Up until a few weeks ago, Chris Lewless owed $12,000 in city taxes on a piece of property listed as having more than 20 liens on it.
It’s not exactly a spectacular resume from which to be running for the Lansing City Council. But Chris Lewless is not only making another go at public office this year despite his hardships at 2583 Oxford Road, he’s willing to talk about the situation.
From his point of view, nobody feels worse about what happened to his family’s dream house. Having lost at least $60,000 in the whole debacle, nobody regrets the decision to build in the swank Moores River Drive neighborhood more than he does.
Like many others in Lansing, the state and the country, Lewless, a 31-year-old attorney, said he fell victim to the collapsing real estate and housing market. He put his chips on what seemed to be a sound investment at the time, only to walk away without his new house, with his family’s savings exhausted and with agitated residents in a highly influential neighborhood looking at an unfinished home.
“It’s been a tough year,” Lewless said. “It’s been the absolute bad luck storm.”
Lansing may remember Lewless from 2006, when the fire-haired political upstart emerged from seemingly nowhere to finish a competitive third place in a six-candidate Democratic primary race to succeed state Rep. Michael Murphy.
Shortly thereafter Lewless and his wife, Kathy, signed up with a builder who was willing to construct a new house on a piece of property sandwiched between the home of a local judge and a Lansing lobbyist, in same neighborhood as the governor’s mansion and the Lansing County Club.
In theory, the builder was going to build the new house and then buy Lewless’ current house on Shiawassee Street, located in the Genesee neighborhood.
But that didn’t happen.
Before the house was finished, the builder declared bankruptcy and went out of business. Meanwhile, the new house had already been assessed, suddenly leaving Lewless with two homes.
“I couldn’t have moved in,” he said about the Oxford Road house. “The inspectors said they would have moved me out.”
Why didn’t Lewless find someone else to finish the work?
“I didn’t have the quarter of a million dollars in my pocket,” he said. “I’m not independently wealthy.”
So Lewless did the only thing he felt he could do with the property — let the bank take it and eat every cent he’d put into it.
Luckily for the family, Lewless had holed away a little bit of cash after a brief stint at a good-paying job in New York, which was enough to cover all but about $1,000 of his property tax bill. He’s talking with a bank about how the last grand will be covered.
City officials say as long as the balance is paid by the time Lewless takes office (assuming he wins the primary and the general elections) he’s in the clear legally.
But after everything that’s happened to him, could Lewless really want to run for the Fourth Ward Lansing City Council seat and its $20,200-a-year salary?
The Moores River Drive neighborhood is in that ward, after all (as is his Shiawassee house). And could he be successful, all things considering?
The answer, apparently, is yes and yes.
Lewless filed his campaign finance paperwork two months ago. To this point, nobody else has publicly declared an interest in succeeding retiring Council member Tim Kaltenbach, although the filing deadline isnt until May.
At this point, though, Lewless is the frontrunner, and not due to the sheer lack of a field, either. The campaign team that helped score Lewless 20 percent of the 06 vote is coming back together.
His fundraiser last week, which was held at Tavern on the Square in downtown Lansing, attracted 50 to 60 people, bringing in $2,200 to $2,300. He has an experienced campaign manager in Brian McGrain, himself elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners last year.
As far as the foreclosure and the liens, Lewless said his situation is similar (although admittedly not identical) to that of others who have fallen victim to a sputtering economy. "One of us" is an angle he could take.
But isnt that going to be a tough sell?
He responded, "Its probably not as hard as what Ive gone through the last 12 months, trust me."
(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.)