Bo McCarver’s weekly housing news compilation – 2/10/2009

As foreclosures convert homeowners to renters, construction of additional multi-family units to accommodate the surge languishes: the recession renders little money for developers to use. The effects of the recession also impact upscale housing as condo owners bail.

And a new piece of research on the “broken windows” theory suggests that sprucing up a neighborhood has more effect on crime than busting people for minor offenses. (See the last article.)

For a pdf version of the full stories, plus contextual articles in economic, environmental and legal areas, contact Bo McCarver at bmccarver@austin.rr.com

Affordable housing hits a wall in time of rising need
New construction has stalled across the US, as the faltering economy chokes off a key source of funding.

By Jeremy Kutner Christian Science Monitor February 6, 2009
Construction has ground to a halt at 270 Centre Street. Housing for low-income Bostonians was to be built here, helping to ease one of the tightest housing markets in America. Now an excavator sits idle in an empty lot covered with snow.

The holdup? Financing for the 30-unit project disappeared almost overnight – just as it has for hundreds of other efforts to supply new affordable rental housing across the US.

With the whole housing market in a deep freeze, it’s perhaps not surprising that fewer low-income units – which require huge subsidies to get built even in flush times – are being constructed. But the slowdown is happening at a time when rising foreclosures are forcing more people into the rental market.

Fannie, Freddie to channel mortgage rescue: sources
By Patrick Rucker Reuters February 8, 2009
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is crafting a mortgage-rescue program that would see Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ease payments for hundreds of thousands of borrowers and offer a model for Wall Street to do the same, sources familiar with the plan said.

Late last week, officials from the Treasury Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development worked with the companies’ regulator to agree on standards for who could get relief and how they might coax other finance companies to follow their lead, said two industry sources familiar with the deliberations.

In Florida, Despair and Foreclosures
By Damien Cave New York Times February 7, 2009
LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. – Desperation has moved into this once-middle-class exurb of Fort Myers, where hammers used to pound.

Its straight-ahead stare was hidden amid the chatter of 221 families waiting for free bread at Faith Lutheran Church on a recent Friday morning; and it appeared a block away a few days earlier, as laid-off construction workers in flannel shirts scavenged through trash bags at a home foreclosure, grabbing wires, CDs, anything that could be sold.

“I knew it was coming,” said Gloria Chilson, 56, the former owner of the house, as she watched strangers pick through her belongings. “You take what you can; you try not to care.”

Welcome to the American dream in high reverse. Lehigh Acres is one of countless sprawling exurbs that the housing boom drastically reshaped, and now the bust is testing whether the experience of shared struggle will pull people together or tear them apart.

The Downside for Condos in a Downturn
By Teri Karush Rogers New York Times February 6. 2009
DURING the recent boom, buyers who coveted condos for their sex appeal could also make the case that condos were a smarter choice than co-ops.

In theory, you didn’t have to prostrate yourself, financially and otherwise, before a board for approval, and you could sell or rent pretty much to whomever you chose, should the need, or whim, arise. You could also put down a lot less money than the 20, 25, or even 50 percent of the purchase price customarily demanded by co-ops.

But as the city’s fortunes buckle and heave, these very differences have potentially rendered some of the city’s condo buildings dangerously exposed to the downturn. Then there is a distinction many condo buyers probably dismissed as a boring legality: If a condo unit is the subject of a foreclosure, the bank gets first dibs on the equity. With real estate prices way off their peak, that means some condo buildings will collect nothing but dust from residents who have also failed to pay their common charges, leaving the remaining owners to shoulder the burden of higher costs or reduced services.

What does it take to condemn a house?
City of Lufkin claims to have become more aggressive in its fight against blight of vacant, run-down properties
By Brittony Lund Lufkin Daily News February 08, 2009
The city says it has gotten more aggressive in condemning and demolishing vacant houses over the past two years.

In an effort to clean up Lufkin and get rid of dangerous and ugly eyesores, Dale Allred, director of inspection services, said the inspections department condemns, on average, two houses a day.

Abandoned or vacant houses cause numerous problems, according to Allred. Besides of their slow deterioration turning into an ugly sight in the neighborhood, the houses also lower the property values of surrounding houses.

Regional group makes funding recommendations
By Leigh Jones Galveston County Daily News February 10, 2009
GALVESTON – The regional organization charged with distributing $814 million in federal disaster aid to 12 counties pummeled by Hurricane Ike wants 51 percent of the money to go to Galveston County communities.The Houston-Galveston Area Council has recommended that $179.8 million be given to the city of Galveston and another $236.7 be sent to Galveston County.

The money is part of a $2.1 billion disaster relief package approved by former President George W. Bush late last year.

FEMA finds 650,000 families ineligible for housing aid
Agency says many misunderstand its mission.

Associated Press February 09, 2009
HOUSTON – People who say they were unfairly denied federal aid for housing assistance after Hurricane Ike have started claiming in lawsuits that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has created a flawed inspection system that withholds help from deserving families.

More than 730,000 families have registered with FEMA to receive money for home repairs, mobile homes or other housing services that became available after Hurricane Ike caused widespread damage in September. So far, FEMA has paid out about $371 million to 82,000 families, declaring almost 650,000 families ineligible for aid.

FEMA seeks to withhold criteria used to determine Dolly aid
By Jerry Roebuck McAllen Monitor February 6, 2009
BROWNSVILLE – The Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking to withhold criteria its inspectors used in deciding whether to award storm damage claims after Hurricane Dolly, saying it is not bound by federal law to disclose them.

Releasing those standards would limit the agency’s discretion in deciding future cases and “dramatically change” the rules governing how it operates, the agency said in federal court filings.

FEMA’s response comes more than two months after 14 low-income Rio Grande Valley residents sued the agency, questioning denial letters they received after applying for emergency assistance.

New life after Rita: Volunteer-repaired home puts Port Arthur woman back in her kitchen
By Dee Dixon Beaumont Enterprise February 6, 2009
Once the crowd that had come to see her newly rebuilt house left, 78-year-old Elizabeth Thigpen and her friends gathered in her living room and did what they longed to do – fellowship.

Thanks to Hurricane Rita it’s been almost four years since Thigpen’s house of 68 years has felt like home.
“Ooh, yeah. I’m going to run all over the church when I get there,” a joyous Thigpen said with a laugh.

After the storm, the leaks were so bad she had to place rolled-up blankets along the wall to absorb the moisture.

City considers apartment moratorium
By Rhiannon Meyers Galveston County Daily News February 8, 2009
LEAGUE CITY – Apartments may have worn out their welcome in League City.

Phyllis Sanborn, mayor pro tem, will ask city council members on Tuesday to discuss a moratorium on the development of new multifamily housing until the city fixes problems with traffic and infrastructure.

In an e-mail to constituents this week, Mayor Toni Randall railed against expanding apartments.
“Our roads are beyond capacity, our infrastructure is straining at the seams, and we are all scrambling just to keep up, and here come another 600 units with their schoolable children and several cars per household,” she said.

The city’s relationship with apartment developers became strained after the Tuscan Lakes developer successfully pushed for an amendment to an agreement with the city that would allow for 567 new units. Although density studies must first be done before Johnson Development can nail down plans, the new units would bring the number of apartments in Tuscan Lakes to 1,641, said LaShondra Holmes, planning manager.

East End residents fight plan for Metro rail overpass
By Rosanna Ruiz Houston Chronicle February 9, 2009
David Mansker sees dark skies from the office window of his East End used-car lot.

Metro’s plans for light rail include land right in front of Harrisburg Auto Sales, which Mansker and his brother Donald have owned for more than 30 years. The brothers already have given up 40 feet of their lot at Harrisburg and Linwood for the new rail line, but are not sure the business will survive the construction.

“If (customers) can’t get into our place,” Mansker said, “then they’ll go down the road instead.”
The brothers are not the only ones wringing their hands over the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Harrisburg rail project. Many in the area worry what will happen to the predominantly Hispanic community if Metro proceeds with its plans.

Breakthrough on ‘broken windows”
Boston Globe February 8, 2009
LOWELL – The year was 2005 and Lowell was being turned into a real life crime-fighting laboratory.

Researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work – clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded.
In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

Then researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University sat back and watched, meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots.

The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated “bro ken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.