Retiring Alderman Defends Move To Scoop Up City-Owned Properties In His Ward At Bargain Prices
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Departing Ald. Michael Scott (24th) is on track to benefit from a city-backed land deal in his own ward shortly after he leaves office that would allow him to and his wife Natashee Scott to buy a pair of vacant lots adjoining their North Lawndale home.
The alderman has defended the move as above board, saying he had no personal involvement in the pair of land sales that his wife pursued through Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration so that his young children can enjoy a safe outdoor play space in the shadow of their home. And planning officials in Lightfoot’s administration also say the pending sales cross no legal or ethical lines.
Still, the Scotts were able to take advantage of a city-led appraisal that undercut nearby property values, and of a city program that offers discounts to property owners who buy publicly owned parcels next-door to them.
Lightfoot introduced a pair of ordinances to the City Council this week on behalf of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development that would sell a pair of vacant city-owned lots on the west edge of Douglass Park to Natashee Scott for a combined $8,000. Natashee Scott is a senior deputy to Lt. gov. Juliana Stratton.
One ordinance (O2022-1697) calls to sell the lot at 1254 S. Albany Ave. in the 24th Ward to Natashee Scott for $1,000 through the city’s Adjacent Neighbors Land Acquisition Program (ANLAP). The lot was appraised at $7,000, according to the language of the ordinance. ANLAP allows property owners to buy neighboring lots from the city for as little as $1,000 as long as each lot is appraised at $10,000 or less.
The other ordinance introduced this week (O2022-1698) sketches a plan to sell the city-owned vacant lot at 1256 S. Albany Ave. to Natashee Scott for $7,000, which the ordinance lists as that property’s fair market value as well.
The city has owned the parcels since 1992, Cook County property records show.
The Scotts, who live at 1250 S. Albany Ave., would be required by the ordinances to transform the empty lots into “landscaped open space” within six months of the sale.
“It’s just to green the space and create a garage area for us, and that’s it,” Michael Scott told The Daily Line of the sales on Wednesday. Natashee plans to plant a garden, manicure the grass so her teenage daughter can practice soccer and add “maybe a little playset” for their younger sons, he said.
Natashee Scott submitted applications to buy the properties on March 14, 2021, according to Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development.
Strazzabosco wrote in an email that both properties were “publicly advertised and there were no alternate proposals,” and that the city’s Board of Ethics “reviewed the procedures for both sales.”
Chicago ethics rules prohibit elected officials from having any financial interest in the purchase of city-owned property. But the rules carve out an exception for real estate that is “sold pursuant to a process of competitive bidding following public notice.”
“The City’s land sale programs are intended to repurpose surplus land for productive private purposes and each transaction is subject to multiple review and approval procedures,” Strazzabosco wrote. “Both of these sales are compliant with program requirements, procedures review, and ethics considerations.”
The alderman said he intentionally kept his distance from the entire application process and had no communication with the planning department or any other members of Lightfoot’s administration about the deals.
“I have not talked to any of them about anything,” Michael Scott said. “I’ve had my wife do this so that it wouldn’t go through me. I have not called on her behalf, I have not sent an email on her behalf. I have not done any of those things, because I did not want it to look as if me as the alderman had my hand in doing any of this.”
A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, Roosevelt University’s Heller College of Business and the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Natashee Scott has served as Stratton’s general counsel and deputy chief of staff since last November, and she has been president and CEO of the Westside Cultural Foundation since 2017, according to her LinkedIn page. She hand-wrote on the public economic disclosure tied to both land purchase applications that she is “married to 24th Ward Alderman Michael Scott, Jr.”
Natashee Scott declined a request for comment on Wednesday.
Multiple vacant lots near the Albany Avenue properties have within the past year been assessed, listed or sold at values far higher than $7,000, which was the value for which the city’s planning department appraised them.
A vacant lot at 1839 S. Fairfield Ave., across the park from the Albany properties, was listed for $74,900 as of Wednesday.
The two Albany Avenue lots lined up for sales have not been assessed in recent years because taxes are not charged on city-owned lots. But four privately owned vacant lots on the 1200 block of South Troy St., one block to the west, were most recently assessed at fair market values of $36,710 each, according to the Cook County Assessor’s Office,
A vacant residential lot at 2821 W. Congress Pkwy, one mile northeast of the Albany Avenue properties, sold last June for $60,000, county property records show. A double-wide empty parcel at 313-15 S. California Ave. that is zoned for business uses about 1.2 miles to the northeast, sold in April 2021 for $110,000.
Vacant residential lots at 1501 S. Kostner Ave. and 1532 S. Kildare Ave., both in the western part of North Lawndale, were assessed last year at fair market values of $44,410.
The planning department commissioned real estate appraiser Michael F. Walsh in March to appraise the parcels that are lined up for sale to the Scotts, Strazzabosco said. The 35-page appraisal report includes data on four nearby vacant lots that recently sold for $13,000 or less.
“That report considered a variety of metrics, including recent sales prices for comparable sites, and concluded the fair market value of both sites was $14,000,” Strazzabosco said.
Scott said he was surprised at the higher values for comparable vacant lots, saying he has “never ever had anything assessed for $36,000 that is a [vacant] residential property” in North Lawndale.
“We pay fair market value for anything that is over there,” he said, noting that assessments and appraisals are both “done by an independent person” with no input from aldermen.
He added that he and his wife could have gone through other available programs to buy each lot for $1, but they chose to pay $8,000 total because he “wanted to buy it at fair market value.”
“I can see how, if I bought it for a dollar, it could look unfair,” Scott said. “I didn’t want to do that, because I thought that would be improper.”
Scott has lived on Albany Avenue in North Lawndale since 1987, he said. He and his wife bought their two-flat graystone at 1250 S. Albany Ave. from the Cook County Land Bank Authority in 2018.
Lightfoot introduced the property sale ordinances to the City Council on Monday, one day before Michael Scott announced that he would resign his public role so he could spend more time with his family and take a community relations job with Chicago-based film studio Cinespace.
Related: Michael Scott calls it quits, heads to Cinespace to give appointed successor a ‘leg up’ in 2023
“The ongoing challenges with public safety, the pace at which resources reach our community, and the pandemic has taken its toll,” Scott wrote in the letter. “I have personally worked extremely hard to address these issues, and at times at the detriment of my own family. And after much thought and consideration, I have made the difficult decision to resign from my elected role of Alderman.”
Scott will move to Chicago-based film company Cinespace to become its new director of industry and community relations, according to a news release from the company.
Scott worked as an area manager with the Chicago Park District from 2003 until 2015, when he tossed his hat into the crowded open race to succeed retiring Ald. Michael Chandler (24th). Boosted by his family cachet, Scott made the runoff with support from West Side aldermen Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), and retired Ald. Ed Smith (28th) as well as South Side Ald. Carrie Austin (34th). Following a campaign centered on economic development, youth programming and improving police-community relations, Scott pummeled businesswoman Vetress Boyce in the April 2015 runoff with 67 percent of the vote.
Scott has since spearheaded multiple major economic development initiatives in his ward, starting with a successful 2015 push to move Riot Fest from Humboldt Park to Douglass Park. He has also been in the driver’s seat for multiple other major initiatives, including a city-backed effort to build affordable single-family homes on hundreds of vacant lots in Lawndale and two major Invest South/West redevelopments planned at 4300 W. Roosevelt Rd. and 3400 W.Ogden Ave.
Related: City will push toward 1,000 vacant lot redevelopments in Lawndale, alderman says
“Working alongside the community, the 24th Ward, once dubbed the permanent underclass, is poised for a major renaissance,” Scott wrote in his resignation letter. “Hopefully, I made it a better place to live, work, play, and raise a family during my tenure as Alderman.”
Aldermen took turns during Wednesday’s City Council meeting giving emotional sendoffs to their colleague, alternatively praising his career-long devotion to public service, his cool temperament and his record of drawing development and public resources to his struggling West Side ward.
Lightfoot added her own voice to the chorus of praise on Wednesday, describing the list of major economic development initiatives he has overseen in his ward as a “lasting monument to the kind of person you are: a selfless public servant.”
“You’ve shown that the seemingly impossible in that community is possible,” Lightfoot said.
His June 3 resignation will start a 60-day timer for Lightfoot to nominate and for the City Council to confirm a successor who will fill out the remainder of Scott’s elected term. Lightfoot said she will “form a search committee” to vet a replacement, similar to the three-member committee she formed to find a successor to convicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th). Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) was Lightfoot’s first aldermanic appointment in March.
Related: Nicole Lee sworn in as first Chinese American alderman, declines to take stances on proposed legislation or ward remap
“As I’ve done with previous Aldermanic vacancies, I will work tirelessly to find someone who embodies the values of the 24th ward and the rest of our city,” Lightfoot wrote. “This candidate must be able to speak to and advocate for the unique needs of the communities they will represent, as well as possess the lived experiences necessary to connect with their residents. I am committed to finding this person through an open and transparent process, as the residents of the 24th ward deserve no less.”