Bo McCarver’s weekly housing news compilation – 3/17/2009

Six months after Hurricane Ike, Galveston’s poor are still shuffling about looking for housing. FEMA has finally opened a trailer park and simultaneously handed its emergency shelter program over to the housing authority. As the hotel vouchers expired, 400 residents could not be placed in housing so their stays were extended.

Meanwhile, legal intervention by Lone Star Legal Aid has forced the housing authority to replace all the devastated units. The authority had attempted to cut units from the inventory.

Half of Galveston’s elderly have left the island and pledged not to return.

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

Affordable-Housing Efforts in NYC Could Spread Nationwide
By Robin Shulman       Washington Post       March 15, 2009
NEW YORK — Shaun Donovan’s legacy as New York City housing commissioner is perhaps most apparent in places such as this sprawling, red-brick, low-rent building in the Bronks.

Donovan started a fund that provided nonprofit and small developers with capital to buy this and other buildings and keep the rents low. The fund has provided loans for 2,500 housing units. For tenants in this particular six-story building on Loring Place, Donovan is the man who helped keep them in their homes.

“I couldn’t afford to pay more,” said Carmen Torres, 63, who survives on disability payments and lives with her granddaughter. “I was scared they would raise the rent and kick me out.”

Now Donovan is secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is faced with bigger problems, including a soaring number of defaulting mortgages across the country. Yet Donovan says that the kind of fund he created in New York could be used to buy and renovate foreclosed homes.

Desperate homeowners easy prey for scammers
By Carolyn Said      San Francisco Chronicle     March 16, 2009
Exiled Nigerian princes are old hat.

The hottest come-on these days, clogging e-mail in-boxes, voice mail and radio airwaves, goes something like this: “Are you struggling with your mortgage? President Obama approved the new federal loan modification program. We can help lower your mortgage payment.”

It’s the foreclosure-rescue scheme, given up-to-the-minute credence by the fact that the president has in fact endorsed loan modifications, the reworking of home loans to make them more affordable.

Scores of individuals and companies have sprung into action, marketing their services to help homeowners stave off foreclosure. They charge thousands of dollars and promise to deliver huge monthly savings on mortgage payments.

Abandoned neighborhoods pose problems for residents left behind
By Andrea Jares         Fort Worth Star-Telegram        March 15, 2009
The hammering stopped around the second week in September, less than a month after she moved into her new three-bedroom town home in northern Tarrant County.

At the time, she thought that it was just a pause, a temporary halt to construction. But it soon became obvious that the builder had stopped working.

Now the homeowner – who asked that her name not be used because of safety concerns – is living amid blocks of half-built town homes, with drywall exposed to the elements and pieces of trim missing. People have dumped a dresser, a basketball hoop and an abandoned car in her neighborhood in the last few months, and she fears that vagrants will move in next.

The builder, Portrait Homes, says it has stopped building while it waits for the market to return.

More pricey houses in S.A. are being posted for foreclosure
By Jenifer Hiller      San Antonio Express-News     March 11, 2009
Bexar County’s rising foreclosure postings have snagged a new group of people: the well-to-do.

Most foreclosures happen with homes valued below $200,000 – the most popular price point in the San Antonio area. But the biggest percentage increases in postings this year are happening at expensive price points, according to data from the Addison-based Foreclosure Listing Service Inc.
Foreclosure postings on homes priced under $200,000 rose 22 percent in the first quarter, compared with the same time period last year.

But postings for homes priced in the $200,000s rose 65 percent. Postings for homes valued between $300,000 and $499,999 rose 71 percent.

HOA moves to foreclose on 84 homes
By Aissatou Sidime      San Antonio Express-News      March 16, 2009
In a rare move, a South Side homeowners association has filed to foreclose on 84 homes in the Mission Creek community because of unpaid association dues.
That’s 21 percent of the roughly 400 homes in the community, based on data from RexReport.com. The 84 are set to go on the auction block April 7 at the Bexar County Courthouse – an event that would devastate the neighborhood’s property values, experts say.

Judith Gray, an attorney hired as the auction trustee, said the association is foreclosing because many homeowners have not paid dues for several years, and the multiyear loss of those dues is making it difficult for the association to function and to provide services required by the city.

“We’ve got a lot of stubborn people who believe they do not have to pay homeowners dues,” Gray said. “They have on average not paid homeowners dues for two to three years.”

FEMA trailer park opens in Galveston
By Leigh Jones       Galveston County Daily News      March 13, 2009
GALVESTON – Rusty Gilliam has had his fill of frozen food.

For the last four months, Gilliam lived in the Best Western motel, where his kitchen was a microwave.

But tonight, six months to the day that Hurricane Ike wiped out his Crystal Beach home, Gilliam plans to use the shiny red pots and stove provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in his new temporary home to whip up one of his favorite dishes – pinto beans, rice and cornbread.

Deadline for FEMA hotel aid today
By T.J. Aulds       Galveston County Daily News     March 13, 2009
About 1,357 Galveston County families that have called hotels home since Hurricane Ike struck six months ago will be forced to find other means of housing starting this morning.

It’s checkout time for the federal government’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance.

In past disasters, housing programs for storm victims whose homes were lost to a hurricane remained under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hurricane Ike will be the first disaster in which the baton will be handed off to the local controlling agency for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – in this case the Galveston Housing Authority.

Gerry Stolar, FEMA’s branch office director, said of the 1,300-plus families still in hotel rooms, more than 800 are in Galveston. The rest are on the mainland.

Hundreds kicked out of FEMA hotel rooms
By T.J. Aulds       Galveston County Daily News      March 14, 2009
Rita Kirksey marked the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Ike by meeting with a Federal Emergency Management Agency community service representative in the cafeteria of a Galveston motel. She would have much rather been in an apartment.

Kirksey was among the more than 1,000 Galveston County residents who have been calling a hotel room home since the hurricane came ashore. Friday was the deadline for all those living in FEMA paid for hotel rooms to move out and move into apartments or rental houses.

There was a mass exodus at most of the hotels as more than half of the 1,261 families that were in government paid rooms on Friday morning were forced to check out. Still, about 400 were told they could stay in the hotels because there are simply no apartments ready for them or that their applications for extended housing assistance were not fully completed.

Many of isle’s elderly haven’t returned after Ike
By Rhiannon Meyers      Galveston County Daily News      March 13, 2009
GALVESTON – The winds howled, the water rose and Fletcher Harris, 85, tried to pry open his upstairs neighbor’s apartment door with a 10-inch crowbar.

When the door refused to budge, Harris, who has only one hand after a World War II injury, tried to tie himself to a stop sign before the post snapped in half.

He spent the night in 4 feet of storm surge before someone plucked him from the street and brought him, bloodied and muddy, to a shelter at Ball High School.

It took some persuading, but Dave Harris finally convinced his father to leave the island. A sheriff’s deputy found Harris sitting in a lounge chair outside his flooded town home two days after the storm, his clothes, socks and shoes still wet, Dave Harris said.

Six months after Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, Harris is living in a nursing home in Carrollton, north of Dallas. The former Galveston city councilman has no plans to return to the island where his father and grandfather survived the devastating 1900 Storm, Dave Harris said.

Although there is no official count, advocates for Galveston elderly say as many as half of the island’s elderly residents have not returned after Ike. They have become unwilling expatriates forced out by a lack of housing and medical services on Galveston Island, said Peggy Davis, manager of the Galveston Community Center.

Galveston Housing Authority to move forward with demolition
By Rhiannon Meyers      Galveston County Daily News       March 16, 2009
GALVESTON – The Galveston Housing Authority will move forward with the demolition of two public housing developments following an agreement signed between the housing authority and Lone Star Legal Aid.

The legal organization withdrew its complaint with the federal government after the housing authority agreed to replace all demolished public housing units and in the same bedroom size configuration that existed before Hurricane Ike destroyed the island’s public housing developments.

Lone Star Legal Aid in early March complained to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the housing authority was trying to circumvent federal laws governing the demolition of public housing by not securing written approval from HUD before moving forward with demolition.

San Antonio adopts green building code
By Anton Caputo       San Antonio Express-News       March 13, 2009
San Antonio took the first step of the mayor’s ambitious Mission Verde plan Thursday, passing new sustainable building codes aimed at making the city’s homes and buildings more energy- and water-efficient.

The new rules, which the City Council passed by a unanimous vote, call for all new buildings starting in 2010 to be 15 percent more energy-efficient than currently required.

That would jump to a target of 30 percent by 2012, with a goal of carbon-free buildings by 2030.

“Carbon-free buildings” could be powered by onsite renewable energy systems, like wind or solar, that don’t produce any greenhouse gases.

Cowtown’s Growing Green
(And we’re not talking about St. Patrick’s Day beer.)

By Pablo Lastra      Fort Worth Weekly      March 12, 2009
Fort Worth environmental activists have been struggling for years to save a few pockets of the tallgrass prairie that once covered Fort Worth, part of a living carpet that ran all the way to Canada. But who knew that the vanishing ecosystem would be extended – at least by a few hundred square yards – on a roof? On a building whose “roots” extend a couple of hundred feet into the ground? And that exists to preserve … plants?

It’s the kind of “green” confluence that might have seemed like fantasy a few years ago, at least in North Texas. But when the new home of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), just north of the Botanic Gardens, is finished in 2011, it really will feature a piece of walkable prairie on its roof, courtesy of a system developed by Texas Christian University students.

Rooftop gardens are one of the more visible ways to make a building easy on the environment, and BRIT’s new digs, possibly the greenest building in the state, will certainly draw attention here. But the truth is that all over Fort Worth, structures, parking lots, and indeed, the basic mindset of planners, developers, homebuyers, and builders are undergoing a quiet evolution. A long list of eco-friendly construction projects, like a solar-powered home that could stand for centuries, are challenging the norms of architecture in Fort Worth.

Sacramento and Its Riverside Tent City
By Katharine Seelye       New York Times       March 11, 2009
Housing the Homeless? Several readers have commented that the city of Sacramento seems to have a lot of vacant housing and wondered if it might be converted for use by the homeless people living in tent city. My colleague Vikas Bajaj, who has written extensively about foreclosures for The Times, checked the numbers:

I looked up how many homes and apartments are vacant in the Sacramento area and here are the numbers: 10.4 percent of rental housing units are vacant and 4.8 percent of owned units are vacant. The vacancy rates are higher than the rest of the country.

It seems that the city/county/state should at least be considering putting the homeless in the people-less homes and apartments that plague the area, rather than making permanent these squalid tent cities. They can probably acquire foreclosed homes for very little money and turn them into low-cost, affordable housing.

Popular treehouse faces city showdown
By John Krupa       Arkansas Democrat-Gazette       March 15, 2009
HIGHLAND – Gracie and Eli Shackelford’s treehouse is the envy of every pre-teen in the Hidden Valley subdivision.

Everyday after school, neighborhood kids race to the Shackelford property, climb the treehouse ladder, peer out the second-floor window and slip down the slide, laughing.

The treehouse isn’t as popular with Highland officials, however.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is meeting Tuesday to debate whether the treehouse violates city code, and if so, whether Highland should force its demolition.