Bo McCarver’s weekly housing news compilation – 10/27/2009

Confusion reins at Freddie Mac where the quasi-governmental agency cannot bridge the roles of oversight and profiteering. The organization was hit twice by negative news reports this week; one for gagging employees from disclosing dealings and another for failing to provide audit oversight to banks receiving stimulus money.

Meanwhile, FEMA continues to fumble and fret in Galveston. Mobile homes that were painfully slow in being delivered are now difficult to repossess from tenacious occupants. In other news from the island, the housing authority’s plan to rebuild units devastated by Hurricane Ike has drawn fire from housing advocates. This follows a stormy public hearing last week at which NIMBYs stated they wanted no public housing rebuilt.

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

Freddie Mac’s Secrecy Pacts Face Court Test

By Edmund Andrews   New York Times October 22, 2009

WASHINGTON — One year after the government took over and bailed out Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage finance company, federal regulators are blocking former employees from revealing information to investors who are suing the company for fraud, lawyers for shareholders say.

The Treasury has propped up Freddie Mac with more than $50 billion in taxpayer money since the company nearly collapsed more than a year ago, and officials warn that the company will probably need additional billions in the months ahead.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia and the Securities and Exchange Commission are already investigating whether the company misled investors about the risks it was taking with securities backed by subprime mortgages and no-document loans.

But in a battle that will surface on Friday in a federal courtroom in New York, the company and its primary government overseer, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, are trying to enforce secrecy agreements that scores of former employees signed as a condition for receiving severance payments when they left the company.

Freddie Mac, Given Oversight of Mortgage Mod Program, Falls Down on Job

By Paul Kiel ProPublica October 22, 2009

Since its March launch, the government’s $50 billion program to prevent foreclosures has been marked by confusion, delays and doubts. A little-noticed conclusion in a government report released on Wednesday reveals that the program’s auditor is no different: Freddie Mac—yes, that Freddie Mac—has been given responsibility for auditing the program. And it turns out, Freddie is stuck at square one.

As ProPublica and others have reported, homeowners have frequently been rejected for loan mods even though they appear to qualify. The Treasury Department tapped Freddie to police just that kind of thing.

Home Prices In August Up Fourth Straight Month

Reuters October 27, 2009

NEW YORK – U.S. home prices in August rose for the fourth straight month, surpassing forecasts and providing the latest sign that the hard-hit housing market is stabilizing after a three-year slump, according a report on Tuesday.

The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller composite index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas rose 1.2 percent in August from July, above the estimate of a 0.7 percent rise found in a Reuters poll. The increase, however, was less than the 1.6 percent seen in July, S&P said.

The composite index of prices in 10 metropolitan areas gained 1.3 percent in August after a 1.7 percent rise the previous month.

The monthly price increases helped the annual rates, with the yearly pace of declines in home prices slowing to a 10.6 percent drop in the 10-city index and a 11.3 percent decrease in the 20-city index.

Dallas-Fort Worth home prices drop 1.2% in S&P index

By Steve Brown   Dallas Morning News October 27, 2009

Dallas-Fort Worth home prices were down 1.2 percent from a year ago in the latest Standard & Poor’s / Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

But the closely-watched measure of local home prices was up in August from July – the sixth consecutive monthly increase. D-FW prices in the index were at the highest point since September 2008, the report released Tuesday shows.

The D-FW area had the smallest year-over-year decline among the 20 major U.S. cities Case-Shiller tracks.

Nationwide, home prices were down an additional 11.3 percent in August from a year ago. But the index showed an increase from July, which was hailed as more indication that home values across the country have bottomed out.

Homebuyer tax credit extension is debated

By Jaime Adame Abilene Reporter October 25, 2009

For David Grasso, the move to Abilene isn’t exactly his choice.

“That’s where the Air Force is putting me,” said Grasso, 29, a captain in the Air Force stationed in South Dakota.

Last week, Grasso was in town shopping for a home. Like many other first-time homebuyers, he’s eligible to receive a tax credit up to $8,000.

If the timing works — the tax credits are set to expire Nov. 30, though there is talk of extending the program — getting the credit would be a “bonus,” Grasso said.

But Grasso said he doesn’t want to use a tax credit to force him into buying a house he doesn’t want, saying “it’s not really going to affect if I buy a house, or even how much I spend on a house.”

Why homeowners stop making payments they can afford

By Monica Hatcher   Miami Herald October 24, 2009

Andres Duque thought he got a real steal when he paid $125,000 for his Little Haiti condo. But four years later, similar units are selling for $35,000 and even less.

And so, faced with the prospect of being underwater on his mortgage — owing more than the unit is worth — for the next 20 years, Duque, 33, made what seemed to him like a rational choice: to cut and run.

He stopped paying the mortgage, basically forcing the lender to take the condo off his hands through foreclosure.

“I was able to pay off all my credit cards,” said Duque, who is biding his time in the condo, waiting until they come and evict him. “In a way, it was the best thing that happened to me because all my income is not being consumed by this freaking monster of a debt.”

Court Deals Blow to Owners of Apartment Complex

By Charles Bagle   New York Times October 22, 2009

The state’s highest court dealt a potentially crippling blow on Thursday to the owners of the sprawling Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village complexes in Manhattan when it ruled that they improperly began charging market rents on thousands of apartments.

The ruling by the Court of Appeals may leave the current owner, a partnership of Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty, and the former owner, Metropolitan Life, liable for an estimated $200 million in rent overcharges and damages owed to tenants of about 4,000 apartments.

In a 4-to-2 decision, the court said the owners improperly raised rents beyond certain set levels at the complexes while receiving tax breaks from the city for major renovations.

The ruling could affect landlords of as many as 80,000 apartments across the city who may also have improperly raised rents and deregulated apartments while receiving special tax breaks.

But the immediate and most devastating impact was on the Tishman Speyer partnership, which was already facing extreme financial difficulties after paying a record $5.4 billion in 2006 for the properties near the East River. The owners are running out of cash to pay building loans, and analysts have said it is highly likely the partnership will default by December. If the owners are forced to reimburse tenants, analysts say it would only hasten the path to default.

Affordable? U.N. Puts a Questioning Eye on New York’s Housing

By Mike Reicher   New York Times October 23. 2009

Everybody knows New York City is an expensive place to live. But the United Nations wants to know if affordable housing is so tough to come by that it actually violates human rights.

The United Nations has assigned an official, “a special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing,” to check the city’s affordable housing. The rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, is to tour the city for the next three days with housing advocates and city officials to “hear the voices of those who are suffering on the ground,” she said.

Pedestrian-friendly Miami 21 zoning code approved

Four years after the discussion began, Miami commissioners Thursday adopted an urban-oriented, pedestrian-friendly zoning code.

By Charles Rabin   Miami Herald October 22, 2009

Miami commissioners on Thursday finally passed the city’s most comprehensive zoning code ever — one that promises a healthier city and friendlier walking corridors — after making dozens of tweaks before a City Hall packed with neighborhood groups.

After more than four years of debate and literally hundreds of public meetings, commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday evening to approve the cornerstone of Mayor Manny Diaz’s development plans for Miami.

Poll: Voters want tough land-use law

Ashby high-rise controversy cited for apparent turnaround in public opinion

By Bradley Olson   Houston Chronicle October 19, 2009

More than two-thirds of Houstonians are ready for tighter land-use restrictions in the wake of several high-profile conflicts between developers and neighborhoods in recent years, according to a Houston Chronicle poll.

Out of 601 people surveyed between Oct. 12 and 15, 71 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree that “Houston should enact tougher land use restrictions.”

Housing group alleges bias by town of Sunnyvale

By Ray Leszcynski   Dallas Morning News October 27, 2009

The Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas fair housing agency, filed court documents against the town of Sunnyvale on Monday, citing a failure to live up to a 2005 agreement and discriminatory practices the plaintiffs say date to the town’s incorporation.

The action marks the latest salvo by plaintiffs in a legal battle that has dragged on for more than 20 years over the right to develop affordable housing in Sunnyvale, a rural enclave of mostly upper-end homes in eastern Dallas County.

Monday’s filing was triggered after the town denied a multifamily development on ICP property, the third low-income housing development attempted unsuccessfully in Sunnyvale since 2008.

There are no apartments and no Section 8 residents in Sunnyvale, where the average home has a market value of $274,081.

“This was an opportunity to see if they would do the right thing,” said Betsy Julian, ICP president.

Plaintiff’s attorney Mike Daniel, who has been working to add such housing to Sunnyvale since 1985, said he does not know how long it will take to get a ruling or even which judge will hear the case.

Advocacy groups oppose public housing plan

By Leigh Jones   Galveston County Daily News October 22, 2009

GALVESTON — The leaders of two of the island’s social advocacy groups oppose the Galveston Housing Authority’s latest plan to rebuild 569 public housing units.

Both David Miller, president of the Galveston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston Coalition for Justice, want the housing authority to rebuild all of the housing demolished after Hurricane Ike on the four properties the agency owns north of Broadway.

Harish Krishnarao, housing authority executive director, on Monday recommended rebuilding 340 apartments, row houses and duplexes on the old public housing sites and scattering 229 throughout other island neighborhoods.

2nd chance to weigh in on GHA plan

By Leigh Jones   Galveston County Daily News October 27, 2009

GALVESTON — Galveston Housing Authority officials Thursday will hold the second of four public meetings on a proposed rebuilding plan.

Last week, Executive Director Harish Krishnarao announced his recommendation to build 340 town houses and apartments on the sites of four public housing developments demolished after Hurricane Ike. Krishnarao wants to scatter another 229 housing units across the island.

The housing authority board of commissioners voted unanimously earlier this year to rebuild all 569 public housing units lost to the storm. That decision was part of an agreement with advocacy group Lone Star Legal Aid, which threatened to file an injunction against any rebuilding plans that decreased the number of public housing units on the island.

FEMA mobile home residents face evictions

By T.J. Aulds and Rhiannon Meyers   Galveston County Daily News October 25, 2009

Before Hurricane Ike, Sidney Lampman rented the first floor of her sister’s two-story house on West Hunter Drive in Old Bayou Vista. The hurricane flooded the house and, even though Lampman rented the property, rather than owned it, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her a mobile home while she looked for a new place to live.

This month, the agency sent Lampman a letter telling her she must move out of the mobile home because there are plenty of apartments and rental houses in the area.

FEMA mobile homes for sale – well, sort of

By T.J. Aulds   Galveston County Daily News October 25, 2009

Frank Kaplan hopes to be out of his government-issued mobile home and back into his own house in Galveston in time for Christmas.

As he nears that goal, he’s had plenty of offers to buy the mobile home, including one from guys who want to put it on a deer lease.

Marty Rogers and his wife, Barbara Davis, who are living in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mobile home park in High Island, would like to buy their mobile home and put it on the lot where their house stood in Gilchrist before Ike washed it away. At a community meeting in San Leon last week, about six people who live in FEMA trailers said they want to buy their mobile homes.

Charities recruit officials to find Ike victims

By Rhiannon Meyers   Galveston County Daily News October 27, 2009

Charities armed with federal dollars to help hurricane victims find help Monday recruited Galveston County mayors, constables, firefighters and postmasters to help them track down people still living in hurricane-damaged homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Recovery for Ike Survivors Enterprise, operated by Lutheran Social Services, $24.3 million to hire case managers from six local charities. The case management program is a first for FEMA. Case managers are charged with finding people who need help repairing or rebuilding their houses, buying new appliances, paying their rent or seeking treatment for mental or physical health problems.

But officials with those charities said they’ve had trouble finding hurricane victims who’ve slipped through the cracks.

More funds could go toward winterizing homes

By Tracey Idell Hamilton   San Antonio Express-News October 27, 2009

Under pressure from a group representing many of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, CPS Energy officials agreed Monday to consider adding millions more dollars to the utility’s weatherization program.

COPS/Metro Alliance says CPS promised to shift $25 million from its $900 million conservation program to more weatherization. But others at the meeting, hosted by Mayor Julián Castro, dispute that, saying the parties agreed to no firm figure and that CPS still needed to crunch the numbers.

Making that shift in the Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan could jeopardize CPS’ goal of saving 771 megawatts of power by 2020, utility officials say, because other parts of the plan have a bigger conservation payoff. Saving those megawatts represents a large power plant CPS would not have to build, reducing carbon emissions, along with demand.

For better or worse, redevelopment is changing Fort Worth’s oldest neighborhood

By Alex Branch   Fort Worth Star-Telegram October 25, 2009

FORT WORTH — John Ledbetter bought his two-story colonial-style home on Samuels Avenue in 1965, back when black Angus cattle could be seen from the bluff, grazing near the shadows of the Fort Worth skyline.

Large Victorian homes and smaller cottages filled the city’s oldest neighborhood, perched just northeast of downtown. Residents walked to the small Courthouse Market for groceries.

Steeped in tradition, some Samuels Avenue homes dated back to the 1870s and were treasured, remaining in families for generations.

Even later, as many homes fell into disrepair and were marked with graffiti, and as gangs clashed in the 1990s, families resisted the urge to leave.

“It was kind of like our little secret back here,” Ledbetter said. “Homes were hardly ever for sale. You’d watch children grow up next door and then watch them raise their own kids there. Change was not something you saw a lot of.”

But today, few Fort Worth neighborhoods are changing as dramatically. Upscale town homes, condominiums and apartments have risen along the south end of the bluff where old or dilapidated houses and buildings once stood.

Veteran Fort Worth firefighter fights to take control of his life after becoming homeless

By Alex Branch   Fort Worth Star-Telegram October 27, 2009

http://www.star-telegram.com/804/story/1712793.html?storylink=omni_popular

FORT WORTH — From his bunk in the Salvation Army homeless shelter, Greg LaRue can hear the wailing sirens of fire trucks as they roar down East Lancaster Drive.

For most homeless people, it is background noise. Another fire. Another person sick. Another person injured.

But to LaRue, the sound is a stabbing reminder of the life he had, the career he cherished and the challenges he must overcome.

For 17 years, LaRue was a proud Fort Worth firefighter. Among the ranks known as the city’s bravest, a man who ran into burning buildings, aided wreck victims and pulled people from floodwaters.

He often rode an engine along East Lancaster, paying little attention to homeless people along the away.

“I had my dream job,” he said.

But his life unraveled about two years ago. Drug addiction, fueled in part by marital problems, took his home, his car and his career. Finally, he says, it took his dignity.

Vet was given shelter but goes back to tent

By Vincent Davis   San Antonio Express-News October 25, 2009

Patrick Owens had found a way out of being homeless, and for four months, he grappled with it.

Taken in by a neighboring couple, the bearded, pony-tailed 60-year-old Vietnam veteran had hot showers and a roof over his head after a decade of living outdoors, most recently in a tent in the Cibolo Creek basin in Schertz.

Last summer, Owens got an attorney to file for Social Security disability benefits. The agency agreed he was entitled to them but required a “third-party payee” to manage his finances after determining he needed help looking after the money.

But Owens has gone back to living in a tent. The third-party payee red tape was too much for him.