Bo McCarver’s weekly housing news compilation – 4/14/2009


Frozen by the recession, the nation’s exurbs are folding. Thousands of unfinished tract developments mark both the boundaries of sprawl and an over-extended, credit card economy.

The abandoned projects are matched by vacant, foreclosed houses in cities where the new homeless have created shanty towns made of tents and debris.

Meanwhile, the architects of the debacle invest in more promising Wall Street ventures while taxpayers inherit their sleazy deals.

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

HUD’s Dollar Homes falls short of mission
By William Heisel        Los Angeles Times      April 12, 2009
Jerry and Carol Ptacek bounced from one cramped apartment to another most of their adult lives, so they could hardly believe their luck when they were able to buy a San Bernardino house for the bargain price of $63,000.

Nine years later, they are renters again — a testament to the failure of the federal government’s Dollar Homes program.

Congress launched the program in 1998 to clear the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s books of foreclosures and provide affordable housing. Local governments would buy the homes for $1, fix them up and resell them at a discount to poor families, who would get a chance to put down roots in the community.

At least that’s how it was supposed to work.

L.A. starts buying up foreclosed homes with federal aid
By William Heisel          Los Angeles Times      April 9, 2009
For years, Daniel Lubiano tended the roses in his front yard while watching the home across 82nd Street in South Los Angeles fall apart.

In foreclosure for nearly a year, the house had been neglected by tenants who refused to pay their rent. The stucco was chipped and dirty, and the yard was covered in weeds.

The empty carport behind the house became a favorite spot for teenagers trying to hang pairs of tennis shoes from electrical wires overhead. In all, there were 28 pairs dangling there.

“We spend a lot of time trying to make our house look nice,” said Lubiano, a 30-year-old mechanic. “It would be nice if we had people move in who really wanted to take care of the place.”

That’s exactly what federal and city officials are hoping.

Mortgage delinquencies soar in the U.S.
By Helen Chernikoff        Reuters       April 7, 2009
NEW YORK – More U.S. consumers are falling behind on their mortgages, an indication that the housing market has yet to hit bottom, a top credit bureau executive told Reuters.

Dann Adams, president of U.S. Information Systems for Equifax Inc, reported that 7 percent of homeowners with mortgages were at least 30 days late on their loans in February, an increase of more than 50 percent from a year earlier.

He also said 39.8 percent of subprime borrowers were at least 30 days behind on their home mortgage loans, up 23.7 percent from last year.

U.S. housing chief says mortgage rates will fall
Reuters       April 9, 2009
WASHINGTON – Interest rates on typical home loans will continue to fall from their current, record lows, the top U.S. housing official said on Thursday.

“I think you will see them continue to come down, based on everything that we’re doing, but recognize that they’ve already started to make a big difference,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shawn Donovan said on CNBC.

Houses, Decked Out for a Sale, Are Burglarize
By Patricia Leigh Brown     New York Times      April 12, 2009
PIEDMONT, Calif. – The Sunday open house is a sure sign of spring, a seasonal ritual in which marble-countered kitchens, light-filled master suites, spectacular rear gardens and closets galore are decorated to perfection to draw buyers.

It is a common ploy here and elsewhere to have professional decorators “stage” unoccupied homes that are on the market with borrowed furnishings and appointments to help fetch top dollar, especially now that real estate sales have wilted like a week-old flower arrangement.

But along with fragrant jasmine and wisteria in bloom, there is caution in the air here. The same painstaking efforts to attract buyers have also attracted thieves.

An unusual wave of burglaries has hit unoccupied houses for sale in this affluent 1.8-square-mile bedroom community in the hills east of Oakland, and it is testing the forced cheerfulness of real estate agents who are already reeling. Last weekend, two staged houses were burglarized in nearby Orinda, a wealthy suburb, robbed in the morning hours before planned afternoon open houses.

1Q home sales fall 28% for Amarillo
Consumer fear hurts slow period even more

By Karen Smith Welch        Amarillo Globe      April 12, 2009
The economic downturn that has frozen housing markets in other parts of the nation slid into Amarillo in January, February and March.

Sales of single-family homes in and around Amarillo and Canyon dropped 28 percent, from 694 in the first quarter of 2008 to 500 in the same period this year, according to Amarillo Association of Realtors numbers crunched by Prudential Ada broker Greg Glenn.

“That cold front came on through,” Glenn said. “The numbers aren’t good. There’s no way around that.”

Is America’s love affair with the “exburbs” over?
By Andy Sullivan         Reuters      April 9, 2009
GAINESVILLE, Virginia  – Jean Bell didn’t plan to take care of her neighbor’s lawn when she moved to this cluster of brick townhouses hard by the freeway.

But the house next door has sat vacant for the past year and a half, and the bank that owned it wasn’t keeping it up. So the retiree and her family have mowed and watered the grass to deter the burglars who have hit nearby developments.

“We all have to watch each other’s homes because we don’t want the property values to go down any more,” Bell says. “It’s scary, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Thirty-five miles from downtown Washington, it’s easy to find signs that America’s relentless suburban expansion may have petered out.

Facing slow growth, Dallas exurbs stuck with unused services
By Theodore Kim      Dallas Morning News      April 12, 2009
For the constellation of towns at Dallas’ frontier, the tough times have brought a reckoning.

In places like Celina and Sanger, Princeton and Ponder, the steady march of the suburbs has all but stopped.

Builders have gone under. Vacant lots now checker many subdivisions. And communities that not long ago were seemingly destined to become Dallas’ next great megaburbs are tempering their forecasts.

“Growth has come to a halt,” said Sheri Clearman, city secretary of Ponder.

Critics question fairness in help for developers
$14.3 million OK’d for downtown project, nothing for one in Sixth Ward

By Mike Snyder. Bradley Olson and Nancy Sarnoff     Houston Chronicle          April 11, 2009
In September 2004, neighborhood leaders, a developer and a City Council member approached city officials with a plan they pitched as an appealing combination of public and private benefits.

The deal was relatively simple: If the city would allow a Sixth Ward development authority to annex the land encompassing the Sawyer Heights development, revenue from increased property values would be used to transform part of the rutted, two-lane road leading to the project into a “signature boulevard” complete with an esplanade.

Mayor Bill White rejected the proposal, agreeing with then-Planning Director Bob Litke that the tax revenue from the Sawyer Heights project was needed for Houston’s general budget.

Less than two years later, the city negotiated an agreement to provide up to $14.3 million to reimburse the developer of the downtown Houston Pavilions project for certain public improvements.

Petition launched to halt construction of public housing in Galveston
Houston Chronicle        April 8, 2009
The Galveston Housing Authority’s plans to rebuild the city’s public housing stock after Hurricane Ike has drawn the ire of some local residents.
More than 1,900 residents have signed a “Stop The GHA” petition in opposition to the housing authority’s plans to rebuild 569 public housing units and construct another 2,500 affordable housing units that would be scattered throughout the Island.

The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

Housing authority to reiterate redevelopment plans
By Leigh Jones       Galveston County Daily News       April 9, 2009
GALVESTON – Few islanders were paying much attention to the Galveston Housing Authority after Hurricane Ike, until the agency announced it might ask the city for as much as $60 million to help fund its rebuilding effort.

The plan, which includes 569 units of public housing and 1,500 units of either public or affordable housing, has sparked strong criticism around the community, with almost 2,000 people signing an online petition opposing the plan.

Housing authority board member Ray Lewis will try to clarify the agency’s request and explain its plans for the existing public housing properties to the city council during a meeting today.

“There have been some misconceptions about what our plans are,” he said. “I hope to clear that up as much as I can.”

Possible holdup in GHA project
By Leigh Jones       Galveston County Daily News      April 12, 2009
GALVESTON – The Galveston Housing Authority will soon ask the city for money to help rebuild public housing units damaged by Hurricane Ike, Executive Director Harish Krishnarao told the city council Thursday.

Although Krishnarao had previously said he might ask for as much as $60 million for the entire redevelopment project, the first request will probably be for $30 million, he said.

The city is getting $267 million in federal disaster recovery money, some of which can be used for public housing.

How to get involved in the GHA
By Leigh Jones      Galveston County Daily News       April 13, 2009
The last time the Galveston Housing Authority excited controversy, its director was fired amid accusations of malfeasance and the federal government had charged the agency with segregation because too much public housing was concentrated in one part of the city.

Since then, the agency responsible for providing housing assistance to the island’s poor operated in relative obscurity and with little criticism. When it did make the news, it was for lauded improvements – establishing award-winning children’s programs and replacing two rundown, crime-ridden projects with new affordable housing developments.

But the housing authority recaptured public attention earlier this year when it announced plans to rebuild public housing damaged by Hurricane Ike and a strategy for increasing the amount of subsidized housing in the city.

More Squatters Are Calling Foreclosures Home
By John Leland      New York Times      April 9, 2009
MIAMI – When the woman who calls herself Queen Omega moved into a three-bedroom house here last December, she introduced herself to the neighbors, signed contracts for electricity and water and ordered an Internet connection.

What she did not tell anyone was that she had no legal right to be in the home.

Ms. Omega, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis. Through a small advocacy group of local volunteers called Take Back the Land, she moved from a friend’s couch into a newly empty house that sold just a few years ago for more than $400,000.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said about a dozen advocacy groups around the country were actively moving homeless people into vacant homes – some working in secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.

In addition to squatting, some advocacy groups have organized civil disobedience actions in which borrowers or renters refuse to leave homes after foreclosure.

Tarp Nation
Squatter villages arise from the ashes of the West’s booms and bust

By Scott Bradford       High Country News     March 16, 2009
Marie and Francisco Caro needed a home after they married, but like many people in California’s Central Valley, they didn’t have enough money to sign a lease or take out a mortgage.

They were tired of sleeping on separate beds in crowded homeless shelters, so they found a slice of land alongside the Union Pacific Railroad tracks in downtown Fresno. The soil was sandy and dry, prone to rising up into clouds when the autumn winds came. All around, farm equipment factories and warehouses loomed out of the dust, their walls coarse and sun-bleached like desert mountainsides.

Homelessness up as families on the edge lose hold
By Wendy Koch         USA TODAY        April 7, 2009
Cities and counties are reporting a sharp increase in homeless families as the economic crisis leads to job loss and makes housing unaffordable.
In Seattle, 40% more people are living on suburban streets. In Miami, calls from people with eviction notices have quadrupled.

“The demand from families with children has increased dramatically,” says Robert Hess of New York City’s Department of Homeless Services. Each month since September, shelter requests have been at least 20% higher than they were a year ago.

This Old Wasteful House
By Richard Moe       New York Times      April 7, 2009
NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.

Let’s begin with energy consumption and emissions. Forty-three percent of America’s carbon emissions come from heating, cooling, lighting and operating our buildings. Older homes are particularly wasteful: Homes built in 1939 or before use around 50 percent more energy per square foot than those constructed in 2000. But with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures could perform on a par with newer homes.

So how does a homeowner go green? The first step is an energy audit by a local utility. These audits can be obtained in many communities at little or no cost. They help identify the sources of heat loss, allowing homeowners to make informed decisions about how to reduce energy use in the most cost-effective way.

City council backs plan for prefab housing
Proposal for 550 units relies heavily on provincial funding that Victoria has yet to commit

By Doug Ward       Vancouver Sun        April 9, 2009
Vancouver city council is backing a proposal to provide 550 temporary housing units for the homeless, including prefabricated modular units, by the end of the year with funding for up to five years.

However, the proposal relies heavily on provincial funding, and Housing Minister Rich Coleman said there is no money for it in this year’s provincial budget.

The interim strategy involves placing 190 prefab units on city-owned land adjacent to the Drake Hotel in the Downtown Eastside and at the Old Continental Hotel on Granville Street.

“This is the boldest step yet from the city to aggressively deal with homelessness,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said.