Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Too Close for Comfort

Last Thursday, the FBI arrested Hosam Maher Husein Smadi on charges that he planned to blow up Fountain Place in Downtown Dallas. Now I’m about as phlegmatic a person as you can find most of the time. Back on September 11, 2001, my partner had to explain to me why we needed to let the staff go home for the rest of the day. My first thought was that it was a terrible tragedy, but it was a long way away and there wasn’t any danger here in Dallas, so there wasn’t any reason not to just keep working.

Fountain Place, however, is only across the street from CityWalk@Akard. All the pictures you see here of Fountain Place were taken from CityWalk on the Saturday following the arrest of Smadi. That’s close to home. I can see Fountain Place from my office at CityWalk. A real explosion there would very likely damage our building, maybe severely.

When a threat comes that close to home, then it makes you think (or at least makes me think) more seriously about the problem. It also makes me glad (and my lenders I’m sure) that we have terrorism coverage on the building, but it’s a terrible thing that we need it.

Seattle Visit, Plymouth Housing Group

The first part of our visit to Seattle, Washington was with Paul Lambros, Executive Director of the Plymouth Housing Group. Paul spent over two hours with us on Wednesday afternoon (September 23) on a walking tour of Plymouth Housing’s developments in downtown Seattle.

The tour was very impressive. Plymouth Housing Group owns eleven buildings serving almost 1,000 formerly homeless persons scattered all over the downtown area.

Many of the buildings were rehabs of former “fisherman’s hotels”—places that in the past were rented by fisherman as a land base, even though most of their time was spent at sea. As the number of fishermen has declined, these buildings have become surplus and Plymouth Housing Group has acquired a number of them.

As those types of properties have become scarce, Plymouth Housing Group has become more creative and is now acquiring and building on properties that for one reason or another (usually lack of parking) aren’t suitable for other types of development. The picture here is of their newest development under construction with the Space Needle in the background.
How has Plymouth Housing Group accomplished so much? One answer is that it’s been at it for thirty years. By now it has a reputation in the community and an unquestioned expertise that lets its go forward without community opposition for the most part.

Second, Plymouth Housing Group has a model. All of its projects are 100% formerly homeless, have approximately 100 units and feature ground floor retail (which is required by code in downtown Seattle). Sticking with its proven model let’s Plymouth Housing Group build a project about every eighteen months—a breathtaking rate of development by most standards.

Third, and probably most importantly, Plymouth Housing Group has a sufficient and reliable funding stream. That fact applies equally to its rival homeless organization in Seattle, Downtown Emergency Service Center, so I’ll wait until I’ve talked about DESC before describing how Seattle funds housing for the homeless.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What Can We Learn From Seattle? Part I

I’ve been back from the trip I took to Seattle for a week now, and every day I’ve been meaning to write about what we learned. It’s taken a little longer than I wanted to get to this discussion, partly because I needed to digest what I had seen, and partly because the valet at DFW wrecked my truck in a freak accident upon my return—that’s thrown me a little off my stride.

First, I need to provide a little context. Seattle is a very different city than Dallas; older, more dense, more urban and different culturally and politically. Downtown Seattle is vibrant. Not just Peak Place Market, but the downtown streets as well.

The available real estate is constricted by Puget Sound, Lake Washington and other bodies of water. The terrain is hilly.

As a result, land use is more dense—and of course the views are more spectacular.

Seattle’s downtown has more than 20,000 residents, as opposed to the 5,000 people now living in Downtown Dallas, and there are four adjacent neighborhoods, which you couldn’t tell weren’t part of downtown unless someone told you, with another 10,000 residents.

The zoning requires every downtown building (except for some few grandfathered in) to have ground floor retail. The downtown retail market seems strong with Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, every outdoor retailer you can imagine, all the normal chain stores and a plethora of trendy looking restaurants and bars—and a of course a Starbucks, or two, at every corner.

Larry Hamilton, of Hamilton Properties, led our intrepid group of seven (four of whom are pictured below) to learn what we could in twenty-four hours. Besides Larry, there was Mike Faenza from the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, myself, a cameraman, two representatives from the Cedars Neighborhood Association and Paula Blackmon from the Mayor’s office. We wanted to see what Seattle was doing right, how it might apply to Dallas, and establish a baseline for fruitful discussion.

Over the next week I’ll try to describe what we learned.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why We Can’t Build Co-Housing

Today I want to address a question I got from Joshuadf on September 15, after I wrote about New Hope Housing’s visit to Dallas. Joshuadf asked:

John, I'm wondering if you discussed the importance of relationships between residents and the community with New Hope. The carfreeinbigd blog recently had what I thought was a really insightful post "The Naughty Building Catablog" (I can't seem to link here) that really hits this. I know they weren't excited about the re:vision designs, but I wonder if cohousing would be a viable option there.

Here’s the passage from Living Car-Free in Big D that’s under discussion:

But, these are still physical examples that while good IMO, don’t address the social issue of the vertical cul-de-sac. One idea that I have put forth in the past for an idea for mid-to-high rise co-housing, is that there are hierarchies of social, public, or semi-public space based on the size of the community.

This stems from the idea that any one person’s community, the amount of people they can ever really “know” at one time is approximately 150. I probably need to track this back to source the info, but something tells me it was one of those tidbits that stuck with me from a psychology class in college. In this case, the vertical co-housing would be the person’s “community”. Whether they choose to know everybody within their building is beside the point, but the opportunity is there.

The vertical co-housing was based on the idea of eliminating excess inefficiencies of excess individual plumbing lines, savings on sharing of electricity and appliances, and all but eliminating inefficient floor space, meaning, no hallways. The elevator opens directly into a shared kitchen/dining area that would be shared by 4 to 8 units per floor and potential two floors per kitchen area. This would be organized as a tenants “nuclear family”.

The rest of the common amenities would be structured similarly based on the amount of people to use it. Meaning every four or so floors there is a common gathering area, be it a workout facility, a pool, a game room, home theater, etc. These areas would be the “extended family”.

The whole blog from September 8, 2009 can be found here: http://carfreeinbigd.blogspot.com/. It’s worth reading.

I’m afraid I’m going to give a pretty simplistic answer to a very complex and sophisticated discussion: We won’t build it because nobody will finance it.

The concept is interesting. I don’t know whether or not it would work. But it’s not going to be tried any time soon, except at a very small scale, which I don’t think is the idea here.

There is unknown market acceptance. There are no comparables to support an appraisal. It probably violates half a dozen provisions of the building code and the rules for every applicable or possibly applicable government subsidy.

Our mission is to create diverse housing, so no matter how beautiful the idea, if we can’t actually build it, then we won’t spend much time thinking about it. I’m afraid (until someone else proves up the market for co-housing) that co-housing isn’t on our horizon.

But the minute someone else shows that it’s viable we’ll be there.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bill Gates Walked into a Bar

I’ll get around to the punch line after a little bit, but one of the concepts that has become important in our work is the difference between the mean and median averages. For those of you who have forgotten your Fifth Grade Math, here’s an explanation from Factmonster.com:

Mean and Median

The arithmetic mean, also called the average, of a series of quantities is obtained by finding the sum of the quantities and dividing it by the number of quantities. In the series 1, 3, 5, 18, 19, 20, 25, the mean or average is 13 – in other words, 91 divided by 7.

The median of a series is that point which so divides it that half the quantities are on one side, half on the other. In the above series, the median is 18.

The median often better expresses the common –run, since it is not, as is the mean, affected by an excessively high or low figure. In the series 1, 3, 4, 7, 55, the median of 4 is a truer expression of the common-run than is the mean of 14.
Most of us are used to dealing with the mean, and that’s usually what we mean by “average”, but as the explanation suggests, the median is often a more useful way of thinking about something.

At one point a few years ago we hired a consultant to do a study of a zip code in the City of Dallas where we were doing some work. He calculated both the mean and median income of people living there. The mean family income was $94,000 per year, while the median family income was $14,000 per year—barely above the poverty level even for a single person.

The consultant told us this area was the most unusual that he had ever seen. Think about what the difference in the numbers tells us about the people who live there. If the median is $14,000, and the mean is $94,000, then the top fifty percent in income of the people living in the area had to average at least $174,000 in yearly income. Half the people living there make less than $14,000 while the other half make almost $175,000 income.

That’s an unusual disparity in income—the particular zip code included both a federal housing project and some extremely high income areas where a number of multi-millionaires lived. It isn’t unusual for a large disparity, if not quite that large, to exist between the mean and median incomes in a city, a neighborhood or even a particular census track, and that disparity changes how we need to think about neighborhood revitalization. What needs to be done to improve a neighborhood is very different is everyone in a neighborhood is middle class or the neighborhood has a few very rich people and a lot of very low income people.

“So Bill Gates walks into a bar, suddenly on average everyone in the bar is a millionaire.”

But you won’t have any more money than you did before Bill Gates came in.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Capitalism without Capitalists: You don’t need to outrun the bear

When a Nobel Laureate weighs in an issue, then you really ought to at least listen and think about whether their thoughts have some merit. Well, the Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krygman has weighed in on the issues of compensation for the financial industry and I think you need to look at what he says.

What's wrong with financial-industry compensation? IN a nutshell, bank executives are lavishly rewarded if they deliver big short-term profits--but aren't correspondingly punished if they later suffer even bigger losses. This encourages excessive risk-taking: Some of the men most responsible for the current crisis walked away immensely rich from the bonuses they earned in the good years, even though the high-risk strategies that led to those bonuses eventually decimated their companies, taking down a large part of the financial system in the process.

The whole article is here:

This is nothing more complicated than understanding that when you play with Other People's Money (OPM is the inside term), that the rules are "heads I win, tails you lose".

It doesn't take a financial genius to understand this principle. Give me $1,000 to gamble for you in Vegas. I'll only ask for 10% of any winning. I am a bad poker layer and even worse at craps or blackjack, so I'm just going to put your money on the roulette wheel. In fact, I'm going be number 22 in honor of Casablanca. If I win, then we get $36,000-$3,600 for me and $32,400 for you. But if we lose then you're out a grand and I'm out nothing. Given the house odds, we will always lose if we play long enough. Maybe sooner, maybe later, but we will always lose.

I don't care because when we win I get my money. When we bet then it's only your money at stake. When we lose then it's your money.

During the financial crisis of the late 1980's and early 1990's I worked for a law firm representing the FSLIC and FDIC -- the entities that guaranteed your deposits in savings and loans and banks. I know more than a half dozen ways to create big short term profits (that would generate big bonuses), while making long-term losses almost inevitable. I know as many more ways to simply gamble on the economy that may or may not work, but when they do work would make profits that would justify big bonuses. All my incentives are to gamble with OPM -- if I win then we both win, if I lose then you just lose.

My level of financial expertise is really pretty rudimentary. I know a lot of people that are more sophisticated than I am -- and I don't even know many many people at the top end of this spectrum. Unless you trust each and everyone of us to deal with perfect fidelity with your money (and we have it, in mortgages, checking accounts, savings accounts, 401ks, money markets, the stock market and everywhere else), then you need to worry about regulation of compensation for people in the financial industry. My Dad taught me to trust everyone but always cut the cards.

People thought Bernie Madoff was a financial genius. The truth is that no one can out think the market, but making money doesn't require beating the market, only finding investors more gullible than yourself. It's like the old joke:

You'll Never Outrun that Bear

Two lawyers walking through the woods spotted a vicious-looking bear. The first lawyer immediately opened his briefcase, pulled out a pair of sneakers and started putting them on.

The second lawyer looked at him and said, "You're crazy! You'll never be able to outrun that bear!"

"I don't have to," the first lawyer replied. "I only have to outrun you."

If we don't put controls on compensation for people working at financial institutions, then they don't need to beat the market. All they need to do is find a way to make short term profits, at least some of the time that beat the market. Risk doesn't matter to them (or at least that percentage of people that are more interested in making money rather than doing right), after all it's OPM.

Capitalism only works when people have just as much to lose as to gain. That's not the case when you are playing with OPM.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mass Transit

Today I was without a vehicle, so I decided to take mass transit home. A number of people offered me a ride (most people in Dallas still look at getting around without driving as something that only the destitute resort to), but I like to make my own way whenever possible, so I refused as politely as I could.

The cost for my DART pass was $1.75 for a twelve-mile trip. According to the IRS the reimbursable cost per mile is $.55, so the trip was a bargain—I saved $4.85 over the IRS’s estimate.

My driving time to and from work is 24 minutes, so to begin with it looks like I lost 36 minutes. I managed to get some things accomplished during the trip, so I think you have to subtract some of the time I spent from the total. Here’s how I see the overall result:

Now I think my time is valuable, but if those two minutes saved me $4.85, then my time would have to be worth more than $145.50 per hour to make driving worthwhile.

I don’t know how to evaluate whether or not that is a good deal. I get paid a lot less than that at Central Dallas CDC, but when I was practicing law my hourly rate was significantly higher than $145.50 per hour. So at least to someone, my time is (or used to be) more valuable than the money I saved by taking mass transit. I could have been working.

But the real savings went to my wife, friends and co-workers, one of whom saved about an hour of time by not driving me home and then driving back to wherever they needed to be. I may not know exactly what my time is worth, but I know that two minutes of my time is not worth as much as an hour of their time. Even though they would have gladly made the trip for me, I would have felt that it was a moral failing to use so much of their time to save so little of mine.

Every action we take affects other people for good or for bad. Turn off the light when you leave the room and a child somewhere probably breathes just so slightly easier. Make a place for someone to live and their life becomes worthwhile again. Build a business; make jobs; and families flourish and the community improves. Many times these choices are abstract and difficult to understand, but I’m sure that no matter how willingly the sacrifice is made, my time is not worth thirty times as much as that of anyone else I know.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

2009 A Night to Remember

Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers
These fantastic entertainers will take the stage at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on Tuesday, October 27, 2009 for an evening of bluegrass and banjo. I hope you will join us for this special evening of celebration with a focus on hope and brighter futures for our inner city neighbors!

As we enthusiastically embrace the challenges and new opportunities of our work there are opportunities for you to consider sponsorship of this year’s wonderful celebration. Your commitment will allow us to invest even more in our community and our neighbors. Your help will result in the changes people are eagerly seeking in their personal lives and in their neighborhoods.

You can help us get this event off to a great start! We are grateful for your support. If you have any questions, please contact me directly at 214.573.2570. Individual tickets are also available at www.DallasPerformingArts.org . Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are You Offended?

Lately we've been inundated with discussions of rude public behavior. You all know the controversies over Rep. Joe Wilson, Kanye West and Town Halls. I don't approve of any of their behavior, but I don't want to see our public discourse become boring and without passion either.

Today I was thinking about what makes speech offensive, and the difference between colorful, passionate speech and rudeness, when I ran across a gem from Jim Schutze, commenting on Unfair Park:

We have been here so many times before. The Dallas Plan. The Expanded Vision Plan. Somebody falls in love with a star planner. The star comes in, goes to parties at the art museum and does a bunch of drawings and walks with a fat fee. And none of it ever turns into reality, because none of it came up out of the democratic community process that is the only system capable of producing solutions every body will live with...You know, if somebody around here really believes in planning all of a sudden, they could begin by lobbying the city council to kick the city manager's ass and make her give the city planning department back its teeth. But you couldn't really have parties at the museum for that, could you? What a city - - worse streets than Mexico but run by debutantes.

The whole discussion is here:
http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/unfairpark/2009/09/on_tuesday_the _dallas_city.pho.

I know some of the people involved in the Dallas Urban Design Studio, which is under discussion here, and they weren't offended, but amused by Jim Schutze (a fact that might offend him). Some of the difference might be the recipient of the speech, but I think most of its is style.

I'm not sure why, but a clever and colorful insult is a lot easier to take then a bare accusation. It's why we all love Mark Twain, and almost everyone likes a conservative humorist like P. J. O'Roarke or a liberal one like Molly Ivins, regardless of their politics. When an insult reaches a certain level of artistry, than you have to agree with Aristophanes:

"To be insulted by you is to be garlanded with lilies."

In short, I don't think the problem is too much confrontation, but too little creativity.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Straw Bale Building, Part II

Until recently, there have been two main approaches to building with straw bales. First, the straw bales can be the major structural element of the building—“load-bearing”—or a post and beam structure can be built and the straw bales used then as insulation.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each method of construction. Load-bearing straw bale walls are sufficient for residential construction, at least for smaller houses, but aren’t sufficiently strong for commercial houses.

Post and beam construction is strong enough for most types of structures (as strong as the posts and beams), but is more expensive to build.

In both types of construction, it’s important to have a good foundation and a good roof, preferably with wide overhangs, to prevent moisture from invading the structure. The straw bales are covered on the outside with stucco or plaster, usually on both the inside and outside of the building.

So far, straw bale houses are mostly a novelty and have mostly been built in the arid Southwest, but there are some new developments on the horizon that may lead to building more straw bale houses. Researchers, like the University of Bath who designed and is building the two story home pictured below, are working with prefabricated straw bale walls.
It’s sort of like tilt up cement construction, but lighter and with better thermal qualities.

I don’t know whether prefabricated straw bale homes will prove to be practical, but it’s an interesting idea.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Straw Bale Building, Part I

Some of you that saw my blog yesterday may wonder why anyone would choose to build a wall out of straw. You may be remembering the first of the three little piggies. There are several reasons. First, straw is a relatively cheap by product of growing wheat or rice. Second, straw has great insulating properties. Third, contrary to what you might think, straw is highly fire resistant. Finally, straw bale construction is relatively uncomplicated and straightforward.

Straw is relatively cheap, but this is a case where the term “relative” is the one you should focus on. While the straw itself isn’t a big expense, it takes more labor to build a straw bale wall than to build traditional framed walls, and in construction labor is a very major percentage of your costs. Part of the reason it takes more labor is just familiarity, people aren’t used to building with straw, but straw bale construction is probably about twenty percent more expensive than typical building costs. The hope is to make back that cost through energy savings.

This piece by Nehemiah Stone is a little technical for the likes of me: http://www.ecobuildnetwork.org/pdfs/Thermal_properties.pdf. But the conclusion is fairly straightforward, straw bale construction is three times better at preventing heat loss than typical wood stud construction. That may translate into an energy saving of as much as 75%.

Here’s another technical piece that examines the flammability of straw bale walls: http://www.casacalida.be/downloads/brandveiligheid/Fire_safety.pdf. The conclusion of this article is that plastered straw bale walls easily can meet the requirements for a one hour fire rating (and maybe meet the requirements for a two hour fire rating). If that doesn’t mean much to you, then in simpler terms it means that straw bale walls meet the requirements for interior fire walls in commercial buildings, and may meet the requirements for exterior fire walls. Typical residential construction only has a thirty minute rating.

In part II, we’ll take a quick look at how straw bale homes are built and link to a few sites that can give you more detail.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Difference Between Hay and Straw

Almost forty years ago, I remember a discussion with my college Latin professor in which he complained about the urbanization of our vocabulary. He was trying to teach college students to read and translate Latin, but continually ran into the problem that much of the time his students didn’t know the difference between one kind of tree or plant and another. How are you going to understand the Latin word for “elm” or “maple”, if you don’t know the difference between those kinds of trees in English?

(The picture on top is an elm; the second picture is a maple.)

The Romans lived much closer to the land than we do, and if you didn’t understand the significance of different plants in their literature—didn’t even know the plants were different—then you lose a good part of the significance of Latin poetry.

I can’t say that I was very impressed with my professor’s complaint when I was twenty. After all, the world can probably do reasonably well with a somewhat diminished understanding of Horace, but last week a sense of how much we have lost came through to me (warning: my father taught vocational agriculture when I was growing up).

I was talking to a structural engineer, and realized he didn’t understand the difference between hay and straw, even though he owned a ranch himself.

This is probably well known to you, but according to Wikipedia:

Hay is a generic term for grass or legumes that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as animal feed, particularly for grazing animals like cattle, horses, goats, and sheep.

Straw is an agricultural by-product, the dry stalk of a cereal plant, after the grain or seed has been removed.

Hay is used to feed livestock; straw doesn’t have enough nutritional content to be very useful for feed—it’s used for animal bedding and a variety of other uses, like hats, thatching and baskets, many of which aren’t much in demand any more.

As a result, hay is relatively expensive (maybe $7.00 per bale) and straw is pretty cheap ($2.50 per bale), according to the prices I found today. Now you may fell that you can live your life happily without ever knowing the difference between hay and straw, but one of the designs we are reviewing for Re:Vision Dallas calls for building a straw bale wall, so if you don’t know the difference between hay and straw, then you won’t understand that while a hay bale wall may be prohibitively expensive, the same isn’t necessary true for a straw bale wall.

By the way, if you’re interested in building your own straw bale house, or just learning more about the process, then you should pick up a copy of Building a Straw Bale House: The Red Feather Construction Handbook. It was written by Nicholas Corum, one of the members of the jury for the Re:Vision Dallas competition.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Today among other tasks, I looked at a few swatches. We’ve been trying to select the furniture for the lobby at CityWalk, and I think I may be frustrating everyone.

CityWalk was built in 1958 and I want to go with a mid-century modern look. Karen Evans (pictured below) and Robert Howell (sorry Robert, no picture today) at WKMC Architects are working on the lobby furniture and they’ve already found some great stuff with cool shapes that are going to look great.

Now we’re working on the colors. Take a look at a few of the swatches for yourself.

I think there are some really fun colors and patterns. I very much want CityWalk to exude a little cool—and avoid any semblance of institutional design. The last thing I want our residents to be reminded of is a hospital.

I am so staid in my personal style—if I can even be said to have a style—that I think it was hard for Karen and Robert to believe that I didn’t want conservative colors and patterns. I’m sure my desire to be a little avant garde was a surprise.

But just because I’m not cool myself, doesn’t mean I don’t want cool!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Designed to Live

My wife and daughter are practically addicted to HGTV—they watch it almost as much as I watch the Food Network (but of course I could quit whenever I want to). I’m usually fine with HGTV. I even got into the Next Design Star. I’m a sucker for almost any time of reality show competition, and really hate it when I miss Top Chef, so the Next Design Star wasn’t that different.

There is a whole category of shows that I dislike, though. Any show that is about flipping real estate or selling real estate or buying real estate (for example, House Hunters, except the international version, which I rather like because of the exotic locales)—Designed to Sell is the foremost show in this genre—irritates me.

A home should be built as a place to live, not a place to sell. I find people’s personal taste and eccentricities fascinating. If I don’t see a great deal of its owner in a home, then I tend to assume that the owner is hiding himself or herself from the world, and from me.

Each of us live differently and what’s right for me may not me right for you. For example, my wife and I are in the process of completing the design of a condo that we’re buying. It’s just for her and me, since our children are now grown, so it has some features that we want but that would not appeal to buyers.

Rather than a second bedroom, we have two studies, one for each of us. We both spend many hours working from home and have a number of hobbies we are enthusiastic about. We each need a place to get away and work or pursue our hobbies. The studies are very small but they are a place to get away. We don’t have overnight visitors, and after all, the Fairmont, Sheraton and Adolphus Hotels are all within easy walking distance of our condo if we need a place to put up guests.

There are other features that make sense to us, but wouldn’t to most people. Both bathrooms can be entered from our bedroom. The kitchen is designed for me to cook in, because I do most of the cooking. That means the work areas are a little higher than usual and all the appliances are to my specification. The laundry is entered off my wife’s study, because she does most of the laundry.

In short, the condo is designed as a place for us to live with the way we live in mind. I know that shows like Designed to Sell serves a useful purpose. Sometimes you need to sell your home and your first thought needs to be for potential buyers. I admire some of the designs in the show. Sometimes it is very good work.

Homes should not be regarded first as investments, though, or built with the next owner in mind. The monetizing of homes is how we got into much of our current mess. Homes shouldn’t be bought to be sold, or borrowed against. When you buy a home, it should be a place you intend to stay (although the future can always bring uncertainty), a neighborhood you intend to know and neighbors you intend will become friends.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


What do you think of when you think of Seattle?

Maybe the Space Needle?
Maybe the Pike Place Market?

Or Puget Sound?

Or maybe if you’re a movie buff you think of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle?
Well I’m off to Seattle for the next two days, but I’m part of a group from Dallas to look at what Seattle is doing to provide housing for the formerly homeless. So we’re going to look at what Plymouth Housing is doing, like this project scheduled to open next year:

Plymouth Housing has eleven buildings with 1,000 units available for housing people that were formerly homeless. All of these units are in downtown Seattle, which isn’t any bigger than Downtown Dallas. You can read more about the work of Plymouth Housing here: http://www.plymouthhousing.org/.

When I get back, I hope I’ll have more to say about its work.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Green Line Opens

If you are from the Dallas area, then you could hardly help hearing about the opening of the first segment of Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s new Green Line. The Green Line will eventually run from Dallas’s northwest suburbs (where it will connect with the A-Train that continues on to Denton, Texas) to far southeast Dallas in Pleasant Grove.

The segment that opened Saturday only runs from the Victory development just north of Downtown Dallas to the Martin Luther King station at Fair Park—it was put in place early so that people can take the train to this year’s State Fair. But one place you can go pretty easily is from our office in Deep Ellum to our CityWalk project, so Saturday I couldn’t resist using the train to get from our office where I was working to CityWalk. I also couldn’t resist taking some pictures, both of and on the train.

I have to admit that I rode the train mostly because it was its first day, but it worked out pretty well. Even though I just missed the first train that came by, another came pretty soon and I made the trip in about the same amount of time that it would take me to walk to my car and then drive.

Each new rail line makes Dallas a little more walkable, a little more sustainable and not only increases economic development but reduces air pollution as well.

Besides I like trains.

Down at CityWalk, work was in progress, even on Saturday as the first delivery of cabinets (for the fourth and fifth floors) was coming in. I even had a real reason to ride the train to CityWalk. My wife’s sister and her husband were in town and wanted to see the project I’ve been talking about for almost five years now!

New Hope Housing Visits CityWalk

The picture below is of Joy Horak-Brown, on the left, and Tamara Foster of New Hope Housing in Houston, Texas, flanked by Larry James, Chairman of the Board of Central Dallas CDC, on the far left, and myself on the far right at CityWalk last Thursday. Joy and Tamara came up to Dallas to take a look at what we are doing.

New Hope Housing is the pre-eminent developer and operator of permanent supportive housing in Houston where it operates 319 units of permanent supportive housing and has two more projects, the 149-unit Brays Crossing and the 166-unit Sakowitz Apartments, under construction.

Joy Horak-Brown leads New Hope Housing and Tamara Foster is in charge of operating its properties—and both of them have been inspirations to us in our work in trying to develop permanent supportive housing. One of the first projects we visited when we started this work was New Hope’s Hamilton Street Residence, which is only a deep fly ball away from Minute Maid Park.

New Hope showed us—and other visitors, including councilwoman Angela Hunt—that permanent supportive housing could co-exist with a diverse mix of housing, retail and office development in a downtown area. In fact, if you talked to people in the neighborhood surrounding the Hamilton Street Residence, many of them had no idea that the building housed people that had formerly been homeless, and nobody had ever had a problem with its residents.

New Hope’s new projects look like they will be every bit as high a quality as their previous projects—I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Check them out on their website here: http://www.newhopehousing.com/newhopehousing.html.

After all the encouragement they’ve given us, I was extremely pleased to be able to show Joy and Tamara that we hadn’t been wasting their time. We may still be behind New Hope in our efforts to eliminate homelessness, but we’re going to work hard to try to catch up—at least a little.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Staircase at Loretto Chapel

Here is a story, set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I believe:

Two mysteries surround the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel: the identity of its builder and the physics of its construction.

When the Loretto Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft twenty-two feet above. Carpenters were called in to address the problem, but they all concluded access to the loft would have to be via ladder as a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small Chapel.

Legend says that to find a solution to the seating problem, the Sisters of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. Months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers.

The stairway's carpenter, whoever he was, built a magnificent structure. The design was innovative for the time and some of the design considerations still perplex experts today.
Why do I believe this story? Because whenever our work has appeared beyond our strength and impossible to complete, someone has appeared to help us make it possible.

I don’t know whether this is providence in action, saints wondering the world, karma, or just the eternal luck of the Irish. I do know that if we work for what is right and do our very best that somehow the people necessary to see that the work gets done will be there.

I also know, unfortunately, that our angels seldom stay a moment longer than absolutely necessary, and that neither prays nor solicitations can call them back to us again, no matter how badly we miss them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Healthcare Reform and Small Business, Part II

It strikes me as very wrong that the United States should have fewer workers in small businesses than almost every country in Europe. Aren’t we the land of Jefferson’s citizen-farmers, Norman Rockwell’s small town businesspeople, the country of entrepreneurs and fearless risk takers?

I think the problem is that we aren’t quite fearless. I know more than one person that hesitated to strike out on their own because they didn’t want to lose their benefits—health insurance and retirement for the most part. Under our current system, that only means that people are acting as rational capitalists, because the penalties for supporting your own healthcare costs are substantial.

Let’s think through the numbers. Assume you are an exactly average American single adult worker. You make $15.57 per hour. If you work 2000 hours in a year, then your income for the year is $31,140. If you are self-employed that cost will need to be paid in after tax dollars, which means that you will need to pay at least the self-employment tax of 15.3% on your earnings plus income tax. The personal exemption and standard deduction total $9,350. Then you pay 10% income tax on your next $8,350 of income and 15% up to a total of $33,950 in taxable income. So your take home pay works like this:

Yearly income--$31,140
Self-employment tax— $4,764
Income tax--$2,851
Take home pay--$23,525 or $1,960 per month

The median average cost for healthcare in this country is $8,160 per person. That’s more than one third of your take home pay for our median American worker. Of course younger people who are healthier in general can get less expensive insurance, older Americans pay more, those with pre-existing conditions pay a lot more if they can get insurance at all, and families are also much more expensive. For many people their employer pays most of the cost, but if you’re self-employed then you are on your own.

If you just look at the median numbers, it’s clear that self-employed people at or below the median income can’t afford much in the way of health insurance. In fact, as a practical matter, almost nobody that takes home $2,000 per month is going to spend $680 of that income on health insurance. Instead our average self-employed person will go without health insurance, or at best get some kind of catastrophic policy that doesn’t cover anything but only costs $100 per month.

More likely, if they are at all concerned with insurance coverage, that person will keep their present job where their employer provides insurance.

In the end, I think that our traditional American support for both small businesses and a limited government role in healthcare are now contradictory. We need to choose between more individuals starting their own businesses and keeping government out of healthcare.

Healthcare is now such a big part of our personal and national budget that its costs are enormous burden on small businesses.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Healthcare Reform and Small Business, Part I

President Obama’s speech Wednesday evening has everyone talking about healthcare reform once again. The whole discussion has many of us confused. In fact, in the end it may turn out that no reform bill can pass because we all don’t understand the issue well enough to come to agreement.

One argument against healthcare reform that has always seemed to make sense to me is that small businesses can’t afford insurance for their employees (in fact most of the healthcare reform bills proposed have some sort of exemption for small businesses. You won’t have a hard time understanding why this particular argument appeals to me. Central Dallas CDC is a small business, and like most nonprofits our business model is usually pretty much hand-to-mouth. We provide healthcare insurance for our employees, but if it wasn’t for help from Central Dallas Ministries I don’t see how we could afford it.

I can easily imagine many—very many—small businesses going out of business if the government required them to provide healthcare insurance for their employees.

So I did something that I try to do whenever I can, I researched the issue. Here’s what I reasoned: If providing universal healthcare hurts small businesses, then other countries (like all the ones in Europe) that have universal healthcare should have fewer small businesses. Q.E.D.

It only took a moment to check my hypothesis (isn’t the internet wonderful?), because the first search that I ran turned up the following study: An International Comparison of Small Business Employment, by John Schmitt and Nathan Lane, published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in August 2009—only last month. You can find the whole study here: http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/small-business-2009-08.pdf, but here are the key findings:

• The United States has the second lowest share of self-employed workers (7.2 percent) – only Luxembourg has a lower share (6.1 percent). France (9.0 percent), Sweden (10.6 percent), Germany (12.0 percent) the United Kingdom (13.8 percent), Italy (26.4 percent) and 14 other rich countries all have higher proportions of self-employment.

• The United States has among the lowest shares of employment in small businesses in
manufacturing. Only 11.1 percent of the U.S. manufacturing workforce is in enterprises with
fewer than 20 employees. Eighteen other rich countries have a higher share of
manufacturing employment in enterprises of this size, including Germany (13.0 percent),
Sweden (14.4 percent), France (18.0 percent), the United Kingdom (18.1 percent), and Italy
(30.9 percent). Only Ireland (9.6 percent) and Luxembourg (8.5 percent) have a lower share
of manufacturing employment in enterprises with fewer than 20 employees. (Raising the
cutoff for a small business to fewer than 500 employees does not significantly alter the
relative position of the United States.)

• U.S. small businesses have a much lower share of employment than the comparison
economies do in the two high-tech fields for which the OECD publishes data: computer related
services and research and development.

This is exactly the opposite of what one would expect to find if there was a negative correlation between universal healthcare and small business. In fact, as we’ll look at in Part II of this essay, the authors of the study believe exactly the opposite may be true—that other countries have more small businesses because they have universal healthcare.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why You’d Best Leave My Truck Alone!

Here’s my truck, as it usually looks—unwashed with a canoe on top (makes it easy to find in parking lots!):

Here’s why you’re better off not messing with it:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Visit to the Geothermal Lab at SMU, Part II

The more I think about the visit to the SMU Geothermal Lab last week, the more intrigued I am with the production of electricity through geothermal means. Carrier Corp. in Syracuse, New York (the air conditioning company) makes a product that seems to get good reviews.

It can produce up to 275 kilowatts of electricity—about enough for a one hundred unit apartment complex, and it can also operate with a relatively low temperature difference (120 degrees) between the heat source and the ambient temperature. You can find a whole bunch of information about it here: http://www.commercial.carrier.com/commercial/hvac/product_technical_literature/1,3069,CLI1_DIV12_ETI4906_PRD1638,00.html.

The largest geothermal power complex in the world is located at The Geysers.

It’s about seventy-five miles north of San Francisco and borders on Sonoma Valley. The power plants located there produce 725 megawatts and provide about 60% of the power needs between the Golden Gate bridge and Oregon border.

Of course nothing is perfect, so although geothermal power works, is reliable and is cheap to operate, it does have one large drawback—the capital costs for a system are very large. In Texas you probably would need to drill a hole 8,000 to 10,000 feet deep to find a large enough temperature difference to make a geothermal system work. Drilling that far down costs about $1 million per hole, and you’d need two of them.

I would guess, though, that you might be able to find a couple of dry holes that you could use somewhere here in Texas, and that would bring the cost down substantially.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Visit to the Geothermal Lab at SMU

Last week I had the opportunity to visit with Maria Richards, Coordinator of Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Lab and Bonnie Jacobs, a member of the faculty of the Department of Earth Sciences at SMU, which operates the lab. Three engineers, volunteers from The Real Estate Council of Dallas, and Brent Brown, founder of the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, also attended. I often need translators if the discussion gets to technical, so I was glad they were there.

The meeting was fascinating.

I love maps, and the walls of the conference room where we met were covered with great maps like this:

I may not be sure of all what the map means, but the colors are great and, there’s a lot of information on it.

More usefully, I found out about all sorts of fascinating technologies, many of them practical right now, that I had no idea existed. There are at least four different technologies that have possible uses for the Re:Vision Dallas project.

First, if we could tap into the Trinity Aquifer, it might be possible to circulate warm water through some of the greenhouse or other agricultural features of the project, saving money and extending the growing season.

Second, there is the possibility of using heat pumps to lower utility costs. Heat pumps are a proven technology and already in use in the Dallas area.

Third, there is a device called an absorption chiller, which runs a chemical solution through underground pipes and helps provide cooling for the project, reducing energy costs.

Finally, the holy grail of geothermal energy production is the actual production of energy using the temperature differential between the surface and the bottom of the well. Think of it as air conditioning in reverse. Instead of using power to change the air temperature, it uses the temperature differential to produce electricity.

I’ll try to write some more on these possibilities after I’ve thought them through a little more, and had some more conversations with people who know more than I do, but until then, you might take a look at some of the information at the web page for SMU’s Geothermal Lab: http://smu.edu/geothermal/.

There may be some significant possibilities for renewal energy production besides the wind and solar power that everyone thinks of first.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

I got this friendly reminder from my workplace about Labor Day. I guess they don’t want me to forget and come to work when I shouldn’t be there! The notice includes a little bit of history about Labor Day:

“This is your friendly reminder that we are closed Monday, September 7th in observance of the Labor Day holiday. Please inform all neighbors, friends, and partners with whom you work.

A little Labor Day history:

The holiday originated in 1882 as the Central Labor Union of New York City sought to create "a day off for the working citizens." Congress made Labor Day a federal holiday on June 28, 1894, two months after the May Day Riots of 1894. May 4 was chosen to remember the Haymarket Affair. All 50 U.S. states have made Labor Day a state holiday.

Thank you for your hard work each day. Have a great weekend!”

The Haymarket Riots were an important event in American history, but they are little remembered now. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the incident:

“The Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket riot or Haymarket massacre) was a disturbance that took place on Tuesday May 4, 1886, [this appears to be the correct date] at the Haymarket Square
[4] in Chicago, and began as a rally in support of striking workers. An unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians.[5] [6] In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Orange Dog

This gorgeous butterfly, known as an “orange dog” or “giant swallowtail” wandered into our yard last week and landed on the wild grapevine that covers the garage wall behind our herb garden.

I had never seen this particular butterfly before—or more likely I had seen it but not really noticed it. The geometrical pattern on its wings when resting is both beautiful and mystifying. Since I saw this particular butterfly, I’ve been watching and I’ve seen two more orange dogs. When they are flying there is nothing very notable, but when they land they are spectacular.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Stand by Me

There’s a pretty good chance that someone’s already sent you a link to the viral video put out by Playing for Change of street musicians from all over the world playing the standard Stand by Me. If not, it’s worth a listen:


One of the best of the street musicians is Grandpa Elliot, the mostly blind singer from New Orleans. Last Saturday, on the fourth anniversary of Katrina’s visit to that city, my wife and I were walking in the French Quarter when we stumbled across Grandpa Elliot. My wife recognized him instantly.

Here’s a picture of my wife standing by Grandpa Elliot while he plays, what else, Stand by Me.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What if you lost your identity?

This morning going to work I drove a couple of blocks and then realized that I had left my driver’s license at home. I turned around and got it before continuing on to the office.

That brief episode made me think of a problem I had a year ago when I lost my driver’s license. In order to get a new driver’s license, I had to produce a certified copy of my birth certificate. I didn’t have one of those either.

No problem. All I had to do to get a certified copy of my birth certificate was produce my driver’s license—now there’s suddenly a problem.

Fortunately, I found a photocopy of my driver’s license in our files that I had made for some reason or other. The clerk in Ingham County, Michigan, where I was born, was willing to accept a photocopy by facsimile. I faxed the photocopy of the driver’s license to the county clerk, paid the fee and the extra fee for expedited service (both by credit card), and in a couple of days I had two certified copies of my birth certificate (I didn’t want to be caught without again).

Then I went to the driver’s license bureau, paid another fee, and within a couple of weeks I had a new driver’s license. It took a little effort and cost me a few bucks, but once again I had my identity back and could do important things like cash a check or drive without worrying that I might get taken into the jail if I was stopped for a traffic violation.

Now imagine that you have the same problem, but you are homeless as well. It happens all the time. Most homeless people carry all their important documents with them all the time, because they have no safe place to leave them. If you are homeless you sleep with your driver’s license or identity card, your birth certificate, your prescriptions, your social security card and every other document you need beneath your head as a pillow or cradled in your arms. If you don’t, the documents will be stolen.

The documents are frequently stolen. Maybe someone is looking for prescription drugs, or money, or just wants the bag the documents are kept in. I don’t know. I just know it happens.

Imagine trying to get new copies of those documents without a home, without an address, without money, and without access to a fax or computer. It is more difficult than you can comprehend.

Without those documents you can’t refill your prescription. You can’t get any benefits. You can’t apply for a job.

When I still worked at Central Dallas Ministries, at the L.A.W. center, one of our attorneys developed a specialty in obtaining birth certificates and identity cards for homeless people. She had a steady flow of business.

When you are homeless, it is just a matter of time before you lose your identity.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Today’s Slogan

My brother, who is a civil engineer in Michigan, sent me the following piece of advice:

The last 10% of a project takes 90% of the effort.

I can tell you that truer words were never spoken. Everything at CityWalk is almost done, which is another way of saying that nothing is actually done.

We are all so eager to see something done, not almost done, that it’s putting us all a bit on edge. It’s time to finish up; put our good clothes on; and start the party. We’ve had enough of cleaning and cooking and getting ready for the guests to arrive.

Sixty days are left. It’s not going to be enough—but it has to be enough.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Celebrating Woodstock!

How did you celebrate the three days of peace and music know as Woodstock? It wasn’t really in celebration of Woodstock, but by coincidence my wife and I went to a rock ‘n roll show for the first time in several years—but we went because Here in Arms (my son is the bass player) was releasing a new album.

The show was great. The crowd was enthusiastic and well behaved. The musicianship was first rate.

And, best of all, my son was in the band.

This Friday, on September 4, Jacob Greenan will be back at the City Tavern with another band he plays with—The Archetypes. Another piece of good news, because it’s a new band, The Archetypes are playing first, at 10:00 p.m., not last at 12:00 a.m. That means I can probably stay awake to hear them!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The End of the Known World

This is the end of the known world:

I bet some of you expected something a little more spectacular. Probably the same group that doesn’t see any more than a wardrobe,

without understanding what might be on the other side.

Well, I can’t tell you what’s on the other side of that log, because I’ve never been there. I won’t tell you exactly where that picture was taken either, although I will give you a few clues.

It’s only about half an hour paddle for me. You go up a winding side creek, under tree branches and through, usually, spider webs. Not much distinguishes this particular creek from the other small streams of water that wind back away from White Rock Lake and White Rock Creek, but most of them don’t let you go more than a few dozen feet before your way is blocked—not far enough to get out of sight and sound from the main channel, while this particular creek continues for a quarter mile or so before reaching the log across the stream that blocks your way.

Of course water is always moving and rivers always changing, so once in awhile you find that a creek you’ve looked at before is now open for a longer distance. I suppose, some day, the log will rot away and I’ll be able to paddle on in to a new world.

I could clamber up on the log and pull the canoe over. My chances of falling in the water would be about even odds. Alternatively, I could carry the canoe around the log. I don’t feel a need or reason to go further. I can see one water course bending to the left and one to the right before going out of sight. It’s likely that neither fork goes much further, but who knows? I am happy to leave the world beyond unexplored.

The water in front of the log is a good place to pause before turning around to head home. The distance makes for about an hour’s paddle that’s just enough for a nice weekday evening.

I have never seen another person up this side branch, although once I talked to a person who had been there. But for two years Wood Ducks nested just beyond the log and I could watch the ducks and ducklings when I stopped to turn around.

Nasturtiums growing ferally bloom there in the spring.

Once I say a raccoon crossing the log

and another time I saw an American Bittern standing among the reeds.
That’s the one and only time I’ve seen an American Bittern. They are common, but camouflaged so well that most of the time you don’t notice them.

Even when I don’t see anything unusual, there will be herons—great white, great blue and green, kingfishers, dragonflies and the sun setting behind Downtown Dallas as I paddle home.