Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Unfair Park Exposed!

Do you know how hard it is not to get snarked by Unfair Park? Well Brent Brown, one of the few geniuses I’ve ever met, avoided it. Read the article here:


I’ll have more on Brent’s ideas tomorrow.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Wood Ducks

I saw four wood ducks on the way home the other day. If you don’t know wood ducks, they are beautiful birds. They are also unique because they are one of the few ducks that actually nest in trees.

The unique thing, though, is that I saw them in a fifty foot ditch filled with water at the intersection of two six lane highways, Buckner Boulevard and Northwest Highway.

Nature really does abhor a vacuum!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Congratulations to Larry and Ted Hamilton!

Good news on Wednesday for those of us who believe that the City of Dallas needs more high-quality affordable housing. The Dallas City Council approved the application of Larry and Ted Hamilton for tax credits for the Plaza, a former Ramada Hotel located at 1011 S. Akard. This is a project that we started but turned over to the Hamiltons after the neighborhood wouldn’t approve our plan for the building.

I suppose I have slightly mixed feelings. It’s a little like it must feel to see the success of a child you’ve given up for adoption. You feel proud of their success, but a little sad that you can’t really be part of it.

The real sticking point in our plan was the inclusion of fifty units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people. Unfortunately, we still haven’t come up with a convincing way to explain to people what permanent supportive housing is and why it’s good for the community. We try, but most of the time an image of a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter gets out in front of our explanation that all we want to build is an apartment building with enough services to make sure the residents succeed.

Even then, there was an additional ray of hope in the following comments by the President of the Neighborhood Association:
[An agreeable plan] was reached in part because housing for the homeless was removed for the project, said Hamilton and Phillip Robinson, president of the Cedars Neighborhood Association.
"We're hoping we can add that component," Robinson said. "We just want to see it up and running," as in the City Walk at Akard affordable housing project.”
See Roy Appleton’s article in the Dallas Morning News for March 26, 2009: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/politics/local/stories/032609dnmetplazahotel.4aa68aa.html.
If the neighborhoods are only waiting for proof permanent supportive housing can work in Dallas (it’s already working all over the rest of the country), then by this fall we’ll have CityWalk@Akard up and running so everyone can see for themselves. I only regret the fact that given the lead time to take a permanent supportive housing project from concept to conception is three years, that means no matter how convincing CityWalk@Akard is, we won’t be able to follow up with a new project opening until 2012.
None of that diminishes in any way the tremendous job Larry and Ted Hamilton did in reviving this project and, assuming it makes its way to completion, avoiding saddling Dallas with another vacant building. In the end, homes for low-income working people, some of whom will be on the verge of homelessness, is just about as important as homes for those that are already homeless.

Well done Larry! Well done Ted! Congratulations!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Overheard in the Emergency Room

Yesterday, after I had been examined, given a prescription for pain, advised on how to treat my broken rib and released to go home, I spent some time waiting for my ride home in the waiting room for emergency care at Baylor Hospital. While I was there, an older woman came in with what appeared to be a broken nose. She approached the nurse doing triage and said something. The nurse first replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.” Then after another try, “I’m a nurse. I don’t know anything about the billing practices.”
The women then took a seat a couple away from me. In a few minutes an older man came in and sat next to her. I would guess it was her husband returning from parking their car. They spoke for a few seconds, and then he approached the nurse. I have to assume that the nurse could better understand him (it’s hard to speak clearly with a broken nose); because the nurse replied to him, “I’m the nurse. I don’t know about billing. I don’t know if Medicare will pay for a second emergency room visit in the same day.”
The old man returned to his seat next to the older woman. They bent their heads together and conferred quietly for a few minutes. Then they rose slowly and shuffled back outside, into the rain.
I can only assume that they decided it was better for the women to deal with her pain on her own, rather than to risk incurring a hospital bill they couldn’t afford.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Accidents and the Dangers of Parking Meters

Every so often something happens in life that shows you can’t control what happens to you. The confluence of two events made that really clear to me this week. First, in an accident that got wide publicity, the actress Natasha Richardson died after a fall on an easy ski hill. Beautiful, rich, and apparently happily married to actor Liam Neeson (nominated for an Oscar for his role in Schindler’s List); but none of that, nor the best of medical care, could save her from dying from a fall that didn’t appear to even hurt her.

Then just last Tuesday I suffered a, fortunately for me, much less serious accident. I managed to walk into a parking meter and break a rib. I had just taken some guests through our CityWalk@Akard project, walked them to their car, then turned back to wave good-bye when I walked directly into a parking meter. It’s the type of injury that seems so silly that you’re embarrassed to tell people how it happened, but it makes me think about how random life can be. One minute you are fine and healthy and working, then a moment’s lack of concentration means you are injured. Given the risks all around us, maybe it’s a wonder all of us aren’t hurt all the time.

And, no, I didn’t try to claim that the parking meter jumped out in front of me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The City Game

For me, there is only one real American game: basketball. It was invented here (yes, I know, by a Canadian) and we play it better than any where else in the world. I probably played every day for thirty years, and it’s still a great sorrow to me that my age and ruined knees don’t let me play any more. I think the three big sports of the United States mark epochs of our history.

Baseball is the sport of our agrarian past. It’s a sport for small towns. You can play baseball over a wider range of ages and abilities than either football or basketball, so you can find a way to play even when you have a limited population from which to draw. The equipment needed is limited, but you do need plenty of space. It isn’t easily adaptable to urban or suburban spaces. In addition, it’s at heart an individual sport. The batter and the pitcher opposed each other and that one-on-one confrontation is at its heart.

Football is the sport of suburbia; the sport of corporate America. The field itself is tightly bounded and restricted in size. Football became really popular only after World War II when corporate power and the drive to uniformity dominated our country. More than any other sport, football depends on complicated teamwork, and on individuals following orders. With helmets and uniforms on, it’s difficult to tell whether the players are Black or White, young or old, Asian or Hispanic. The ideal team would have all interchangeable players each prepared to execute their assigned role perfectly.

Basketball is the sport of the city, of the world and of our present. It’s cool, urban, takes little space to play and emphasizes the individual. It’s the only one of the big three of American sports to be played all over the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s cheap, you don’t need much equipment and, compared to football, it isn’t dangerous. You can find pick up games going on all over the country where strangers compete against one another. You don’t see that happen with baseball or football.

The sport of our future: Soccer. But that’s another story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What the Owner Decides

Central Dallas CDC is the owner of CityWalk@Akard, and I’m the Executive Director of Central Dallas CDC, so you might think I would make decisions about everything that we’re doing. You would be wrong.

The role of the owner in a project like this is sort of like the role of the father of the bride (a role I probably need to practice for since I have a twenty-two year old daughter and someday she’ll probably marry). You get to pay for everything but you better not have the delusion that you get to make the choices. It all works out fine for me, I am a lawyer by training and I know quite a bit about financing projects like CityWalk, but I’m far from an expert at construction. All the important decisions are made by the contractor and the architect.

So what kind of things do I get to decide? Of course originally we decided what the project was about and its general parameters, but that was a couple of years ago when we had just begun. Now almost the only things that I get to decide have to do with spending more money.

Do we want to put a mirror or a medicine chest in our bathrooms? A medicine chest will cost more (unless we get a really cheap one, but then it will be a maintenance problem), but it will provide a little extra storage for our tenants.

The cost of any one item isn’t so much, but added together they can destroy your budget.

Can we afford metallic paint for the “buttons” on the outside of the building? Some of the marble panels on the outside need replacing. Can we replace them all? Is it a safety concern? Can we use metallic panels instead? Can we upgrade the light fixtures? Should we repair the current roof drains or put in new ones? Can we use cement rather than asphalt on the parking lot in back? Can we use cement pan stairs rather than metal stairs for the new fire stair?

The questions and choices go on and on. Each one may be small in itself (although a few will be large) but they add up. Worse, from my point of view, any expense that is not already budgeted needs to be approved by the bank and I have to find a source to fund it. So I try to balance all these choices against each other, taking the advice of my architect, general contractor and project manager as to which will add the most value to the development. But in the end, the quality of the end product will depend on the sum of those choices and the ability to fund the hundreds of small improvements that make a building better.

So, someday perhaps, if my daughter asks me to upgrade the menu for the wedding dinner from chicken to steak, I’ll be ready to explain that of course I can—if she’ll just cut the guest list in half.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Italian Girl in Algiers

Last Saturday I watched the Dallas Opera’s last performance at Fair Park Music Hall. Fifty-two years ago the Dallas Civic Opera (now the Dallas Opera) gave its first performance ever: The Italian Girl in Algiers. This week it ended its run at Fair Park with the same Rossini opera.

Like most opera’s the plot is simple and silly. Isabella (the Italian Girl of the title) crash lands (a plane in the Dallas Opera’s performance; a shipwreck in the original) in Algiers while looking for her lost love. At the same time, the Bey of Algiers, Mustafa, has decided to divorce his wife (he’s bored) and marry an Italian Girl instead. Isabella is seized by his Mustafa’s captain and seems destined to become Mustafa’s new wife. As usual, after many misadventures, Isabella and her lover are reunited and escape and Mustafa decides that he will be happier with his current wife than a new Italian one.

The opera was played for broad comedy, full of slapstick, mugging and pranks going on in the background. The audience laughed repeatedly, which was a good thing because with the exception of the lead, Isabella, most of the singing was only adequate.

More than fifty years ago when The Italian Girl in Algiers was first staged in Dallas, I imagine the performance must have been very different. The director was Franco Zeffirelli, best known for his highly sensual film version of Romeo and Juliet—it caused a sensation when it was released in 1968. The picture here gives you some idea of the production, but if you haven’t seen it then you probably should. I haven’t seen a full review of the 1957 production Zeffirelli production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, but blurbs I’ve seen describe it as “lavish” and “lush”. If it was typical of Zeffirelli’s other work, it was probably highly dramatic and intensely romantic.

I don’t imagine you could do the same production today. The central themes of the opera deal with gender roles and conflict between Christian and Muslim beliefs. If done seriously, then many would find it seriously offensive. The opera isn’t very subtle.

So although the Dallas Opera opened and closed its existence at Fair Park with the same opera, in reality it wasn’t the same opera at all. The music and libretto were the same, but the performances were completely different. Each, perhaps, appropriate to its time.

A final postscript: After the opera and curtain calls were complete, the director asked the audience to join hands and sing Auld Lang Synge as a farewell. It was a highly effective and appropriate way to say good bye.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The “Exchange Provision”: A little inside baseball

A lot of the things I spend my day doing don’t appear in my blog. They are simply too boring to write about. Even the most devoted reader doesn’t want to hear about my conversations with bankers and accountants. But once in awhile something that starts out looking boring is really a big deal, and worth thinking about even if it takes a little extra work. The “Exchange Provision” of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“ARRA”) is one of those things. You remember ARRA, it’s that enormous bill Congress passed and President Obama signed back at the beginning of February. ARRA was supposed to start the economy working again.

One part of the economy that hasn’t been working is the affordable housing market. Most affordable housing is funded by federal tax credits, which the federal government passes out to the states and the states in turn pass them out to affordable housing developers. Affordable housing developers then “sell” them to corporations that want tax breaks (“sell” is in quotes because the transaction is more complicated than a simple sale, but that’s the effect). The money the affordable housing developers get from selling the tax credits provides enough equity to make the project work.

For example, to build CityWalk@Akard, we got a little more than $12 million in tax credits and we sold those tax credits for a little more than $11 million. That gave us a big enough down payment to borrow the rest of the money that we couldn’t raise and begin construction.

But right now you can barely give tax credits away. Hardly any corporation is making a profit; so they don’t pay taxes; so they don’t need our tax credits. New deals aren’t happening and hardly any of the deals awarded tax credits last year are working out.

So, back to ARRA, Congress provided a remedy. States are allowed to trade in tax credits for $.85 on the dollar in real money. That would make a big difference to many of us. Central Dallas CDC has $3.9 million worth of tax credits that we are going to get about $1.9 million in cash for. We sold them for $.50 on the dollar, as opposed to the $.92 we got last year, and even at that price we are the envy of everyone in the business for how good that deal is. If the State of Texas would send those credits back to the federal government for money, then we would get an additional $1.4 million for our project. That money would mean we could offer some additional first rate services to our tenants—mental health care, job training, etc. Or build more housing with the money.

But the State of Texas has taken the position that it can’t trade in those tax credits for money because a couple of years ago when the legislature wrote the rules for tax credits, it didn’t put in any provisions for trading the tax credits for money. I don’t how the Texas legislature was supposed to prepare for a law that didn’t exist yet, but that’s the logic.

That looks like dubious legal thinking to me, but anyway the Texas legislature is in session and could pass whatever laws we need right now! Every other state is going to trade its tax credits for real money. Texans pay federal taxes. Let’s get the same benefit as everyone else; put people to work; make jobs; build affordable housing; get the economy moving!

A friend of mine said this is like trying to save money by going out to eat with a group and ordering a salad while everyone else has steak and drinks wine—and then agreeing to split the bill equally.

We have to pay our share. We should demand equal benefits for Texans!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What Does a Real Estate Developer Do?

Some of you probably know this very well, better than I do, but since I didn’t know when I became one, I thought it might be worth a few words. The short version is that the Developer in a real estate project plays the same role that a Conductor does for an orchestra. The Conductor may not be able to play all the instruments or possibly not any of them well enough to play in a symphony orchestra, but he or she has to keep everyone playing together. Without the Conductor, you’ve probably got a mess.

That’s the same role that a Developer plays in a real estate development. I can’t design the building; that’s for the architect to do. I can’t build it; that’s for the contractors and subcontractors. I can’t draft the legal documents (well, I can some because I am a lawyer); that for the lawyers. I can’t fund the project; that’s for the banks and investors. And on and on.

What I can do, at least on a good day, is make all these people work together.

It gives you a unique overall perspective on a large construction project. Before CityWalk is done, hundreds of people will have worked directly on CityWalk. We will use plumbers and property managers; electricians and architects; bankers, landscape architects, demolition workers, restoration specialists, steelworkers, masons, an unreasonable number of lawyers; project managers (three—mine, the general contractor’s and the architect’s, all with different roles to play). We couldn’t go forward with the contributions of the state and federal governments, the City of Dallas, foundations and individuals that provide us funding.

Even more people will have made indirect contributions. Those include manufacturers of everything from windows to mirrors to roofing. It includes cement manufacturers, plant growers, tile makers, pipe makers, manufacturers of security cameras, furniture, metal studs, paints, and dozens, probably hundreds, of other items that I can’t even name.

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest feelings in the world must be to be a conductor, posed on your stand with the audience hushed, and the baton goes up and when it comes down the orchestra lets loose a glorious ocean of sound. On a really good day, I have at least an inkling of how the conductor feels at that moment.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Sophistication of Construction Work

Every so often somebody asks me why we don’t put the homeless to work on rebuilding CityWalk@Akard. Offhand it seems like a win-win situation. Give people jobs and let them make their own homes. At one time it sounded good to me as well, before I began to realize just how complicated it was to renovate a high rise building.

The people that run a construction project like this are extremely sophisticated managers. They do have to understand the physical process of doing construction, but that isn’t their true value. The intricacies of the project are almost impossible to understand until you see them. Each piece of work has to be done at a specific time and other work can’t go forward until it is done. Almost all the work is done by specialists, and the job superintendent manages their schedules to get the right people in and out at the right time in order to keep the project moving forward. It’s like a complicated dance, and it calls for people skills, an ability to manage complexities and an intensive attention to detail.

We’re lucky to have two construction superintendents working at CityWalk. That’s partly a function of the complexity of the job and partly because the construction business is a little slow right now. But Randy and Bobby run a very tight ship. {Photo to left: John Greenan and Randy Allen} {Photo to right: Bobby Brierton - Congratulations to Bobby and his wife Jamie on becoming new parents!} Every subcontractor cleans up every day. I’ve had a lot of people remark about how clean the job site is. Every question, every piece of work, every material delivery is recorded, scheduled and managed to stay out of the way of the other work going on. That’s the way it has to be.

I firmly believe that they know every person who is in the building at every second. As executive director of Central Dallas CDC I am the senior representative of the owner, so I visit the project several times per week. As soon as I enter the building, I usually see Randy, asking if I need anything, reminding me to put on my hardhat and safety glasses and greeting any guests I bring to show the building.

I feel like a guest in our own building, and truly I am. So long as the work is going on, the building belongs to Randy and Bobby. They are responsible for everything that happens. When they are done, then they’ll turn the building back to us complete and finished.
So the answer to the question why we can’t employ homeless people to rebuild CityWalk is simply that the work is another part of modern life that has gotten too sophisticated for anyone but the experts.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fifty People Working

Right on St. Patrick’s Day, Larry James and I took two representatives of the Rees-Jones Foundation on a tour of CityWalk@Akard. The Rees-Jones Foundation made the largest private gift towards completing CityWalk, but the people at the foundation would be some of my favorite people even if that wasn’t the case. At their best the people that run foundations do much more than simple read grants and dole out money. They are involved and interested in problem solving; up-to-date on the best approaches; a partner in the project. When a foundation starts asking questions and making suggestions, then you know that it is investing itself in making the project work.

The Rees-Jones Foundation people are some of the very best, and it was fun to be able to show them their money at work. We’ve just got beyond a couple of problems bottlenecking CityWalk and things are going forward at a furious pace. The plumbing and mechanical work are both getting close to completion. Most of the studs are up and almost half the dry wall. The elevators were being worked on. The third-floor deck is under reconstruction. The new stairs is going in. The building was full of noise and energy, and our superintendent on the job told me that the fifty people we had working on the project on that day was just the beginning. By the end of the month we’ll have 100 people working on CityWalk every day.

There is something very satisfying about seeing that many people (of all ages, races and ethnicities, but almost entirely men) working on a project that you helped make happen. I could tell our guests were pleased—nothing distresses a foundation more to give money and not have anything happen. But in addition there is something exciting about the physicality of a construction project. Men making things is amazingly energizing.

The people that are involved in CityWalk long-term, our general contractor, our architects, our project manager and others, are all invested in the work partly because of what it will mean to the people that will live there—some of them people now homeless that will soon have homes. Most of the people we met on Tuesday were subcontractors—specialists in some aspect of high rise construction work. Their energy seemed to come just from the pleasure of accomplishing something.

In any event, nobody had to pretend they were working because the owner was visiting. Everyone was hard at work.

Everyone seemed happy just to have work to do in these tough times.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Irish in America, Part I

My family came to this country from Ireland. I’m fifth generation. All named John Greenan and each the eldest son. My son is the sixth in the line. So we always have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Recently I’ve been thinking about what that day and our Irish heritage means, or should mean, to our family.

When the first John Greenan came to this country in the 1880s, according to the family legend he was one of six children and left Ireland for America in his teens. Somehow, the story goes, he managed to skip Ellis Island and take ship up the Hudson River where he entered the United States without bothering with any formalities (my wife who is Hispanic and whose family held land grants in Texas from the King of Spain in the 1600s, likes to joke that the only illegal immigrant in our family comes from the Irish side of it).

The first John Greenan here in America was illiterate and doesn’t seem to have had any other family here. So there are no letters back to the old country, no known relatives and only the thin string of family anecdotes to make any connection to Ireland whatsoever—a string made even less dependable by another family tradition: never letting the truth stand in the way of improving a story. For one hundred years, nobody in my family returned to Ireland. Somewhere along the way, nobody remembers, the family left the Roman Catholic Church. Family members who have tried to trace our genealogy haven’t been able to connect the first John Greenan in America to any specific place in Ireland.
This story isn’t unusual in American. Most Americans don’t have connections to their immigrant ancestors. This disconnection with our roots seems to leave a hole that many of us feel a need to fill. So yesterday, I cooked a banquet of traditional Irish food to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. All food like mother never made and never knew.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick’s Day Party

St. Patrick’s Day provides another excuse for a party—not that we need much of an excuse. I’m going to post the menu for today’s party, then I’m going to tell you why I’m posting it (it’s partly, but not entirely, to make you hungry):


Corned Beef
Potted Chicken
Malted Whiskey Pate


Cabbage Salad
Onion Jam
Wild Mushroom Spread
Accordion Potatoes


Dill Mustard
Horseradish Mayonnaise
Blue Cheese Butter

Assorted Breads and Crackers

Sound good to you? Well if you are interested enough in our work to read this blog, give me a call or email me and get to know us. All my contact information is on our website http://www.centraldallascdc.org/. Next year you can come celebrate with us!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who are our Neighbors?

[Here’s a sneak preview of one entry in a new section about our neighbors—the people who live in the housing we’ve built--that soon will appear on the CityWalkatAkard.com website. Thanks go to Alisa who helped Gary tell his story, and Edd for doing the photography]

Name: James, but usually goes by his middle name Gary.

Hometown: Gary is from New Orleans, but lived for years in Austin with his wife until her death. He was in Mississippi for 2 years before moving back to Dallas about 8 months ago.

Job experience: Gary was a chef for Carnival Cruise lines.

Gary’s Story: Gary worked as a chef for Carnival cruise lines for many years, but took early retirement to help care for his wife who became very ill and needed a double transplant (lung and heart). Gary and his wife spent much of their life savings on her medical care.
Soon after Gary’s wife’s death, Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast and Gary felt compelled to go and help. He worked with others to start a mobile kitchen in Pass Christina, Mississippi where people could get a hot meal. Logistically, there was little volunteers or residents could do without a source of food so the mobile kitchen was the impetus for restoring the area. Even FEMA came to Gary’s group to find people who needed help. Gary intended to be there for a few weeks or possibly a few months. He was there for 2 years.

While in Pass Christian, Gary started experiencing pain which he thought he was from kidney stones so he made a trip to Dallas to visit a doctor. The doctor discovered that Gary had liver cancer which was believed to be caused by exposure to toxins during his stint in Pass Christian, though Gary says if he could go back he would not have changed a thing.
After his cancer diagnosis, Gary stayed in the Dallas area for his treatment which to date has consisted of 3 surgeries and a special kind of chemo regimen. He rented a room from some friends but the location was inconvenient to the hospital where he was being treated and the cost was prohibitive. Since Gary’s only income was Social Security Disability, his growing prescription costs left him with no more than $15 a week for food. He was having trouble stretching his dollars, even with his culinary experience. For the first time in his life, Gary began to face the fact the he was going to be homeless.

Gary researched different support options, but everything he found had a one or two year waiting list, including government sponsored Section 8 housing. Then Gary saw an article in the paper about CityWalk@Akard and called Central Dallas CDC. We were able to place him in a property within a month and Gary is now on the call back list for CityWalk.
Gary is so thankful for the opportunity he has received and says that his favorite part of his new place is that it really feels like home and he was surprised how clean and up to date the building is. Gary is really looking forward to the opening of CityWalk@Akard where he will be able to take public transportation to the hospital, since he estimates he only has another month or so of driving in him. We wish Gary the best of luck in a painless and effective treatment!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Who Shall Bell the Cat?, Part II

[If you haven’t read yesterday’s blog entry, please go back and read it, otherwise the following discussion won’t make much sense to you. Thank you.]
Everyone agrees (or at least give lip service) with the idea that the solution to homelessness is permanent supportive housing (see my blogs for February 5 and 6, 2009 if you need to for an explanation). At least if it’s in somebody else’s neighborhood.
The Dallas City Council has passed a resolution calling for the development of 700 new permanent supportive housing units, and even put in place a financing strategy to help build them. All this looks good. If you want to measure success by action, however, then nothing at all is happening.
The plan for permanent supportive housing calls for scattering housing for the homeless all over the city—nobody has said it officially, but I think the City Council is thinking that with 700 units planned and fourteen council districts that each district will get one project with fifty units.
In theory this sounds fair and reasonable. In practice it looks more dubious. Dallas is a city largely divided in half by the Trinity River and IH-30. The north is largely prosperous and mostly Anglo. This south is largely poor and mostly minority. In the center sits downtown surrounded by some of the more vibrant and diverse neighborhoods in the city.
No matter where you try to build permanent supportive housing, you face some problem. In the northern half of Dallas, land is expensive, unused sites zoned for multifamily housing are scarce, and the mass transit needed by people who usually don’t have cars is limited. In the southern half of the city good neighborhoods are fewer and more fragile.
All of Dallas has one thing in common. Everyone thinks permanent supportive housing is a good idea—in somebody else’s neighborhood.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Who Shall Bell the Cat?

Today I’m sending out to you a fable that we all should know. Soon I’ll come back to it to talk about what it means for my work providing homes for the homeless, but you’ve got to know the fable for the rest of the discussion to make any sense:

What a queer meeting that was down in the cellar! There were big mice, little mice, old mice, young mice, gray mice, and brown mice, all very sober and thoughtful.
At last an old mouse spoke up and said, "Shall we have Mr. Graypate for our chairman? All those who wish Mr. Graypate to be chairman will please hold up their right hands." Every mouse raised a tiny paw.
Mr. Graypate walked out to the front and took charge of the meeting. It was well that they chose him, for he was the wisest mouse in the whole country. Gazing over the crowd, he said, "Will Mr. Longtail tell us why we have met here? Mr. Longtail, come out in front where we can hear you."
Mr. Longtail walked slowly to the front. Then he stood upon his hind legs and said:
"My friends, I think you all know why we are here. Last night Mrs. Whitenose, whom we all love, and all her family were killed by the big white cat. The night before, while Mrs. Blackfoot was out hunting, all her cunning little babies were killed by the same cat. Early this week one of my finest boys was killed. You or I may be next.
"Must we bear this and do nothing at all to save our loved ones and ourselves? We have met here to make some plan for our defense."
Having spoken, Mr. Longtail walked back into the crowd.
Mr. Graypate arose and said:
"You have heard why we are here. Anyone who has a good plan for ridding us of the cat will please tell of it. The meeting is open to all."
"Let us all run at him suddenly when he is not looking for us, and each give him a bite. That would surely kill him," said one brave mouse.
"But how many of us do you think he would kill?" said another mouse. "I will not risk my life nor that of my family." "Nor I"; "nor I"; "nor I," said many other mice.
"Let us steal his food and starve him to death," suggested another.
"That will only make him hungrier for mice," they replied. "That will never do."
"I wish we might drown him," said another; "but I don't know how we could get him into the water."
At last a little gray mouse with a squeaky voice went up to the front and spoke:
"I have a plan that will surely work. If we could know when the cat is coming, we could get out of his way. He steals in upon us so quietly, that we can not escape. Let us find a little bell and a string. Let us put the bell on the string and tie the string around the cat's neck. As soon as we hear the bell, we can run and get out of the cat's way."
"A very good plan," said Mr. Longtail. "We will ask our leader to say which mouse shall put the bell on the cat's neck."
At this there was a great outcry. One said, "I am so little that I can not reach high enough to bell the cat." Another said, "I have been very sick and am too weak to lift the bell"; and so the excuses came pouring in.
At last Mr. Graypate called to the crowd, "Silence! I shall choose no one. Who will offer to bell the cat?"
It was very quiet in the meeting. One after another of the younger mice went out. None but the older ones were left. At last they too went sadly home. No one would bell the cat.
(from Fifty Famous Fables , by Lida Brown McMurry)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flashing Lights

Driving to work today, I saw a familiar sight, the flashing lights on a police car stopped at an accident. Usually that means a delay, sometimes a long one. Today it didn’t.

Two cars were stopped in addition to the police car, one facing the wrong way in the far left lane. It was another accident when somebody was trying to make an ill advised left turn.

Just as I drove by, two women, one black, one white, neither young, hugged.

For me to see this, the timing had to be just right, because in a few seconds I was by the scene of the accident and on my way.

It changed my day. I had been dreading work today, knowing I didn’t have anything on my schedule but the kind of necessary, boring and vaguely unpleasant tasks that take up much of all of our working days.

One good thing can change an entire day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Water in the Desert, Part II

I finally finished Craig Childs’s book The Secret Knowledge of Water, and I highly recommend it. There are many great stories and the kind of thought that comes from spending many hours alone, facing one’s self. One particular vignette caught my attention.

Craig Childs discovers a river that only runs at night. During the day, the water evaporates in the sun and is sucked up into the vegetation until you can see only rocks. But at night, when the sun goes down and the plants become quiet, the river re-emerges. First pools gather. Then trickles begin. Finally the river begins to flow and insects and fish that have spent the day hiding buried deep in the gravel appear.

The thought of such a place, of finding it, seem to me a natural wonder as great as discovering the Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Other People’s Money, Part II

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only person thinking about the S&L crisis and its connection to the current situation. Reese Schonfeld, the cofounder of CNN and the Food Network (my personal favorite) has recently written an article entitled: The Banking Scandal: Repeating the Same Mistakes and Expecting Different Results, which you can find here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/reese-schonfeld/the-banking-scandal-repea_b_132700.html.

When you have the same (essentially) sequence of events happen twice—maybe it’s happened other times as well but I only know about the two occurrences—then I think you have to start looking for a systematic problem, not one due to the actions of a few bad apples. Even though there were more than a few bad apples in the S&L scandal.

Back in 1987 when I started looking at the S&L scandal, one of the lawyers for the owner of one of the S&Ls assured me that none of the losses were intentional by saying: “Why would anybody cause losses to an organization they owned?”

At first that seems to make sense, but when you think about it the logic falls apart. Yes, someone technically “owned” the S&L, but the deposits were all someone else’s money and the deposits were all insured by the government. If my deposit is insured by the government, then I don’t care about the solvency of the financial institution where I deposit it. I know I’m getting my money back. All I care about is how high the interest rate I’m getting is. The government regulators were mostly asleep at the wheel—bank examiners started at a salary of $14,000 per year. This was in the Reagan Years when government regulation was a dirty word anyway, but you don’t get the best of the best for $14,000 per year—not even in 1982.

If I paid $200,000 for a S&L, and I can justify a salary or dividends in excess of that amount, then I don’t care if the institution itself loses money. Even if it’s a lot of money, like $2 billion. I only care that I make more than $200,000 out of the deal. The rest of it isn’t my money. It’s OPM.

So nobody really cared if the S&Ls made money. The depositors were insured; the government wasn’t watching; and the owner only needed to find a way to get his money back. Granted, to get his money back the owner had to make the S&L appear to make money. But, just like now, there was a world of difference between actually making money and appearing to make money.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Other People’s Money, Part I

For some of us here in Texas, the current economic problems look like a repeat of something that happened here twenty-five years ago, except on a bigger scale. Back then I was still practicing law, and I spent most of a decade working to recover money lost by the government in the savings and loan scandal.

For those of you that don’t remember (or haven’t watched It’s a Wonderful Life for a few years—and it you haven’t, then it’s time again given the current economy), savings and loans used to be a sort of quaint, old fashioned financial institution. To begin with, all they did was offer savings accounts and make home mortgages. Savings and loans were small, local institutions often organized by community leaders in small towns so that people could get mortgages to buy or build homes in the town. They were somewhat sleepy organizations that often operated by the 3-6-3 rule: Pay 3% interest on deposits; loan money at 6% for home mortgages; and be on the golf course by 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon.

Nobody made a lot of money (in fact savings and loans were often mutual organizations, owned by their depositors, much the same way as credit unions are now organized). But a few people had steady jobs and every person in the community had a place to save money and knew where to go to get mortgages.

This all changed in the 1980s. A new federal law allowed savings and loans to accept deposits from anywhere in the country, and if a savings and loan raised the interest rates on savings high enough, then it could attract hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits in $100,000 chunks (the maximum deposit the government insured at that time) from people with no connection to the community where the savings and loan was located.

A group of unprincipled investors saw an opportunity. It was easy and cheap to buy a savings and loan from its small town owners. The owners had never got much return and many of them were tired of the effort put into the organization—it was community service rather than a real money maker. Once you owned a savings and loan, then you could raise interest rates until you attracted as much money in deposits as you wanted—a hundred million, several hundred million, a billion or several billions.

But you had to pay the interest on those deposits, and that meant making high risk, high reward investments. I’ll write more about this in the coming days, but most you will already guess the ending: Risk means losses. Not wanting admit you are insolvent means covering up your original losses until there is no legal way to stay afloat, and, in the end, no illegal way to stay afloat either.

The reason people would take those risks is the same reason we ended up in the current mess. They were playing with Other People’s Money. Understanding OPM was the key to understanding the mess we got into in the 1980s, and I think it’s the key to understanding the mess we are in today.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Giving Away Doors

I spent this morning giving away doors. After completing the demolition work at CityWalk at 511 N. Akard in downtown Dallas, we had a couple of hundred doors left over that we’d saved. Our original intent had been to reuse as many of the doors as possible—in the office section of the building, apartments take a different kind of door. But in the end we only needed a couple of dozen doors, so we had at least two hundred to give away.

We checked all the usual places to give the doors away—Habitat for Humanity, etc.—but nobody needed that many doors. So we put an advertisement on Craig’s List for anyone who wanted doors to come and get them this morning beginning at 7:00 a.m. I had no idea whether anyone would come, but a lot of people were interested.

We had men, women, Anglos, Hispanics, Asian Americans and African Americans all show up at 7:00 a.m. to get their share of doors. Some people took only one or two doors, and others filled up the back of a pick up truck with a couple of dozen doors. I didn’t keep count, but I would guess that we gave away about seventy doors. That is approximately one third of the doors we had.

I don’t know what the exercise proved. We just didn’t want to send something to the landfill if somebody can still use them. I was amazed at the diverse group of hard working people that were willing to get up on a Saturday morning and make their way to the center of downtown Dallas to pick up a door or so. I don’t know about you, but even though I think I’m pretty frugal (and I have a pick up), I’m far from sure that I’d be willing to give up my sleep and get up before 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning because someone was giving free, used doors away.

I wasn’t even that happy to get up early to go give away the doors. I hope the Lord forgives me for what I thought about the gentleman that woke me up an hour early to ask for directions.

But if people can use our doors, then I feel we have a duty to give them away rather than throw them away. So if you missed out on the doors this time, keep watching my blog or Craig’s List Dallas for the next door give away. It will probably take place in a couple of weeks, after I’ve had at least one Saturday to sleep in.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rich People and Poor People, Part 1

After twenty years practicing law, the biggest change in working for a nonprofit is the range of people that you get to know. When I was in private legal practice, my clients tended to be middle management at corporations or mid-level bureaucrats working for the government. People a lot like me in background and education. It’s not the same working first for Central Dallas Ministries and now Central Dallas CDC.

I meet both much richer and much poorer people. It isn’t an unusual day when I meet with both someone who is homeless and needs our help and someone who has many millions and we hope will help fund our work. I’m always struck by how rich and poor people are alike, regardless of their income, and how different their worlds are at the same time.

Most homeless people are homeless because of mental illness, or addiction, or a series of unfortunate events—a sickness, the breakup of a marriage, a job loss, a stint in prison—that in combination turned out to be a little more than they could handle. Many of them were well-educated and a surprising number are autodidacts and can discourse at length about some obscure topic or another. In fact, some homeless people can get a little obsessive about their interest and may not know facts that you would have thought everybody in the country knew.

A lot of people that are homeless also have a surprising amount of practical knowledge—the stuff you need to know to survive on the street. They know where you can get a meal; where you can get out of the cold; where the police will bother you and where they won’t, who’s dangerous and who isn’t; all the secret unknown places in a city where you crash for a night in safety. But they may not know how to drive a car anymore.

In some ways the wealthy are similar. If you have money then you can indulge your hobbies and your whims in ways the rest of us can’t do. I’ve know people with a collection of vintage airplanes; people that devoted their lives to following a college sports team; that traveled across the world just to see a particular piece of art. I’ve also know wealthy people who have surprising gaps in their knowledge. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a masterful Dallas trial lawyer, who was flying to Quebec and asked when the plane would be crossing the ocean.

Those of us in the middle are constrained by our need not to fall into the lower class. Those that have much, or nothing, are freer to follow their whims.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas, Part I

Look here: http://www.urbanrevision.com/competitions/revision-dallas.

That’s the website for one of our newest ventures. It’s the effort to design a sustainable city block that will be a model for future development.

The way we are going about it is to hold a worldwide design contest. Our partners in that effort include Urban Re:Vision (http://urbanrevision.com/), a San Francisco based organization that specializes in running design contest to move towards a sustainable economy; the City of Dallas—now becoming know as a Green City--and the buildingcommunityWorkshop, a new Dallas nonprofit devoted to bringing design to the service of the community (you can read more about it here: http://www.bcworkshop.org/). For purposes of full disclosure, I will tell you that I’m a member of the Board of Directors of the buildingcommunityWorkshop and a real fan of it and Brent Brown, its leader.

The exciting part of this venture is that it will put Dallas at the very front of a coming trend.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

“It was never for the money. It was for the adoration.”

Those were the words of Joan Baez at her concert last Tuesday night. I believed them. Joan Baez is now 68 years old. She gave a concert before about 600 fans and, truly, they adored her. She sang some of her old songs, some of her new songs and most of her big hits from her fifty years of working as a folk singer.

I don’t need to explain to those of you over fifty, but to any younger people that might be reading this blog, Joan Baez was a bigger than life figure in the 1960s and 1970s. She was sort of a combination of Bono (a star with a social conscious) and Paris Hilton (famous for all the people she’s been connected with). Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were a couple (a bigger deal in its day than Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolie). The audience remembered her as an icon of their youth.

Joan Baez had a talented band and at least remnants of her famous voice remain. She told jokes and stories. She sang in Spanish. She did a spot-on imitation of Bob Dylan’s singing. Perhaps not surprisingly, given she’s had fifty-years of practice and once was an enormous superstar, Joan Baez has riveting stage presence. When she sang “Forever Young”, you felt like you were young again.

Every eye was on her—and she loved it. It didn’t matter that she had trouble walking, or that her voice was uneven. She was where she wanted to be. You don’t do a tour playing 28 dates in 44 days at 68 years of age (we saw her towards the front end of the tour) unless you want to be on stage. Maybe not unless you have to be on stage.

The protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s came across as more ironic and less strident then they were forty years ago. Both Joan Baez and her audience have grown up and grown old over the years. But I found it inspiring to see someone, no longer young, doing what she loved. At some point I think people quit worrying about whether they can’t do everything they once did and become happy just that they can still do something useful and good and beautiful.

Joan Baez can still make beautiful music and she can still make an audience feel good. After two encores, she closed with an a capella version of Amazing Grace, first urging the audience to sing with her, then stopping to let the audience sing a verse by itself, then rejoining us to sing the final verse. When we left, everyone felt as if they belonged to the same church.