Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More Road Home Math

The Po Boy has some interesting information about the Road Home. I agree with Bayou St John David at moldy city that the press is not paying close attention but the TP is also right about Road Home. The Gov. wants her name attached to it but wasn't proactive about setting it up.

The state could have issued RFP's for implementation and began setting up to operate the program even before there money was approved. Mississippi's had already been approved and we all knew that something was going to be approved, even if the details weren't final.

I think the ICF contract was a mistake and other more efficient means could have been found but perhaps the Feds were driving that part. State Treasurer John Kennedy (and presumptive candidate for Governor), suggested early on that the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency run the program. I don't know if they could have handled it or not, they couldn't have been any worse than ICF.

I don't, for example, see why local savings and loans, title companies, appraisers and lawyers couldn't have been used to process the grants, much like a mortgage. There would have been a need for someone to do the inspection and valuation, although local insurance adjusters have the necessary training for that as well.

If 110,000 applications are processed and ICF gets $756,000,000. That works out to $6,800 per application. I think you can process a mortgage for a lot less than that. If the average grant remains around $80,000 then their fee will be about 8.5% of the typical grant. A typical house closing costs 2-3%.

As I written before, In most of the country you can refinance an existing mortgage in a week. She recently purchased a condo as temporary quarters for us. The cost fell within the general range of the Road Home grants. It cost around $1,200 to close that loan. It took a little more than a month, primarily due to a title issue with the seller but also partly due to the current insurance problems. Neither issue is likely to affect the Road Home, which as far as I can tell is not doing a title search. I wonder how many grants are being made to people without clear title to the property? Or without current property insurance? They don't seem to be checking that either.

I don't see what's so different from a typical real estate or mortgage transaction.

The parts are pretty much the same;
  1. Verify the value of the property - This is what appraisers do.
  2. Verify the ownership of the property - This is what title companies do.
  3. Verify the loss and estimate the cost of repair - This is what adjusters do.
  4. Verify the payments already made.
    • This is an additional step.
  5. Calculate the Grant. - This should take no more than a few seconds.
    • This is an additional step plus there are the grants for elevation and mitigation
  6. Send out a determination and option letter.
  7. Close the grant. - This is what lawyers do.
  8. Cut a check. - I don't understand why checks can't be given at the closing, just like a sale.
I'm probably missing something. For one thing they don't need to verify the income of the applicant, unless they are going for one of the forgivable low interest loans. I don't understand why can the federal government can process trillions of dollars in home mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with relatively little effort and this Road Home thing takes so much effort.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Daiquiri Crusade

I have a long standing crusade (jihad) to restore the Daiquiri to is rightful place as the most sublime cocktail, especially suited to warm sub-tropical evenings..

According to Wikipedia
The name Daiquiri is also the name of a beach near Santiago, Cuba, and an iron mine in that area. The cocktail was invented about 1905 in a bar named Venus in Santiago, about 23 miles east of the mine, by a group of American mining engineers. Among the engineers present were Jennings Cox, General Manager of the Spanish American Iron Co., J. Francis Linthicum, C. Manning Combs, George W. Pfeiffer, De Berneire Whitaker, C. Merritt Holmes and Proctor O. Persing.

The Daiquiri was one of the favorite drinks of the writer Ernest Hemingway.
Originally the drink was served in a tall glass packed with cracked ice. A teaspoon of sugar was poured over the ice and the juice of one or two limes was squeezed over the sugar. Two or three ounces of rum completed the mixture. The glass was then frosted by stirring with a long-handled spoon. Later the Daiquiri evolved to be mixed in a shaker with the same ingredients but with shaved ice. After a thorough shaking, it was poured into a chilled flute glass. An article in the March 14, 1937 edition of the Miami Herald as well as private correspondence of J.F. Linthicum confirm the recipe and early history.
It's sometimes amusing , sometimes frustrating and occasionally maddening to attempt to order this classic cocktail, even in gourmet restaurants and elegant bars. I have been told,
  • We don't have a blender.
  • We don't have and strawberries.
  • We don't make frozen drinks.
  • Our bartender doesn't know how to make one.
To the first three I usually reply "Good". To the last I offer to show them how to make one.

I'm not sure where and when the slide started but it was almost certainly when someone decided to add strawberries in a blender with rum. Creating the Strawberry Daiquiri . Perhaps the Banana Daiquiri was first, I don't know, The Mountain Top bar in St. Thomas claims to have invented that variation. I can find no one who admits to inventing the strawberry version. The addition of sweet fruit destroyed the sublime flavor balance of a well made Daiquiri.

New Orleans has contributed mightily to the debasement of the Daiquiri with the drive through Daiquiri Stand. The adaptation of the Slurpee machine to make gallons of frozen, alcoholic sludge and calling it a Daiquiri is certainly the low point.

I've been trying almost single handed to turn that around. I'm not doing very well.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Nineteenth Century Recovery

I wonder why all of the programs aimed at helping New Orleans recover in the twenty first century are so nineteenth century.

I first started thinking about this during the early days when I was flying in to work and the plane was filled mostly with FEMA contractors. They were debris removal contractors, FEMA trailer installers and people like that.

One fellow I was seated next to particularly interested me. He described how FEMA's Primary Contractors were dispatching trucks for debris removal in the early days of the clean-up. There was a meeting where a "grid" or "sector" would be identified for debris removal. Since this was, by that time, mostly the pick-up of debris from individual cleanup operations. I could not see why there was any need to dispatch pickup to a specific area. Why not let the pick-up contractors roam the city and pick-up whatever they found? Certainly an advisory as to where pick-up was needed might be in order to allow the contractors to find the material.

Later I began wondering about why they needed a meeting at all. Wouldn't an email or text message advisory be quicker and cheaper? Why not pay the haulers based on the material delivered? If a truck hauled 25 yards of debris, give the guy a chit for payment for 25 yards. Why not have a bar code on the truck and a hand held terminal for a FEMA clerk to verify delivery like a car rental return? The whole process seemed inefficient and designed to support a top heavy bureaucracy.

As I thought further, why not a eBay for Recovery? Why not let individual debris removal contractors bid on the cost of removal? Why not let FEMA establish on a regular basis the amount of debris needing to be removed and then allow a sort of "best price" auction?

The guy I spoke to on the airplane was an entrepreneur. He was willing to risk his money to purchase or lease equipment and come here to make money helping us clean up. The system seemed optimized to reduce his compensation and maintain compensation for the bureaucracy and it's adjuncts. It seems organized to frustrate the small entrepreneur.

The various planning Urban Design exercises have also been relatively uninspiring technically. Outreach and dissemination of information has been highly channelized through traditional processes. Real citizen involvement has been extremely limited as the opportunities for input have been. Why wasn't there a major effort to drive this process through Internet collaboration? Face to face meetings are necessary so is out reach to everyone everywhere.

I also wonder why the Road Home is so people intensive. Why do supplicants need to brave a gauntlet of security to submit to an interrogation and an inspection of the premises? The whole process seem excessively intrusive, unfriendly, opaque and intimidating.

It seems most of the information needed to verify the loss should be readily available on line especially if the insurance and mortgage companies opened their records. Most people have been here and done that.

Why is it my Credit Union can, over the phone, tell me the approximate value of my home and approve a loan without an interrogation? Most people in most places can refinance a home in a week. Why does the Road Home take so long?

Why hasn't some entrepreneur created an online market in reconstruction? KatrinaBay. There are several billion insurance/loan/grant dollars up for grabs. No one seems to be mobilizing to grab them. I have a over well into six figures ready to spend and have no way to find reliable ways to spend them.

It seems we are doing things the old fashioned way.

In the construction industry there is a company called F. W. Dodge, a division of McGraw Hill which distributes Dodge Reports. They are brief descriptions of a project out for bid, including approximate size and a list of the building components included along with contract information. Dodge collects the plans for the projects from Architects and Engineers and makes those plans available so subcontractors and suppliers can quote on the things they provide. They collect bid results and publish them. There used to be similar local organizations including the Commerce Business Daily. The Construction Industry Association helped disseminate similar information. to the construction industry.

Why can't there be something like that for Home Owners reconstructing their houses? It would be hampered by a number of issues unique to this situation but it should be possible. A reverse eBay might be a good model. Compiling accurate information on the project could be a problem. Individual Owners would be hampered by a lack of familiarity with construction methods and terminology.

Somehow project quantities would need to be captured, and project specifications defined. The quantities would require some sort of front end, a lot like the software insurance adjusters use. There would need to be a specification template where people could define the kinds of materials they would like to have. Much of the work would be fairly simple, gypsum board is gypsum board, although finish selection would be difficult, since there can be so much variation.

Why is nobody trying? Why is there so little information available to the public?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What is the meaning of "The"?

I vaguely remember that antediluvian time when preservationists in an unholy alliance with the Real Estate Industry revived the use of the word Faubourg to romantically describe the various extensions of the City. The Faubourg Marigny was the first I can remember coming into popular use to describe the area down river of the French Quarter.

I recall the area also commonly being called Marigny. Sometime relatively recently people have been referring to the area as "The" Marigny. I have even heard that form used by news readers and in the press. I don't ever recall hearing or reading it until recently, after the flood. I wonder if it is a postdiluvian affectation or if I just never noticed it. I have also heard the "the" prepended to other neighborhoods like Treme and Bywater. That makes it seem more like an affectation. I wonder where it came from. This has been bugging me for a while. I've been tempted to post a comment on other bloggs when it was used. I have considered asking some of my blogger buddies why they use that construction but it never seemed quire appropriate in the context of a weighty discussion.

On related matter I often wonder if blog(g)er and blog(g)s have one "g" or two.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Road Home Math - Appraisal Adjustment

One of the three inputs required for the Road Home one is the pre-storm value. There are four approved methods of checking and establishing the value;
  1. The Road Home estimates a value using commercial home sales databases.
  2. Broker Price Opinion, essentially a letter from a real estate broker establishing a value
  3. A post-storm appraisal establishing the pre-storm value
  4. A pre-storm arms length appraisal.
In theory the most accurate should be the pre-storm appraisal, because it represents a professional appraisal done by a disinterested appraiser. If your home was purchased since January 1, 2000 or you refinanced you home since that date an appraisal would almost certainly have been done. If you don't have a copy of the appraisal you may be able to get a copy from the Mortgage Company (Lender), the Title Company or the appraiser. If the Mortgage Company or the Title Company don't have copies, they may be able to tell you who the appraiser was and how to contact them. Appraiser are licensed by the state so the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board may be able to give you the contact information if you have a name.

The Road Home describes how to adjust pre-storm appraisals for inflation;
To determine the pre-storm value, homeowners may provide an “arm’s length” appraisal (i.e., an appraisal ordered by a lender in conjunction with a loan, not an appraisal ordered by the homeowner) that was completed from January 1, 2000, up to the day before one of the hurricanes affected the homeowner (August 28, 2005, or September 23, 2005). These appraisals will be adjusted to reflect the market rate as of the second quarter of 2005, using figures released by Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (
Note that the Road Home refers to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight Home Price Index (HPI). I have copied the relevant section as of today below. The index is recalculated quarterly so the index will change as time goes by but the relative differences should not

New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 1999 4 126.11 (0.65)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2000 1 128.42 (0.65)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2000 2 128.94 (0.62)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2000 3 130.76 (0.62)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2000 4 132.07 (0.63)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2001 1 136.02 (0.61)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2001 2 137.87 (0.60)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2001 3 138.93 (0.61)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2001 4 140.6 (0.60)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2002 1 141.2 (0.62)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2002 2 143.06 (0.63)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2002 3 145.64 (0.63)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2002 4 147.88 (0.63)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2003 1 149.74 (0.64)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2003 2 151.63 (0.64)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2003 3 153.42 (0.66)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2003 4 157.58 (0.74)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2004 1 159.36 (0.74)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2004 2 162.86 (0.75)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2004 3 167.01 (0.81)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2004 4 170.86 (0.84)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2005 1 172.56 (0.88)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2005 2 176.18 (0.86)
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 2005 3 180.54 (0.97)

This index is for the entire New Orleans Metropolitan Statistical Area. This means it is an average index for the entire area including Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes. Since house prices and price changes vary widely across the area this index is a relatively crude measure. In some cases (depressed neighborhoods) it may overstate the value and in rapidly appreciating areas it my understate the value.

I'm not sure how the Road Home is actually applying these values but if they are using the literal method above they are understating the value by using the end of the Second Quarter rather than by interpolating the value the additional two months until Katrina. Note that the 1index was 176.18 at the end of the Second Quarter, two months before Katrina it was 180.54 at the end of the Third Quarter one month after Katrina. If you interpolate between the two figures that represents an increase in value of 1.65%, . That would be an addition $1,650 per $100,000 in value. This is equivalent to a calculated index of 179.09. A similar calculation should be done on the front end to allow for appraisal dates falling between the quarters.

The value of the adjustment is calculated simply by dividing the Original Index by the Ending Index. The Original Index is the PHI on the date of the appraisal. The Ending Index on the date of the storm (179.09 above).

I have done some sample calculations to show the effect.

Appraisal $150,000

06/30/03 151.63

08/31/05 179.09

Adjustment 1.18

Prue-K Value $177,165

Increase $27,164.81

That is a significant amount of money.

A second example going back to 2003 yields even higher values;

Appraisal $235,000

06/30/02 143.06 PHI

08/31/05 179.09 PHI

Adjustment 1.25

Value $294,185

Increase $59,185.31

As I gather more information and come to additional conclusions I'll post it. I'd appreciate anyone who can provide additional information with specific numbers.

Please note that this calculation is a guide only. I have no information from the Road Home. This information is provided as a guide only, use it at you own risk. If anyone sees any problem with the methodology I've used please let me know.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thank You Boys

Thanks for a great Season.
We'll be with you next year.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Wrestling with Pigs.

This is based on a question from Morwen Madrigal.

I think many people may not fully understand the changes which took place after Katrina and Rita in the Building Code and Permits Process in New Orleans. The process was changed but the requirements for construction were largely unchanged.

The State adopted emergency legislation almost immediately after the storms which required complying with the Wind and Flood Provisions of the International Building Code in the 11 most affected parishes. That legislation also mandated that all local jurisdictions enforce the requirements of the IBC by the end of last year. This was done for a number of reasons but mostly to satisfy the Insurance Industry since, incredibly, many rural parishes had no building code in place at all. I think Terrebornne Parish was one of these. Some towns had adopted building codes but the unincorporated areas were not covered by any local regulations and the state didn't impose any overall requirements on houses.

The City of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish had already both adopted relatively modern building codes and while this updated the requirements it shouldn't have significant impact. The single biggest change, in my opinion, is the imposition a requirement that windows and doors meet the Large Missile Test, which basically creates requirements either shutters or windows which will resist a piece of 2x4 launched from a pneumatic cannon. This requirement has been in place in South Florida for years.

The City also put into place an expedited Building Permit process which allowed people to get permits without plans and often over the Internet with no fee. Jefferson had a similar program. In both of the programs the applicant had to agree comply with applicable building cods. No code requirements were waived.

Many people have heard of "grandfathering" and assume you can do anything you want in an old building. Few people understand exactly what the actually code allows. Generally existing non-conforming construction is allowed to remain in place but new construction, including repairs, must comply the requirements for new buildings, unless it is technically not feasible. Technically feasible, is a sort of vague term and no precise definition is really possible, but most people will know it when they see it. In addition if the value of the repairs or renovations exceed 50% of the value of the building, the building must be made to comply with all current code requirements for a new building.

This process will give rise to many issues in the field since most people are proceeding to repair existing houses without detailed, reviewed and approved plans. Even if you have plans, no set of plans is ever complete or absolutely right, especially when dealing with an existing building.

There is a sign posted in Building Departments all across the country. It reads;
"Arguing with a Building Inspector is a lot like wrestling with a pig in a mud hole and half way through realizing the pig is enjoying it!"
Don't argue with them it will seriously damage your chances of reaching an accommodation. Try to understand what is going on.

No specific issue can be addressed without reviewing to the actual conditions at the site. The Building Inspector is not God and cannot enforce requirements which aren't in the code, although sometimes they try either through ignorance, petty power trips or even attempted larceny. Many people seem to fear retribution but my experience is that if you do your home work, most of the time the Inspectors and Safety and Permit staff will work with you. Just remember, "It will cost too much" isn't a valid objection in most cases. They also have a duty to tell you what specific requirement of the code they are referring to, be sure to get the chapter and paragraph of a specific code. I always refer to the actual language of the code. It is not generally that technical in most matters and is actually usually pretty clear, although it does frequently reference outside standards.

Apply Hanlon's Razor;
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
This has two effects, if you just remain calm and don't assume hostility you can get much further. Secondly if you check everything you are told throughly you can over come malice, if it does exist.

I frequently play "dumb" but cooperative with the Inspector. I find that is best way to find out what they really are talking about. Often by the time information gets to me from the guy the Inspector talked to his boss to me it's hopelessly garbled. Verify everything they tell you against the actual language of the code, including conditions, definitions and exceptions. Consider it an exercise in logic.

Keep good records of all contacts and conversations with building Inspectors. I'm told by my lawyer friends that a dated and signed memo made at the time of the conversation is very valuable in court. It will also be valuable if you need to escalate the issue. At the very least you will be able to demonstrate to a higher authority everything your tried, if necessary.

If you are unable to work out a problem with the Inspector in the field, there is the opportunity to escalate the issue, first to the Chief Building Inspector up through the Department of Safety and Permits all decisions are made in the name of the Director and most of the people I've dealt with are helpful, if you try to understand what they are doing and why. It helps to be flexible and give a little to get what's important. Remember they nave no authority to waive provisions of the code, only to interpret it as it applies to your specific issue.

If you can't get satisfaction with Safety and Permits you can file an appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals. Sometime the people in Safety and Permits will advise you that what you need to do will require and appeal. The Board is a citizen body made mostly of construction professionals who will decide the issue. Their authority is limited to basically two things, reviewing the decisions of the Director, who they can overrule if they think a mistake was made (but they rarely do that) or most commonly approving equivalent measures. They can also make official interpretations of the code which are binding on the Department, but I'm not aware of a single case where that has happened. They do *not* have the option of waiving the requirements of the code. The appeal process is fairly informal, usually a bunch of guys sitting around a table, but there is a fee, which may or may not be worth it. I'm not sure what the current backlog is. In the past is has rarely been more than a month. If you want to take it further you go to court. Unlike zoning neither the City Council nor the Mayor have authority to overrule the Board..

Another option is to engage a Third Party Code Reviewer, this is mandated by the same legislation which established the IBC. The Third Party is generally someone who is familiar with codes and can review you drawings and construction for compliance with the code. These reviewers have no authority to waive requirements, and may be expensive. I think they will primarily be used on commercial projects where the delays can disrupt progress. If the City is not confident in your reviewer they still have the right to make their own inspection and cite any violations. I've been told they intend to be on the lookout for shoddy Third Parties and that they know who generally who will do a good job and who won't. I don't know if the have the resources to follow through or not. I kind of doubt it. Getting by with something is not a good idea, especially if your are the homeowner. The contractor is likely a corporation which reorganizes every few years but an individual can't reorganize and you could eventually be held liable for work improperly done by you on you home by a future owner.

This is not intended a professional advice but is rather an attempt to help people through the resolution of problems.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Road Home Again

I just returned from my interview with the Road Home people. I imagine most people have already been through that, but I though our experience might be interesting.

Our Appointment was 9:00 AM at 1555 Poydras in the CBD.

The First Thing I noticed was the security. You have to check in at a card table in the lobby and be escorted by an ICF employee to a Waiting Room. Before you can enter the Waiting Room your name is checked off the list by a Uniformed NOPD Officer.

The first step is a photo and thumb print. You would think they have the money there.

The Second Thing I noticed was the customer service protocol. I think they had Disney training. The first thing the Interviewer did was usually introduce themselves and shake the hand of the applicant. This happened too frequently and too consistently for it to be individual behavior, it was certainly coached.

After the mug shot and prints I guess you could say we had been "booked". We waited in the holding area for about 15 minutes. Our Adviser showed up introduced herself, offered her hand and escorted us to another floor where another New Orleans Police offices sat watch, reading a newspaper. You'd think ICF could hire private security or get State Police from Kathy and release the NOPD for more pressing duties.

The interview took about an hour and consisted mostly of repeating information which was on our application and providing copies of supporting documents. The one new thing for me at least is the mitigation grants. There is a list of mitigation measures with dollar values for each. There was no printed information we could take with us. This is different from the Elevation Grants. Apparently if you perform certain mitigation measures you can get an additional $7,500. The things covered include;
  • Tying down or anchoring propane tanks and heating fuel tanks
  • Elevating washers, dryers, furnaces, water heaters, electrical panels and air conditioning units
  • Installing storm shutters or other window protection
  • Installing hurricane straps in the attic and bolting walls to the foundation
  • Installing backflow valves
There is a schedule of values associated with each of the items, depending on the size of the house. I couldn't get a copy of and I can't find it on line anywhere. If anyone has it please let me know. I'd like to publish it. Since this Grant is a reimbursement, paid after the work is done I bet that proper documentation might be important to maximize the reimbursement.

After our interview was complete we were given a CD with all of the documents on it including our mug shots and thumb prints as well as scanned copies of our supporting documents. We were escorted to the elevator, and our hands shook again.

The whole process took about an hour and a half. It was a pleasant though dull experience.

Next up someone will go to our house to verify it is still there, it did flood and measure it. That is supposed to take 7-10 days. We are supposed to get our option letter in 8-10 weeks after that. That will be sometime around April first.

I guess that's when we get to fight about the numbers with them.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Public Housing Problem

This post is comprised of several comments posed on other blogs expanded, combined and edited.

Recently several of my fellow bloggers, moved by the plight of those less fortunate, have taken part in a demonstration to reopen the St. Bernard Housing Project.

Pre-K I drove past the St. Bernard Project frequently, until I was informed by a reliable source (A United Cab driver) that the intersection of St. Bernard and I-10 was the single most frequent site of carjackings in New Orleans. She chose to ignore this authoritative warning and frequently exited the St. Bernard ramp, often with me in the car.

There is a broad consensus by housing experts that Public Housing projects conceived in the New Deal as constituted in the thirties, fifties and sixties don't work. HANO had been moving slowly toward demolition of large projects. St. Thomas was demolished as were the Fischer Project towers. I'd have preferred demolishing he low rise elements of Fischer but retaining the Towers as elderly housing, but nobody asked me, and I have no idea if it was practical.

In 2004 it cost the successor to HANO $800/month per authorized unit to operate, and only about 80% of the units were actually livable (that estimate is probably wrong, it might have been even lower than that). I’d much prefer to have the people who need housing assistance get $800/month and let them find a place to live on their own. If $800 doesn't match the current rental market, let's pay the current median rent. I'm sure the cost would be less in the long term and the recipients better off.

I was able to find at least 3 - 3 bedroom apartments on the Internet in a few minutes for $750/month. I imagine most Grandmas would not need that many bedrooms. Generally there is a requirement that public housing residents pay the rent they can afford (I think it’s generally about 20% of income but I’m not sure). If I had looked harder I’m sure I could find more apartments, for example I didn't look at Craig's List, which I find visually disconcerting. If community activists helped it would be easier. If the government paid a real estate commission I'm sure people would be coming out of the wood work.

Public Housing in New Orleans was a rat hole of cronyism, neglect stupidity and crime, and I’m talking about the people who ran it. The Residents of any place deserve better. If it hadn’t been a government agency, the Owners would have been called slum lords and in some cities sent to jail.

There is actual evidence that some of the problem is with layout of the buildings. Oscar Newman did work in this area 30 years ago. You might want to read some of his work. Even if that could be fixed, concentrating the vulnerable in a small area creates problems. You get a larger concentration of poorly socialized individuals who use violence as a solution combined with a larger proportion of vulnerable people (elderly, disabled, etc.) than in the general population. Bureaucratic barriers further make it difficult for Public Agencies to deal with bad actors.

One of the problems with the design of “the bricks” (as they used to be called in the ‘hood), is that they offer little resident security. Police and security are easily observed and tracked. There are easy vantage points so “Collaborators” can be easily identified and targeted. The “pedestrian scale” and “play areas” make it hard to pursue people, except on foot, in an environment much more familiar to the criminals than the cops.

The “public space” becomes a “no-mans-land” with little control by the residents. You can actually see this same thing in Lake Vista, although the residents there would notice strangers.

Section 8 is not much better. It merely substitutes private financing for public financing. The effect is the same. It’s only advantage is that the developments are generally smaller than the older public projects, avoiding some of the concentration problems.

I don’t know if the existing public housing buildings can be repaired, although with enough money anything is possible. I can tell you as an architect the nature of their construction along with the probable presence of lead paint and asbestos will make it very expensive and very slow. Most of these buildings are more than fifty years old, the plumbing and wiring is near the end of its useful life however sound the structure may be.

If the goal is to move people back quickly, the quickest way is to provide a stable market for rental housing. That could be done by providing the former public housing residents with a general rent subsidy, free of many of the restrictions usually placed on rental assistance. Alternately we could provide low interest loans for non profit housing corporations, committed to low income housing, although I much prefer the former due to the past misuse of housing funds by political operatives (anyone remember SUVgate?).

If the residents were less vulnerable they could build communities, defend themselves and provide for their own security. They could implement technical security measures, like video surveillance of public areas and panic buttons. One possibility might be for existing projects to be converted into high end condos, with sales proceeds going into better housing for those in need. Unfortunately almost no one would accept that outcome and I doubt there would be much profit due to political "friction".

No one set out for this to happen no one anticipated the changes in resident demographics, in particular the dissolution of what was considered the 'natural' condition of the traditional family. Mom, Dad and the kids. Certainly exceptions existed, widows and widowers were common, but children out of wedlock were virtually unheard of. In the thirties or the fifties when these projects were conceived no one anticipated the current conditions.

We should try again certainly, but try something different. Doing exactly the same thing again will generally lead to exactly the same results. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is one definition of insanity.

We have a unique opportunity here and now to try new things. We also have a clear record of government failure.

I’m not suggesting abandoning those in need. I am suggesting we as a society have failed them in the past and we must find a better solution.

I'm for home ownership. I would love to see a urban homesteading program, I've written about that before, although in a comment on other blogs. It would naturally be for the young, able stable families. There should be ample housing stock for this program as a result of the Road Home and foreclosures. It could become a major attractor of young families if there is someplace for them to work.

I'm also wondering whether some 'activists' are condescending and suggesting the poor can’t take care of themselves and need the 'good' people to take care of them, or suggesting the elderly should live in poorly maintained, crime infested, unsafe warehouses? I find myself hard pressed to find any rational reason to spend more money on a failed agency in a failed experiment when the same amount of money would allow the same or more people to obtain decent, safe housing on the open market.

I actually expect rental prices to fall over the next several months as the economy continues to stagnate and more apartments come back on line. They have already fallen somewhat from the peak.

All of that said I’m not opposed to having public housing for the elderly and disabled. I’m just not convinced that the government here can deliver anything acceptable. HANO was a disgrace and an embarrassment.

I have heard that some communities on the Mississippi coast had already moved to providing public housing only for the elderly and disabled, with rent vouchers for others. Perhaps that a model we can follow. In that case the existing high rises are very suitable, given appropriate security.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Time to Evacuate California

I heard about this on the plane last night. It seems California is overdue for the Big One. The report I heard said that 27 million people in Southern Californian would be plunged into chaos. Fifteen foot wide cracks would appear in the streets and rocks would be shot thirty feet in the air.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Lost ... and Found

On our recent trip we were plagued with losing things. One we got back one we didn't.

Lost ...
... somewhere between Key West and Key Largo.

Fortunately it can be replaced.


While the Camera is old and slow, the pictures couldn't be replaced. Fortunately Miguel, a Security Officer at the Sheraton Yankee Trader in Fort Lauderdale, was able to locate it and return it to us. It's nice to find helpful honest people like Miguel.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Geaux Seahawks Saints

Whatever your religious conviction, get your Mojo/Gris Gris/Novina/St Jude working on Seattle beating Chicago so the Saints play here in the DOME next week.

Seattle lost, the Saints are traveling to Chicago. Anybody going with them?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

It's the Economy, Stupid!

James Carville, a Louisiana native and the political operative widely credited with orchestrating Bill Clinton's election coined the title phrase for Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford's campaign.

I must admit I never liked it. I think it is demeaning to call voters stupid. It's undeniable that it worked. Beyond immediate suppression of crime it is what New Orleans needs most to heal its deep divisions.

Maybe Carville should have been appointed Nagin's Recovery Tzar. His reputation and his personal brand of exuberant bombastic rhetoric might make a dent in some of the local politicos. The idea of the salt and pepper Cueball Twins has a sort of aesthetic appeal as well.

My recent trip to Florida underscored something I knew but hadn't expressed or really fully realized. The contrast between here and there really brought it home.

Without economic expansion to drive growth and development, the problems of New Orleans will continue. Low wage workers cannot hope for a better life for themselves, their families or their children without opportunity. A perpetually winding economy down can't provide opportunity. Government may provide assistance but can never provide the kind of opportunity necessary to make New Orleans a healthy city alone. The sickness which infects our city at its heart is slow starvation as we consume ourselves and our city is infested by the tapeworm of self serving politicians.

The first, most important step in economic development is public integrity. I've been told by many business people around the country they are not interested in New Orleans either because they have experienced corruption first hand or have heard stores of corruption. To build confidence we need openness and transparency. We need to drop mandates for the involvement of the "usual suspects". If someone from Ohio can do a job for New Orleans better and cheaper than a someone from New Orleans, lets hire them. As it stands now we are often spending more and getting less.

Friday, January 12, 2007


This post has been laying around in my Draft Folder, half finished for months. It seemed appropriate to finish it now.

Nearly everyone who lives in New Orleans for any time becomes a victim of a crime. Fortunately it's usually a property crime and, at least in my circles, seldom a violent crime.

Prior to moving to my current home near The Lake I lived in a predominately African-American section of the Irish Channel. In the nearly twenty years I lived there I was subjected to a number of property crimes. My house was burglarized twice, once while We were asleep upstairs. My car(s) were broken into three times, once someone pried open the sun roof to steal a car phone receiver and try to steal the radio, all they succeeded in doing was causing lots of damage. I had my tool shed cleaned out twice. I had several instances of vandalism and petty theft, including the Architectural theft of a nineteenth century wrought/cast iron gate from the fence in from of my house, apparently in broad daylight. I once witnessed a couple of people with guns drawn chasing someone. I think they were police officers but was never really sure. We heard gunfire at night all of the time. I even had a shovel stolen from my front yard while I took a break to get a drink of water. Someone once told me no one would steal a shovel, apparently they had never been to New Orleans.

I have never been mugged or assaulted. I have known two people who were murdered.

My parents have, living in main stream suburban America, experienced only one criminal act in their lives so far. A gang of "kids" snatched my Mother's purse from inside her car while she was in it. That incident happened in New Orleans near the corner of and St. Charles Avenue and Calliope Street. They were on the way to my home. I lived in the Irish Channel. It was the only time in my life I ever heard my Father utter the word NIGGER. He struggled with it between his revulsion for the word and his rage, to express his horror at seeing his wife assaulted. It was the worst word he knew to use. My parents never spent the night at that house or really ever visited it again.

I think my experience is typical of many longtime residents of similar neighborhoods.

Recently there has been a lot of angst over one murder, that prompted a march, which prompted a preemptive press conference. Not much has changed that I can see. In fact it's a little discouraging that it took the murder of a white woman to focus the preponderantly African-American "leadership" of New Orleans on a crime problem some were denying only days before. The vast majority of the victims of crime are African-American, you'd think that might make a difference.

I now live in a "safe" neighborhood, part of a Crime Prevention District which is patrolled by "extra" police. I pay an annual fee for the "extra" protection, but I seriously doubt we get any extra patrols. As soon as those patrols started I'm pretty sure NOPD stopped patrolling our neighborhood and moved the "real" cops somewhere else. Perhaps that's something I'm contributing to controlling crime in New Orleans.

Outside of that I wonder what what I can actually do. I don't know any criminals or drug dealers I can turn in. I never witnessed a crime I could testify about. These are the only things I think that can solve the immediate problem. Good citizens must take the streets back. Our "leaders" have squandered the trust between the criminal justice system (including the police) and the citizens. Trust which is so necessary for any community to truly fight crime.

Mary Landreu, in agreement with the ACLU, thinks that police cars should be equipped with video cameras to record all stops. I agree with that, let's do it tomorrow. Perhaps there could be a federal grant to provide the equipment. All too often the police are accused of improper behavior because of the reputation of the NOPD. Apparently local juries believe the accusations a lot of the time, whether there is proof or not.

We shouldn't stop there. On my way home from work I usually drive down St. Bernard Avenue. Near Claiborne Avenue there are a number of bars where I sometimes see large numbers of people gathering in the street, drinking and having a good time. I also frequently see police cars there with their blue lights flashing. I don't know what types of incidents occur there, but I think areas like this where large numbers of people routinely congregate would be a great place for video cameras, as would the French Quarter.

I'm a little surprised at the resistance to placing video cameras in public areas. Private entities do it all the time. You could put up a web cam showing the street in front of your house or your place of business, maybe we all should. I know some consider that an invasion of privacy, but a burglary or murder is far more invasive.

Placing cameras in public areas would deter some crime, help identify criminals, and in some cases create an indisputable record that could be used at trial. Most suburban shopping malls have video surveillance, and a camera covering a public street can't show anything which a policeman or private citizen standing in the same place can't see. Perhaps these cameras could be web cams available to all citizens all the time, like traffic cams or other NOLA cams. Private Cameras could help. Perhaps businesses, churches and private citizens could create a citizen web camera network. Perhaps some foundation could provide the hardware and the community could provide the expertise necessary to implement them. Perhaps Earthlink could install some as they expand their wireless network.

The court watcher thing also sounds like a good idea. Perhaps if someone showed up who cared about the City, things might improve. We could keep score. We might get new Judges. We might find out if the juries are doing their job. We might find out if the prosecutors are doing theirs. To work it would need to be independent of any official or semi official filter. Trials are public. Trials are public for exactly that reason, to allow the public to observe the court system in action and to preserve justice for all, accused and victim alike.

Finally we should look for ways of getting more cops on the streets immediately. Perhaps we could replace cops on administrative duty with civilians. Perhaps we could call some retired cops back for desk duty. Perhaps some of the cops out sick could take on some limited duty, to free healthy cops for street patrols. Perhaps we could get some law enforcement officers from other locations or agencies and partner them with NOPD officers. Like the Criminal Sheriff or Levee Police or Harbor Police or Causeway Police. Perhaps we could team MPs with NOPD officers to stretch the NOPD. I think many guard/reserve MPs are also law enforcement officers. We need more cops but we need them under a single competent command structure. We don't need hundreds of cops unfamiliar with New Orleans racing around in convoys under independent command, like just after Katrina.

Unless the violence is suppressed the long term measures have no chance.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hollywood Beach, 2007

After checking into our hotel in Hollywood we decided to hit the boardwalk and see what had changed what was new since our last visit then get some dinner.

This year our hotel was next door to the place we stayed last year. It is a timeshare which we rented. This year it was closed and under serious reconstruction. Last Year the boardwalk re-construction much in evidence. It has now been largely completed, at least on the north end. The new boardwalk is a concrete and brick promenade with short fences to keep the sand at the beach. There are drinking fountains and showers every so often. The effect is more elegant than the asphalt path it replaced. There is new construction along the area including a planned new twenty million dollar park, a large public private redevelopment and a new condo tower under construction at the extreme north end of the boardwalk. In addition many of the older hotels and apartments have been spruced up.

Unfortunately I think many of the charming and economical beach front hotels, some dating from the twenties thirties and fifties will be swept away in the coming wave of redevelopment.

The current Florida boom has finally found Hollywood Beach.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Miami Skyline

Driving into Miami on New Years Day I was stunned by the amount of high rise construction under way. I counted more than thirty tower cranes. A conservative estimate of the value of highrise construction in downtown Miami would be five billion dollars.

This is bigger than the LRA Road Home Program. and it's privately financed by people who see value and growth in Miami.

That represents only a portion of the economic expansion going on in Miami right now. For each of those High Rise towers there will be retail space and other things necessary to serve the people living and working in those new structures. The expansion does not seem to be over, block after block of property is being readied for redevelopment.

We were going to attend the Orange Bowl Fan Fest at Margaret Pace Park located on the shore of Biscayne Bay, the park is currently surrounded by construction sites. We decided to pass on the party. We were running late any way.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Key West

Key West seems to be a thriving community. Pedestrians walk the streets at all hours, at least in the Old Town area. There are signs of its former depressed state in the form of paint deprived wood frame structures down nearly every side street. There are also new high end residential areas, like Truman Annex a redeveloped area of the Key West Naval station.

The only disappointing area for me was the area around Mallory Square which is taking on a Disney like glow with historic buildings, polished up adjacent to new tourist oriented structures and giant cruise ships. Even its not that bad, yet, with the Custom House and other old structures anchoring the area.

Outside the main tourist areas of Old Town the same sleepy ramshackle Key West seems to continue on. Small houses stand next to large residences, there is a trailer park one block off Duval street. Mixed into all of this is a veritable architectural history of Florida. Deco retail building on Duval Street, Antebellum buildings, Turn of the Century retreats brought in with the coming of the railroad, Fifties Era post war motels brought in with highway access, Sixties ranch retirement homes all chock a block with one another. Somehow it all hangs together.

One thing I did notice is that recent chain outlets appear to be somehow regulated. None of them resemble their typical trade dress. New Construction seems to conform to a prettified idea of what Key West should look like. I'm not so sure that is such a good idea.

One thing is apparent. property values have exploded. I saw a hand written "For Sale by Owner" placard offering a 3BR 2BA condo in a frame building for $1,249,000. I saw what looked to be 2 BR cottages, new construction in Old Town for $549,000 to $625,000. The Hemingway House on over an acre of land was last sold in 1961 after his death for $80,000. In 1965 my parents sold a three bedroom house in West Virgina for $23,000 and bought a brand new four bedroom house outside New Orleans for $35,000. The same house by the same builder in Lakewood North, under construction at the same time, would have cost at least $50,000.

Monday, January 08, 2007

My Twelve Fourteen Days of Christmas

With Twelfth Night just past and the traditional start of the Carnival Season upon us I realized I had the twelve fourteen Days of Christmas this year.

It's the longest break we have had since long before August 2005. It's the longest time outside the city in 2006, and 2005 as well although that doesn't count. I returned relaxed and full of thoughts. While I was gone I had limited Internet access and little time for blogging. In my usual tardy manner I didn't write anything immediately so I'll try to recapture my thoughts over the next few days.

My Christmas Season (exclusive of preliminary shopping) starts with our office Christmas Luncheons, a tradition we have continued for 23 years now.

Day 1 Dec 21 Atlanta Christmas Lunch at Vinings Inn.
We enjoyed a very nice lunch in a small private room with a fireplace. Everyone was full of Christmas and Champagne. The day was marred only by the rush to the airport and the hordes of amateur travelers.
Day 2 Dec 22 New Orleans Christmas Lunch at Bayona.
Bayona was fabulous as always. Long my favorite restaurant, we usually can't have our lunch there because our lunch conflicts with their Christmas Party. Every few years though things work out. We had a nice visit with the people at Bayona, our first return there since before the thing. Unfortunately we discovered Andre had moved to Atlanta. Everyone was full of Christmas and Champagne and there was no plane to catch.
Day 3 Dec 23 Cleaning and Decorating
Elfing around the house, cleaning, decorating and wrapping presents.
Day 4 Dec 24 Christmas Eve Cooking and a Party.
Cooking for the Party and cooking for Christmas diner Christmas Day. We visited with family at her Uncles that evening. A great time was had by all. We opened our presents after we got home, She did very well.
Day 5 Dec 25 Christmas Dinner 5 family members.
A Traditional Christmas Dinner with family. Turkey, candied yams, oyster/crab meat/artichoke/eggplant dressing, pumpkin tarts and Retsina with the Smoked Turkey. Retsina with Turkey is another of our peculiar holiday traditions. Try it you may like it.

Day 6 Dec 26 Six hours of work and packing.
A light day at the office. A few loose ends to wrap up and a trip to the bank. Calm quiet with almost no phone calls. Home to pack and wash several loads of dishes.
Day 7 Dec 27 Fly and Drive to Key West.
An 8:30 AM Flight to FLL. We pick up our yellow Mustang convertible for the drive to Key West. Along the way we meet up with friends in Marathon for drinks. Sitting at the bar we realize that we haven't eaten all day and ordered some food. Checked into The Southernmost Hotel, had a drink at their Tiki Bar and Diner at Duffy's in Key West.
Day 8 Dec 28 Duval Crawl; Sunset Obscured; Red Fish Blue Fish.
We spent the day exploring Key West on foot. A lot of shopping, very little buying. We visited the Duval Beach Club and tried to go to the Sunset Celebration, the cruise ships were in the way. The sunset is better and quieter at the Duval Beach Club, I have pictures. We ended up at Red Fish Blue Fish in Mallory Square for diner.
Day 9 Dec 29 Museums; Cafe Sole.
Key West Museums are expensive, the going rate is $11 per person. We passed on the Lighthouse Museum and visited Hemingway House, which even without him would have been the museum highlight. It's an 1850's West Indian style house, not unlike some here. The Truman Little White House is interesting and provided a view of Key West in the late forties and early fifties.

A friend of ours recommended Cafe Sole. They were right the food was fabulous. It made a great 33rd Wedding Anniversary diner.
Day 10 Dec 30 Dry Tortugas National Park
The Dry Tortugas are a group of islands 70 mile west of Key West. Accessible only by seaplane or boat. We chose the Fast Cat II, a catamaran. Unfortunately the seas were fairly rough, 6-9 feet we were told. The ride was less that comfortable. We probably should have taken the larger Yankee Freedom II.

The island was wonderful. The weather was perfect. There are seabirds, snorkeling, a better beach than any on Key West and a Civil War era brick fort. The ride back sucked worse than the ride over, for the first hour. The final hour was beautiful flat seas and a gorgeous sunset. After landing we went straight to the White Tarpon for a Drink.
Day 11 Dec 31 La Te Da; Dem Saints; The Wench Drop.
She wanted breakfast, unfortunately on Days 8 & 9 we overslept. On Day 10 we decided to pass. That was a good decision. We went to La te da, a Cabaret, Bar Hotel which serves brunch till one. We saw it during our walk about and decided to go in honor of a friend of our who used to have that one her license plate. We got there about 11. Unfortunately the bar can't open till noon on Sunday. The food was good anyway.

One of the things we did on our first day was to scout out sports bars to watch the Saints. We settled on Fogarty's, sort an indoor outdoor place, which I understand used to be a Hooter's. It's much improved from that. For some reason on Sunday it wasn't very crowded and we sat at the corner of the bar with a few other die hard NFL fans and watched the game. The Carolina fans had a good time but no one got too excited.

We took a nap getting ready for the big night.

We decided to wander up Duval Street Sunday evening. We went past the Bourbon Street Pub where a Drag Queen is dropped in a Ruby Slipper at midnight. There is a show on a stage in the street. Past Sloppy Joe's where they Drop a Conch Shell at midnight and on to the Schooner Wharf Pirate Wench Drop. We were told that this was the least rowdy, most local celebration. It is also most removed from the crowd of Duval Street, located in the harbor area.

We never made it to the Schooner Wharf we stopped just short of it at the White Tarpon, and She got us private catered New Years Eve, complete with Champagne, stemware, cheese and crackers. We did watch the Wench descend the mast from a distance.

After Midnight we took a pedicab back to our hotel. The pedaler was a young Brazilian law student in the US for several months working on some kind of work exchange program. He was excited we were his first ride of the 2007.
Day 12 Jan 1 Lunch with friends in Key Largo and the Miami Skyline.
On our way out of the Keys we had arranged to see our friends again for a New Year's Day Lunch. We met at their hotel in Key Largo and went to another resort where we supposedly had reservations. There was some kind of mix up and we rode around for a while looking for a place to eat lunch. It s was s sort of minor adventure. In the end we got to toast the New Year with our friends and headed on to Miami.

One part of the Orange Bowl Festivities is what they called this year Fan Fest. In previous years it was held on the beach in Hollywood and called The Beach Bash. This year it was held Park on Miami's Biscayne Bay. The Park is located in the midst of a major construction site and since we had been driving for a while and since it was nearing 5 o'clock we decided to pass. In past years we had never spent much time at the Party, it was a sort of freebie thrown into to our ticket package, along with the tailgate party and a parking pass.

After checking into our hotel in Hollywood we decided to hit the boardwalk and see what had changed what was new and get some dinner.

Our first stop was Nick's Bar and Grill on the boardwalk, where we discovered Oysters and Perone. For some reason Raw Oysters go especially well with Perone. I don't know why.

On to Taverna Opa, another Hollywood tradition, although one which might be ending. We discovered Taverna Opa several years ago on our way to South Beach and keep returning. Unfortunately they seem to be concentrating on expanding with restaurants in South Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and soon Las Vegas. It seems to have gotten louder and less spontaneous. The food is still good.
Day 13 Jan 2 Rain and the Orange Bowl.
The game day had arrived, we planned to sleep late, pre pack spend some time at the pool or on the beach. Unfortunately for the only time the weather didn't cooperate. The forecast was 30% chance of rain, the same as for Key West. We had only a couple of short showers in Key West so we weren't worries. We decided to start the day with a walk on the beach and a Perone and Oyster Brunch.

We made it to Nick's but on the way back we got caught in a serious downpour. We took refuge in the Tiki Bar at the Riptide Hotel, one of the classic Hollywood Beach boardwalk hotels. When we got back to our hotel, it was still threatening rain. The hotel had picked up all of the towels and other stuff left by the pool so we had to retrieve our stuff.

It was almost time to leave for the Tailgate party, so umbrellas in hand we are headed off. We went to the Sheraton Yankee Clipper and had dinner, hoping the weather would clear. We got rained on and lost in Miami Gardens. It took almost until game time to get to the stadium and get parked. We made it just in time for the pre-gram show and the game was great. I'm looking forward to next year.
Day 14 Jan 3 14 Dirty Socks.
Traveling for 14 days left us with a lot of dirty clothes to pack. Fortunately our flight left in the afternoon and we had plenty of time to pack, check out and return the car. Our trip home was uneventful.

Maybe someone kind of gets it.

I'm not usually a big fan of ACORN but this study at least seems to make sense and match what I see looking at flooded buildings.

9th Ward Can Be Rebuilt, Planners Say

There is no simple one size fits all solution.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Will they ever STOP?

Reading my headline service I saw this;

New Orleans repeats mistakes as it rebuilds

I read the article and it just causes me to shake my head. They quote a guy from California as saying we shouldn't rebuild. Doesn't he know California is going to fall into the Pacific one day soon?