Change we can be shocked at

For a candidate who touts a mantra of "Change" until people turn a little green around the gills whenever they hear it, Obama better be careful. Even a cursory examination of his record in Chicago as a state senator bringing "change" to public housing would cause voters to ask some serious questions about his competence.

This devastating piece in the Boston Globe on just what Obama's leadership on developing government-private housing projects did to public housing in Chicago should open a few eyes:

The squat brick buildings of Grove Parc Plaza, in a dense neighborhood that Barack Obama represented for eight years as a state senator, hold 504 apartments subsidized by the federal government for people who can't afford to live anywhere else.

But it's not safe to live here.

About 99 of the units are vacant, many rendered uninhabitable by unfixed problems, such as collapsed roofs and fire damage. Mice scamper through the halls. Battered mailboxes hang open. Sewage backs up into kitchen sinks. In 2006, federal inspectors graded the condition of the complex an 11 on a 100-point scale - a score so bad the buildings now face demolition.

Grove Parc has become a symbol for some in Chicago of the broader failures of giving public subsidies to private companies to build and manage affordable housing - an approach strongly backed by Obama as the best replacement for public housing.

As a state senator (and as a member of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland - a law firm that handled much of the legal work for developers seeking to partner with the city and state in building or rehabbing public housing units), Obama pushed hard to finance these projects back in the 1990's. The results are seen above.

But is there more to Obama's support of these projects? Did they have a political reason for being touted by the candidate?

The campaign did not respond to questions about whether Obama was aware of the problems with buildings in his district during his time as a state senator, nor did it comment on the roles played by people connected to the senator.

Among those tied to Obama politically, personally, or professionally are:

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama's presidential campaign and a member of his finance committee. Jarrett is the chief executive of Habitat Co., which managed Grove Parc Plaza from 2001 until this winter and co-managed an even larger subsidized complex in Chicago that was seized by the federal government in 2006, after city inspectors found widespread problems.

Allison Davis, a major fund-raiser for Obama's US Senate campaign and a former lead partner at Obama's former law firm. Davis, a developer, was involved in the creation of Grove Parc and has used government subsidies to rehabilitate more than 1,500 units in Chicago, including a North Side building cited by city inspectors last year after chronic plumbing failures resulted in raw sewage spilling into several apartments.

Antoin "Tony" Rezko, perhaps the most important fund-raiser for Obama's early political campaigns and a friend who helped the Obamas buy a home in 2005. Rezko's company used subsidies to rehabilitate more than 1,000 apartments, mostly in and around Obama's district, then refused to manage the units, leaving the buildings to decay to the point where many no longer were habitable.

Campaign finance records show that six prominent developers - including Jarrett, Davis, and Rezko - collectively contributed more than $175,000 to Obama's campaigns over the last decade and raised hundreds of thousands more from other donors. Rezko alone raised at least $200,000, by Obama's own accounting.

The partnerships were an entree for Obama into the high powered world of fat cat political donors. And as far as whether Obama knew of the problems with the units, the file cabinets at Obama's law firm are stuffed with pleas from ordinary citizens asking the firm - which handled many landlord-tenant disputes in the past - to intervene with the developers and get them to fix things like running water and problems with heaters.

Those pleas fell largely on deaf ears as the law firm took hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from these developers to represent their interests and help them through the maze of paperwork required to receive the grants from the city and state to rehab or develop the housing projects.

The key player was, of course, Tony Rezko. The now convicted developer/political operator brought Obama along and introduced him to several of the city's major players in the development community - players who later would figure prominently in his fundraising activities for the senate and early presidential efforts. At the time - the early and mid 1990's - Chicago was in the midst of an enormous redevelopment craze and the developers were looking to get in on the action.

Obama and his law firm were more than happy to oblige.

But today, thousands of those units are in the process of being condemned or are nearly unlivable. While not directly responsible, the fact that Obama aggressively pushed the idea of city/private partnerships in public housing and that it became a spectacular failure.
All the more reason to look at Obama's mantra of "change" with a more jaundiced eye.

Hat Tip: Ed Lasky

Update -- Clarice Feldman adds:


Maybe its experience with David Axelrod's other client, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who also talked a good game but couldn't manage a picnic, has opened the Boston Globe's eyes to Obama.