Bo McCarver’s weekly news compilation, 8-30-2011

In order to increase the value of occupied houses, banks are now financing the demolition of some that aren’t. In Cleveland, big lenders will pay for half of the 700 houses schedule for demolition this year with the land going into a local land banking organization.

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‘Land Bank’ Knocks Out Some Foreclosure Problems

By Mhari Saito       NPR        August 28, 2011

Cities have been tearing down crumbling, vacant houses for decades. The money for municipal demolition bills usually comes out of city budgets, but in Cleveland the housing crisis has started to change that equation.

Bill Beavers has lived on Cleveland’s Dove Street since 1967. But on a recent sunny morning, Beavers is sitting on a neighbor’s front porch, watching something he has never seen on his block before.

Across the street, a huge excavator is tearing through the front facade of a two-story wooden house. The top half of the house, windows and exterior wall fold as easily as cut weeds and tumble to the ground.

“Oh, it’s good to see them tear these old structures down because nobody wants to move in them,” Beavers says. “It costs too much to fix them up, you know?”

The house went into foreclosure two years ago, and when the family moved out, vandals stole the circuit panel and pipes. Other houses on the block are nicely kept up, but the street is in the 44105 zip code — which in 2007 had the dubious distinction of garnering the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

Saturated with foreclosures, the lender that took back the house couldn’t unload it for even $5,000.

“A property like that, on a street that’s otherwise relatively stable but [in a] depressed market, probably needs to come down because it has way too much need on the inside,” says Gus Frangos, head of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, which oversees these demolitions. “If you take these pockmarks out, all of a sudden you stabilize the street a little bit.”

Let’s Make A Deal

When the land bank started two years ago, Frangos thought the group would have to pay its demolition bill from its own budget. But then the economy worsened and the foreclosures piled up. Lenders stuck with crumbling houses found themselves on the hook in the Cleveland Housing Court for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of code violations.

Full story at:


Squatter problem balloons in Detroit

State law makes it hard to evict illegal residents, city claims

Darren A. Nichols         Detroit News        August 27, 2011

Detroit — The foreclosure crisis has led to a surge of complaints about squatting in Detroit, and city officials acknowledge they’re not sure what they can do about the problem.

In a city with more than 100,000 vacant properties, city officials and residents say they’re increasingly seeing people take over empty houses and call them their own. Once they’re in, it’s tough to get rid of them: Michigan law places the burden of proof on rightful owners, and the eviction process can take months.

Gretchen Barrow knows the problem all too well. She fought for months to remove two families in her neighborhood on the west side and fears the situation will only worsen.

“With families losing houses, they’ve got to go somewhere,” said Barrow, 57.

“They are canvassing the neighborhoods, and there are houses on every one of those streets. Our area has been hit with a number of abandoned houses and foreclosures, and that’s a major concern for us. I wish I knew how to tackle that, but I don’t have a clue.”

Squatting isn’t new, and its secretive nature makes it tough to track. But city officials say it’s spiking as one in every 339 city homes received foreclosure notices last month, according to RealtyTrac, an industry marketer.

City ombudsman Durene Brown points to a thick stack of complaints about squatting she’s received over the past two years. A few years ago, about 100 people a year called about the issue. Now, 300 do.

“Squatters are nothing new, but it’s much easier with so many people losing their homes and the city’s neglect at making sure (owners) are following our code enforcement,” Brown said.

“It’s all a big part of the quality-of-life issue. It keeps our neighborhoods unstable. We’ve got stable neighborhoods that now (have extra problems) because the city or the owner is not maintaining the property and leaving it open and dangerous. … Our senior citizens are pretty stuck.”

Full story at:


Thousands stuck in starter homes

By Rick Daysog       Sacramento Bee       August 28, 2011

They’re trapped, like so many members of their generation.

Steve and Tasha McLaughlin have had two kids since they bought their two-bedroom “Brady Bunch”-style house in South Natomas seven years ago. They need more room, but they can’t move: The house they bought for $256,000 is worth just $90,000, and an attempt to sell it failed.

“We are literally stuck,” said Tasha McLaughlin, 33. “There’s no light ahead.”

The McLaughlins and tens of thousands of others like them in the Sacramento region are unable to take the traditional second step on the American home ownership ladder. They are captive to outsized mortgages born in a real estate bubble, which have balances much higher than the homes are now worth.

During the boom years, young families could sell their first homes to buy larger ones, using the equity they built up in their starter models. But for those who bought at the height of the market, plunging prices have wiped out their equity and then some.

Many of these people haven’t lost their jobs and aren’t behind on their mortgage payments, so they don’t qualify for a loan modification that could shave off big chunks from their monthly housing payments.

Full story at:


Read the Label

Behold the energy-efficiency label—an idea whose time has come.

By Jenny Sullivan         Builder           August 30, 2011

Back in 2008 when product green-washing fears were at an all-time frenzy, leaving home buyers bewildered about which eco-claims were legit, visionary architect Michelle Kaufmann released a white paper proposing that all houses come with sustainability labels akin to the nutrition labels the FDA requires on food packaging. As a prototype, she mocked up a “sustainability facts” label for her acclaimed “Breezehouse,” itemizing key metrics such as its square footage, energy consumption, carbon emissions, and insulation R-values.

Kaufmann’s business model ultimately proved unsustainable through the deep freeze in banking (her prefab company closed its doors in 2009 and sold its design assets to Boston-based Blu Homes). But the labeling idea clearly had some sticking power. Last February, public builder KB Home put a similar concept into practice with the debut of its Energy Performance Guide (EPG) label, which now comes standard on every house it builds. Touted as the house equivalent of the miles-per-gallon (MPG) fuel efficiency rating for cars, the EPG sticker appeals to consumers’ wallets (and, secondarily, to their environmental conscience) by spelling out the estimated monthly costs for heating and cooling, appliances, and lighting. The sticker also includes a HERS yardstick that charts how the home’s energy consumption stacks up against other comparably sized new and resale homes.

Full story at:


Buyout program records raise questions

By Michael A. Smith      Galveston County Daily News        August 28, 2011

GALVESTON — Fair market value is a fundamental concept underpinning modern society.

The amount of money governments can raise to build and maintain roads, water and wastewater systems, traffic control systems, to pay police, firefighters, teachers, and on and on depends mostly on tax rates set by elected officials and fair market value of property subject to taxation.

The Galveston Central Appraisal District employs 13 appraisers who work year-round to determine fair market values of taxable real property in the county. The county, every city, school and college district and, ultimately, every resident who enjoys such things as potable water and mosquito control depend on its work.

The district’s determination of fair market value implies, and the whole system demands, a certain amount of objectivity and accuracy. 

So does the state of Texas, which routinely reviews districts to ensure appraisals are reasonably accurate.

More Than Reasonable?

How then to explain five high-end, waterfront houses in the Sands of Kahala Beach subdivision that a private appraiser working for the city of Galveston in a flood mitigation buyout program said had fair market values from 60 percent to 83 percent more than determined by the district?

A consultant who ran the buyout program for Galveston has said, and others also argue, that appraisal district values tend to be low. 

But many others disagree — including about 40,000 taxpayers who each year formally protest that their appraised values are too high.

Full story at:


City program has spent millions to improve East Austin neighborhood, but has it helped?

By Sarah Coppola        Austin American-Statesman         August 29, 2011

The City of Austin has spent more than $16 million over 20 years on a program meant to benefit residents who live near the Holly Power Plant in East Austin. But there are few tangible signs of that investment.

With the plant now closed and soon to be dismantled and the Holly Good Neighbor Program slated to end next year, many homes in the largely Hispanic, working-class area remain dilapidated. And public spaces that could benefit from public dollars, such as parks and sidewalks, are far from first-rate.

The program began with projects such as building an activity center and soundproofing homes but now also pays for cultural activities, such as the Pachanga Latino Music Festival, that critics say veer from its purpose.

City leaders call the program a success, but an American-Statesman review of records and interviews with officials and residents found lackluster oversight, a less-than-rigorous application process shepherded by one City Council office and an unclear mandate about how the money should be spent.

Full story at:


ACC plans for Highland Mall envision ‘new urbanist’ development

By Ralph Haurwitz         Austin American-Statesman        August 28, 2011

In planning the future of Highland Mall, Austin Community College and its partners envision a “new urbanist” setting with classrooms, administrative offices and a mix of residential, retail and other commercial development.

The portrait of a thriving public-private complex with perhaps 1,250 residential units and patches of open space emerges from four concept plans produced as the college acquired all of the land and some of the buildings at the North Central Austin site in a series of transactions totaling $41 million.

The American-Statesman obtained copies of the plans from ACC under the Texas Public Information Act.

College officials emphasized in interviews that development scenarios sketched out in the plans amount to possibilities, not certainties, for how the area might be revitalized into a blend of educational and private uses.

Full story at:


Lubbock council adopts new rules for distributing food to public

By Kellie Bramlet        Lubbock Avalanche-Journal      August 26, 2011

If you’re going to distribute food to the public, including the homeless, make sure it’s prepared properly and safely, the Lubbock City Council told the public with the passing of an amendment to a much-discussed ordinance.

The original ordinance stated if an individual or group wanted to distribute food to the public, they needed to have a permit and prepare the food in an approved kitchen.

Under the new amendment written by Councilwoman Karen Gibson, those distributing the food do not need a permit or approved kitchen, but they need to comply with standard food safety rules, including keeping the food heated or chilled, as necessary, before serving to prevent foodborne illnesses.

“I think it’s very sad that we let anyone serve anyone without any kind of safety net,” Gibson said.

The issue first arose in mid-July when several people giving lunch to homeless people in Overton Park were told they were violating an ordinance by a city of Lubbock environmental health specialist.

Councilman Todd Klein suggested doing away with the entire ordinance, stating it would be too difficult to enforce.

He called the amendment a slippery slope. Feeding the public was “an inherently private affair,” the councilman added.

The amendment passed on a 5-2 vote. Klein and Councilman Paul Beane voted against the amendment.

End of story:

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