Will Underwater Mortgages Sink the Economy?

Avoid Foreclosure

Short sales and strategic default allow desperate homeowners to escape the financial burden of underwater mortgages . Photo credit: Audrey F. Henderson, all rights reserved.

The Housing Market and the Economy

Before the housing market crisis threatened the collapse of the American economy, housing prices formed the foundation of an apparent economic boom. Unfortunately, much of that boom was built on a bubble of speculation, in the housing market and elsewhere. When the bubble burst, the economy slid into a deep recession not seen since the days of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The economy has technically been in recovery since 2009, and many large corporations, along with Wall Street, have enjoyed record profits and all time highs. However, many sectors, especially employment and housing, have lagged far behind. One of the major factors dragging the pace of the recovery is the high number of underwater mortgages. Unless and until America solves its housing problem once and for all, it’s difficult to imagine an economy that truly feels like a recovery for everyday Americans. Read the rest of this entry »


Sustainability and Affordable Housing: Maybe Occupy Is Onto Something

The Evolution of the Occupy Movement

Whatever else its participants may or may not have accomplished, the Occupy movement has changed the national conversation from austerity cuts and deficits to acknowledging injustice and resolving financial and social inequality. What began as a loosely organized string of gatherings has evolved to address issues ranging from Wall Street reform to cuts in mental health care.

NATO Summit Protesters

The Occupy movement and related activist groups have changed the national conversation from cuts and deficits to social and economic inequality. Photo credit — Audrey F. Henderson, all rights reserved.

Another injustice that Occupy has been speaking out against has been the ongoing housing and foreclosure crisis. In conjunction with this cause, and as an adjustment to forcible removal from public spaces by law enforcement, the movement has evolved to Occupying abandoned properties and homes of families facing foreclosure as an act of civil disobedience. For instance, in Chicago, a coalition between the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and Occupy Our Homes recently set a goal of renovating 100 abandoned homes for homeless families and households here in the city.

Outlining the Proposal

As I observed this phenomenon, I started thinking about how ironic and ridiculous it is that there are properties standing empty while families and individuals are homeless.  I began to consider what would be involved in Occupying vacant and abandoned buildings – legally – as affordable housing for homeless families and individuals or for households caught up in the housing crisis. I submitted a proposal for a presentation for the 2012 Chicago Green Festival with the working title “Sustainability and Affordable Housing: Maybe Occupy Is Onto Something.” Read the rest of this entry »

Driving the Ford Focus Electric

As much as progressives and ecologically inclined individuals promote public transit, car sharing and other planet-friendly alternatives to individually operated vehicles, the fact remains that America loves its cars.  To be fair, there are instances when nearly all individuals need or want access to a car, van or truck.  In rural areas and regions where public transit is scarce or nonexistent, being without one’s own vehicle literally means being stranded.

It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most heavily visited exhibits at the 2012 Chicago Green Festival was the all-electric Ford Focus, one of several models on display by Ford.  Visually modeled after the popular and well-reviewed gasoline powered Ford Focus, the all-electric model is Ford’s answer to the Nissan Leaf and, to a lesser extent, the dual gasoline and electric-powered Chevrolet Volt.   According to the representatives at the Green Festival, there are only 36 Focus Electric models on the road at present, mostly utilized as company cars for Internet giants Google and Yahoo.   However, the manufacturing plant in Wayne, Michigan is equipped to produce the Focus along with other Ford models, and can increase or decrease production as demand warrants.

The all-electric model is priced at a hefty $39,999. However, buyers are eligible to receive federal income tax credits that can decrease the out-of-pocket costs;  additional financial incentives may also be available at the state level.    In addition, owners of all-electric cars are  spared the pain at the pump of fluctuating (and usually increasing) gasoline prices.   Home charging stations for overnight charging of the Focus Electric are available at Best Buy, with installation by the Geek Squad.   Public charging stations are also becoming increasingly available, especially in urban areas.

Ford Focus Electric

The all-electric Ford Focus was one of the most popular exhibits at the 2012 Chicago Green Festival, held May 5 and 6 at Navy Pier. Photo Credit — Audrey F. Henderson, all rights reserved.

Like the Toyota Leaf, the Focus Electric derives its power from a lithium-ion battery.   The Focus Electric has a regenerative braking system that recaptures up to 90 percent of the energy normally lost through conventional friction braking. It also has a liquid-powered heating and cooling system to regulate battery temperature against exterior conditions, which can be a real advantage with the temperature extremes that occur in Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

“Going Green” With Building and Maintenance Can Put Your Company in the Black

Many companies have adopted the idea of “going green” in conducting their internal affairs or as an overall focus for doing business. As a result, these companies often significantly minimize their environmental impact. In addition, companies that employ green building and maintenance practices enjoy a number of advantages, ranging from an enhanced public image to improved employee working conditions and a more robust bottom line.

Improved customer image

Customers are influenced in their purchasing decisions by whether a business shows environmental consciousness. For instance, Environmental Leader reported in 2007 that 72 percent of rental customers wanted hybrid vehicles included among rental car options. Nearly half of all cell phone customers consider a mobile carrier provider’s “green” credentials.   In a tough housing market, 70 percent of potential home buyers were more inclined to purchase homes with “green” features, according a 2008 Green SmartMarket Report.  Customers also tend to remain loyal to “green” companies during economic downturns.

Enhanced worker productivity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines “sick building syndrome” to refer to health-related complaints by workers that cannot be attributed to a particular cause but which are present in an indoor environment.   A similar condition, “building related illness,” applies to health-related complaints directly related to airborne contaminants. Symptoms of “sick building syndrome” and “building related illness” include respiratory distress, headache, fatigue and dizziness, according to the EPA.   A survey of 100 office workers conducted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) revealed that 23 percent suffered symptoms related to “sick building syndrome.”

City Hall Green Roof

In this photo from 2009, the Chicago City Hall side of this building utilizes a green roof, while the Cook County side does not. The Cook County side has since adopted a white roof.  
Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson — all rights reserved

The nationwide cost in lost productivity related to “sick building syndrome” amounts to 2 percent annually, according to New York Real Estate Journal. Increasing indoor ventilation and reducing the indoor concentration of carbon dioxide to meet the standards established by LEED V3 diminishes complaints related to “sick building syndrome,” according to research conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.  LEED V3 standards for indoor ventilation call for a 30 percent increase above the 2007 ASHRAE 62.1 ventilation standard of 20 cubic feet per minute (CFM) per person. Substituting nontoxic building materials, cleaning supplies and office equipment that do not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) greatly reduces airborne contaminants related to “building related illness.” Read the rest of this entry »

Is the Earth Squandering Its Future?

On The Street of the Lifted Lorax, “the wind smells slow and sour when it blows; and the birds never sing, except for old crows . . . ” In this forsaken place, there are decrepit signs in shoddy disrepair, tufts of grickle-grass, and not much else.

The Street of the Lifted Lorax is Dr. Seuss‘ mythical representation of the consequences of rampant greed and urban sprawl run amok. Although The Lorax was published in 1971, and the animated feature produced in 1972, its lessons still resonate as a cautionary tale, with some of its hardest lessons evidently still unlearned in the real world.

The destruction the Earth’s natural habitats and the effects of climate change are increasingly obvious, with the ironic result of making further commercial ventures viable in regions heretofore inaccessible. The fabled Northwest Passage, long an unattainable shipping lane due to year round Arctic ice cover, may become a reality before the end of this century.

Also ironically, the fossil fuels which are believed to be largely responsible for climate change have become potentially more accessible as well. In August 2005, a Russian research ship was able to reach the North Pole without an icebreaker to clear a pathway – the first time in history. Its mission? To anchor Russia’s claim to virtually half the Arctic Ocean – estimated to hold a full one quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves. Such reserves are nearly irresistible for industrialized and developing economies facing increasing scarcity and higher prices for fossil fuels. A Thneed, after all, is what everyone needs.

The Finnish dream in Sundsberg

This development located near Helsinki represents a Finnish approach to suburbia. Neat and orderly, Sundsberg is nonetheless nearly inaccessible except by car or other private vehicle.
Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson, all rights reserved.

The need has become more acute as the planet becomes ever more urbanized, putting further strain on resources such as clean drinking water and arable land suitable for agriculture, never mind uninhabited natural landscapes. According to U.N. Habitat, the world’s urban population will grow from 2.86 billion in 2000 to 4.98 billion by 2030, with much of that growth in the developing world, in medium and low-income countries – with many of the migrants themselves being extremely poor.This is an increasingly urgent situation, which, if unaddressed, is a time bomb in the making. Many cities worldwide are ringed with shantytowns of unimaginable poverty. A major aspect of urban sustainability (if not bottom-line livability) in decades to come will be in dealing with this influx of people, both in numbers and in the scope of their social needs. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Reflects Life: Documentary Highlights Celebration of Sullivan’s Genius

A sellout crowd filled the John Buck Lecture Hall at the Santa Fe Building on the evening of Wednesday, October 13, 2010, as the Chicago Architecture Foundation hosted the showing of the award-winning documentary  Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American ArchitectureA Q and A session with the documentary’s director, Mark Richard Smith immediately followed the screening.

Family members and loved ones of longtime CAF docent Aileen Mandel, who was featured in the film and who died in 2009, were honored guests at the event. The film was a highlight of a month-long celebration of Louis Sullivan and his work by CAF.

Sullivan Capital

Not content with standard Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, Louis Sullivan created unique column capitals.
Photo Credit: Audrey F. Henderson — all rights reserved

The film follows Louis Sullivan from his youth and arrival in Chicago as a teenager, through the course of his career, chronicling his rapid ascent to the heights of architectural recognition to his long decent into poverty and obscurity — at least with the public.  Although he was largely unsuccessful at making his living as an architect after the turn of the 20th Century, Louis Sullivan’s reputation never dimmed among his professional peers. In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th Century, considered Louis Sullivan to be a mentor, calling him  “lieber meister,”  German for “beloved master.”

The height of Sullivan’s career is embodied in one of his most acclaimed structures, the Auditorium Building, which also represents a physical manifestation of the symbiotic partnership of Louis Sullivan, the consummate designer, and Dankmar Adler, the brilliant acoustical and structural problem-solver. The original design of the  Auditorium Building seamlessly integrated three distinct functions: an office block, an opera hall, and a grand hotel into what was at the time the largest, heaviest structure in the world. Read the rest of this entry »