michelle Obama resigned her seat on the Chicago Commission on Landmarks at the same time. Barack and Michelle closed on their new home in June of 2005, for $1.65 million dollars, $300,000 less than the asking price, and most likely using the proceeds of their Condo for a down payment, while taking out a mortgage for $1.32 million from Northern Trust. Tony Rezko’s wife purchased the newly divided sub-plot for the full price of $625,000 and closed on the same day.
The City of Chicago requires parking permits, or people must rent space at parking garages for around $30 per diem. There is no overnight on-street parking. The Obamas had no yard to park on, and most likely parked on Rezko’s property.

Within in a month of purchasing their new home, the Obamas began the same process the doctor previously went through. Because Tony Rezko was being indicted, they needed to be distanced from him. So the Obamas hired a lawyer and an architect. Additionally, the Obama’s wanted to put up a fence separating the two properties. On page 21 of the Landmark Ordinances above, it states fences for Historic homes can be no more than 5’ high and must not be visible from the street. If the Obamas had purchased a prefab chain, picket or wooden fence, they would have lost the Historic designation and also the eight-year property tax freeze benefit accrued by agreeing to keep the house in conformance with Landmark regulations.
The concrete wall and evergreens were most likely done after the city appropriated land for sidewalks, and the paving of what has been noted as a wide and busy thoroughfare. If you notice, the trees were planted one to two feet behind the concrete wall, most probably a result of zoning constraints.

The new fence was specially fabricated to conform to historic standards, and the $14,000 cost was billed to Rezko per agreement by Obama and Rezko. Obama states he paid for the architect and Lawyer. Strangely enough the fence actually sits ON the property line between the two lots. Obama agreed to yard maintenance for both properties. And given Obama’s history with the Harvard Law Review and his limited known court experience from public records, Obama most likely either edited or personally wrote the legal documents for his sub-division and the fence. On January 12, 2006, the Obamas closed on the 1/6th of Rita Rezko’s property they purchased for $104,500."