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Cook County OK’d insider deal for Ald. Carrie Austin’s top aide
Chester Wilson’s delinquent property tax tab on a South Side building topped $200K. County land bank erased that — and gave the property to a Wilson business partner for $40,000.
Monday, November 04, 2019 Chicago Sun-Times by Lauren FitzPatrick and Tim Novak
For more than 10 years, Ald. Carrie Austin’s chief of staff Chester Wilson Jr. owned a two-story brick building at 103rd Street and Corliss Avenue, devastated by fire and mired in housing court for building code violations.
Wilson stopped paying property taxes on the building in 2008 and racked up a debt of more than $200,000 in taxes and interest — a debt any potential buyer would have to pay.
So Wilson cut a deal with the Cook County Land Bank Authority, a program that wipes out delinquent property taxes on vacant or abandoned properties in hopes of finding someone to redevelop them and return them to the tax rolls.
In July 2017, Wilson hired the county agency to change the locks on the derelict building. And then, instead of paying for that, he agreed to surrender the property to the land bank. The county wiped out all of the taxes he didn’t pay and agreed to turn over the property to Lisa Livingston, a daycare operator who’d been a Wilson business partner.
What Wilson and Livingston didn’t mention — and what land bank officials failed to catch — is that, months earlier, the two resold a single-family home they had rehabbed, says Rob Rose, the land bank executive who OKed the deal.
Rose says Wilson — whose City Hall salary tops $118,000 — still owes $113,609 for a decade of unpaid taxes on the property. Add in interest payments that the Chicago Sun-Times calculates at $98,982, and the total bill was around $212,591.
While the land bank has wiped off the unpaid tax bills from the building, no one from any county taxing agency — the assessor, the clerk or the treasurer — has notified Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx about filing a lien against Wilson to try to collect any taxes he might owe. The state’s attorney says it has never been asked to file liens against any of 1,300 property owners whose land has been taken by the land bank since it began operating in 2013.
Rose says the May 2018 sale of the Corliss Avenue property, which he characterized as “an absolute aberration” for the land bank, never should have been allowed to happen because of the relationship between Wilson and Livingston.
But now that Livingston, who operates one of her two state-funded daycare centers in Austin’s ward, is in so deep financially for the rehab work, Rose says he won’t void the sale.
Nor will he cancel a loan he granted Livingston that would have refunded $20,000 — half of the $40,000 she paid for the building — had she completed the rehab by May 2019, which was the deadline for the loan.
Instead, they’ve given her another year to finish work on the building.
Then, if she fails to finish the job by April 24, 2020, Rose says the land bank would seize the property from Livingston, who would lose the estimated $350,000 she says she has spent on things like tuck pointing, windows and plumbing.
Asked whether Livingston lied on her paperwork, Rose acknowledges she did.
“But I also have to be pragmatic,” he says. “I’ve been able to substantiate the work that she’s doing, OK. So, in making that decision, the balance here is also what’s best for the neighborhood and what’s best for this area.”
Rose says he’s confident Wilson isn’t financing the rehab work but that the land bank will take steps to preclude Wilson from profiting off any businesses that might move into the storefront as well as to ensure that Livingston can’t sell the property to a company affiliated with Wilson.
Wilson was among those identified in a subpoena as FBI agents raided Austin’s ward office on June 19, seeking records involving the alderman, her chief of staff and others. One of them was Boris Nitchoff, a Summit businessman who owns a company that buys unpaid property taxes at drastically discounted prices, including the Corliss property.
At the Cook County treasurer’s 2015 scavenger sale, Nitchoff was the only bidder interested in buying the delinquent property taxes Wilson didn’t pay between 2008 and 2013. It cost Nitchoff $880 to acquire the outstanding taxes, which totaled $62,520. But when Wilson gave the property to the land bank and all of the unpaid tax liens on the property were erased, Nitchoff got his money back, court records show.
When a Sun-Times reporter contacted Wilson at Austin’s City Hall office, he hung up the phone, refusing to talk about the Corliss deal.
Rose says neither Wilson nor anyone else with the city put pressure on the land bank to take the Corliss property.
He says the land bank rejected another property that Wilson offered, in the 12000 block of South Union Avenue, that had caused him headaches with the city. Though not in one of the land bank’s 13 priority areas, Rose says the Corliss building was “a special property” in a neighborhood with a lot of need.
“We work with properties that are distressed, properties that have good bones. This property has good bones to it,” the county official says. “It has some fiery damage, but it’s a full masonry building. And it was, again, this is the sort of thing that we look to save buildings where we can, and we look to be able to facilitate investments in the neighborhoods where we can.”
Through a trust, Wilson had bought the 5,500-square-foot building across from Corliss High School in 2005 for $250,000, taking out a $300,000 mortgage to renovate it. He and the trust have owned several properties he’s developed in and around the 34th Ward on the Far South Side. He had fallen behind on property taxes on other buildings he had bought, but is current on his own home on South Justine Street.
In 2011, Chicago’s buildings department sued Wilson and the trust, laying out a litany of dangerous building conditions, such as having holes in the walls and roof, and also for doing work without permits. That case was pending when Wilson — who has been an Austin aide since 1995, when she was appointed to the city council — agreed to donate the property to the land bank in July 2017.
The Sun-Times reviewed hundreds of pages of documents regarding the land bank’s acquisition of the Corliss property.
Those include a document, which Rose signed in July, saying he had received $250 in earnest money from Wilson and checking “Yes” in response to the question: “Conduit acquisition to a third party?”
Livingston was named on the document as the third-party buyer — about four months before Wilson signed over the deed.
It was also three months after Wilson had sold a home that he and Livingston rehabbed in the 9700 block of South Emerald Avenue. In September, using his city of Chicago email account, Wilson sent the land bank a one-line message with the subject line, “Lisa Livingston.” The message read: “Buyer for Corliss.”
Rose says the property was advertised on the land bank’s website for a month before Livingston was chosen as its buyer. Wilson signed over the deed to the land bank in November 2017.
In April 2018, the agency and Livingston signed a “forgivable mortgage” that would return $20,000 of the $40,000 she had to pay for the building if she met two conditions: She had to get the building up to code within 12 months, and she had to hold onto the property for three years.
The land bank also asked her for a development plan, laying out the scope and timeline for the work, as well as proof she could pay for it.
Livingston responded with an email that said only the repairs would take six months to a year and cost $60,000 to $100,000.
Livingston also was supposed to disclose whether she was “related to or affiliated in any way” to Wilson in applying to buy 10300-02 S. Corliss Ave.
She says she interpreted that to be referring to whether she had a current relationship with Wilson, whom she says she met years before while getting a permit for her daycare business at Austin’s office.
“Just became friends,” she says, “and then we bought the house.”
A June 2019 land bank inspection found little work had been done. That inspection took place after the deadline for when the work was supposed to be completed and also after City Hall filed suit in February against Livingston, Wilson and others, saying the building was “an actual and imminent danger to [the] public.” The city’s lawsuit is pending.
“You didn’t do what you were supposed to,” the inspector said in an email to Livingston. “I visited the property this afternoon and found that work is not complete, or even close to being complete. It looks like it has just started. You purchased this property on 5/11/2018, which means you are about a month past the allotted 12 month rehab time. Please give us an update on the project status.”
A week after that, she asked for six more months, saying she’d spent $175,000.
She says her father is helping finance the project, which will include a daycare center, some retail and housing. She says the work is progressing and she hopes she can finish by the April deadline.
“I’m working really hard to make sure I don’t lose it,” Livingston says. “That’s my money and my father’s money.”