The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘housing’ Category

THEY “GONNA PUT YA’LL BACK IN CHAINS”

Some people think Vice President Joe Biden is merely inept and insensitive.  I think that he’s planning a second career as a script writer for SNL should he and President Obama’s bid for re-election fail.  So far he’s managed to offend blacks, Greeks, and Indians (the kind that he thinks were destined to own and operate 7-11’s) and can it be a long wait until he starts telling Pollock jokes?

What the Vice President doesn’t understand is that there is some truth in his statement, that blacks are “Gonna get put back in chains.”  The part of the statement that he doesn’t comprehend is that is exactly the case now and has become increasingly more so under the greatest expansionist of the “Welfare State,” President Barack Obama.

Welfare is perhaps the greatest oxymoron in our language.  Very simply put – it isn’t.  It is indentured servitude and has created a permanent underclass with no education, no future and no hope.  It allows people to subsist below the poverty level in an environment of despair, overcrowded housing conditions and with exposure to personal violence that, if we were to see their real lives portrayed on television, we would be horrified.

This is not the “Good Times” of Esther Rolle and Jimmie Walker, living in a housing project in Chicago and keeping it together as a family.  That is an image that does not stand up to the reality of the average black welfare recipient’s life – a life which includes poor medical care and an insufficient income to feed the family which is headed up by a mother with no father present in more than seven of ten cases.

This is a story about a life where the children born into it experience a nationwide drop out rate from high school of nearly seventy percent and a teenage pregnancy rate that is six times the national average – perpetuating yet another generation destined to live in poverty and ignorance.

This is a story where the average life expectancy of a resident is 12 years shorter than for their black brothers who live in middle class neighborhoods, due to disease and violent death.

This is a true American tragedy – and it is at the feet of our politicians that we should lay the blame.  They have done everything in their power to continue the enslavement of this large segment of our population in a manner that would have embarrassed their ancestors’ former owners.  Why?  Because this is a dependable block of votes to keep the perpetrators in power and the voters, who know no better, miserable and dependent.

Thank heaven for industry which has provided a means of escape from this life of poverty and despair – although that exit sign is open only to a few – those who have the potential to become professional athletes or have careers in entertainment.  For there is no other way out for this populace whom we have created.  Even if the economy were booming, they simply do not have the skills to fill possible job openings – not even within government.

So Vice President Biden, spend a day visiting one of the public housing projects that you and your party have created – if you dare.  And if you can come away from that experience with a clever remark on your lips and a smile on your face – well then it should be clear to all that it is you who are the joke.  And no one is laughing.

ON THE HOMELESS

When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began a program to create a half-way house for runaway underage children, they looked in various Chicago neighborhoods to find a suitable structure.  This was in the mid-70’s.  Their idea was to create a safe haven where these children could find shelter and have some semblance of security.

Many of these kids had run away from abusive family environments.  Others were emotionally confused, unable to cope and chose a life away from home as an escape.  Most sold themselves for sexual favors as a way to support themselves – and others found themselves the victims of sexual predators.

As you probably know Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.  If your background is Polish or black or Italian or Irish or Hispanic, there are one or more neighborhoods where you probably live with other people who share your ethnicity.   People jealously guarded their invisible borders and did not welcome the intrusion of “outsiders”.

I happened to live in one of the most socially-liberal communities not only in Chicago but probably anywhere in the country.  Not surprisingly, when word of this project spread among my neighbors there was a huge groundswell of support that rose from them.

Well, the Church tried neighborhood after neighborhood to locate their half-way house only to meet with community resistance and rebuke.  The people of these neighborhoods simply didn’t want these outsiders living among them.  In order to establish a half-way house a change in zoning was required.  If an alderman in a particular ward opposed giving a variance, that essentially ended the matter.  And the neighborhood residents had their aldermen’s ears.

Then the Church had its Eureka moment.  Like Saul on the road to Emmaus suddenly they saw the light.  Why were they beating a dead horse when there was a very obvious solution to the problem?   They would locate their half-way house in a neighborhood where, from the inception of this project, they had received the full support of the community.  They would bring it to my neighborhood.

To paraphrase the popular song, “What a difference a neighborhood makes.”  What had been active community support when the project was to be located elsewhere, suddenly met the exact same opposition when it was proposed that it be placed within our hallowed borders.  The project never came to fruition.

The purpose of this post is not to indict “phony morality” or point fingers at anyone.  That is neither my right nor is it a responsibility I want to accept.  I’ll leave that to a higher power to make those judgments.  But recalling this episode gave me an idea which fits my goal of “thinking outside the box” as a way that we might address some of our social and economic issues.

If there is any one thing that we could say about our major cities it is that they all have their populations of people who are homeless.  Studies suggest that many of these have mental challenges and that is the reason for their situations.  But with the continuing sputtering of the economy and the burst in the housing bubble there are some who used to have a home and have found that the bank foreclosed on them.  They have entered the ranks of the people of the street.

Every analysis of the housing market suggests that we have at least a two year inventory of housing available that will have to be absorbed before housing prices stabilize.  The banks are holding increasing numbers of non-performing assets (foreclosed homes) on their books.  They would love nothing more than to be able to sell those – but there are no buyers for them.

So here’s the idea.  The government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars, trying to get the economy stimulated.  The results so far have been less than impressive.  So what if the Federal government were to purchase some of these foreclosed homes from the banks and turned them over to a non-profit agency – perhaps Catholic Charities or The Salvation Army.  These houses could become shelters for some of the millions of homeless who inhabit our cities.

The Federal government would own the properties – but the ones they purchased would reduce our existing inventory of unsold homes, hastening the recovery in the housing market.  The agency or agencies which had charge of these properties would require that all people who accepted residence there exchange their services for the roof over their head.  Is this a mere pipedream – or might there be some merit to it?

Yesterday I was out and  happened to see a man at an intersection.  He was holding a cardboard sign which asked those who passed by to help him with a donation.  I pulled into the gas station which was behind where he stood, got out of the car and walked over to him.  I asked if he would spare a few minutes of his time.  He seemed eager to talk with me.

I explained that I had an idea for helping people who were homeless and asked him if he were indeed one of those.  He said that he was.  So I asked if , rather than living on the street, he would be willing to live in a house with a number of other men and in exchange for housing do some kind of work for which he was qualified.

The man’s eyes lit up and he said that he was a “handyman” and could fix just about anything.  In fact he had supported himself that way for many years but when the housing market turned down, people either put off doing repairs or learned to do them themselves.  That’s when his slide into homelessness began.  He had been on the streets now for almost two years.

Obviously, this is just the beginning of an idea that is not  yet even at the talking stages among those who could make it happen.  I felt sad if I had given this man, Andy a sense of false hope.  I thanked him for speaking with me, gave him some money and left him on his corner.

If this idea ever gains traction I am going to recommend that Andy be allowed to participate in the program.  I know where he works.

ON CONSISTENCY AND LEADERSHIP

What constitutes winning leadership?  The answer that has come back from study after study is that whether it is in a family setting, in the workplace or in government it is that those who direct our activities are consistent in their behavior.

It seems to be an innate part of our nature that we like certainty.  We wake up each morning expecting the sun to be there; we catch a regular train on our commute to work; we have our favorite spots to go for meals or certain special foods that we enjoy eating at home; we look forward to March Madness and the Super Bowl; we enjoy the feeling of festivity and friendship and warmth that comes from sharing the Holidays with our relatives and friends.  Such is human nature – and as a member of that group – I share those feelings.

As I reflected on this I thought about the leadership that we have seen out of Washington, D. C. in recent years.  I thought about this in terms of two separate but very important areas which affect all of us – the first being the omnibus healthcare legislation which is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court and the second, our energy policy.

On the surface and without engaging in a debate as to the delivery mechanisms, it would seem that a caring society would want to include as many if not all its members in a program to ensure their health and well-being.  That is how President Obama’s healthcare plan has been presented to us and those who are supporters will find comfort in their belief that this is good legislation.

So for purposes of conversation, let’s accept that it is just that – good legislation and good policy.  Its inclusiveness will reach out to those who currently are unable to purchase healthcare insurance – which should include a significant number of our financially poorer citizens.  As a person who believes that helping others is both a personal responsibility as well as a societal obligation, I endorse the theory and presumed motivation behind this concept.

Now let’s look at the administration’s views on energy.  I re-blogged a post yesterday by Green Mountain Scribes entitled “Out of Touch Obama”.  This article makes a very strong case for the administration’s determination to see that energy prices increase significantly – in order to push us towards a more environmentally-friendly solution to develop clean fuels and sources for our energy needs.  Again, I support that concept of reducing our carbon emissions – but let me share with you the reality off that quest.

Several years ago I investigated the possibility of installing solar panels on my house.  I had already taken as many steps as I could to reduce my energy consumption – improving insulation and just turning things off.  So I finally found a company that had the capability of installing solar panels on my home and eliminating any electric demands I would have to make on NV Energy – our local electric utility.

After the Federal and Nevada credits were applied, my net cost to totally solarize a modest-sized home was approximately $120,000.  (As the market in housing had already started on its precipitous decline – I could have purchased two or perhaps three small houses here for that investment).  So I reviewed the economics of this and ultimately decided that it would take me approximately 80 years to recover my solar investment – but I stood a far greater chance of being able to develop a rental income and perhaps make a profit on the sale of the alternative home investment if that were the route that I pursued.  As it turned out, I did neither of these.

It is my understanding that with the improvement in the production and cost reduction in solar panels, three years later (and without benefit of government subsidies), I could now have that installation done for a cost of about $75,000.  Based on my current electric usage that still would require about 50 years to recoup my investment.  In other words, we are a very long way from getting the costs of environmentally-friendly solar panels down to where they are affordable for the average individual.  And, of course, they have a limited geographical value because of the presence or absence of consistent sunlight.

But in the meanwhile, rising oil and gas prices have a very direct and immediate impact on all of us.  As I drove from the dog park two weeks ago, I remember one day as I passed a 7-11 on my way home that the price at the pump was changed twice that day and again the following morning.  (By changed I mean raised).  So the current administration’s policy is having the effect of draining spendable dollars, vitally needed to get our economic recovery on track, and putting those dollars in their gas tanks so that those who still have jobs can get to work.

But there is a far more insidious consequence to all of this as it relates to the health of our citizenry.  Rising prices for fossil fuels means rising costs for utility services.

I remember reading, during periods of extreme weather both hot and cold, about how many elderly people and young children died because they or their parents couldn’t afford to pay their utility bills and did without the benefits of heat or air conditioning.  An increase in the price of these services will certainly mean that even more people should expect to succumb to this fate should we again experience extreme weather conditions which are apparently becoming more the norm than the exception.

As we work toward a viable renewable energy system (which by the most optimistic estimates will provide no more than ten percent of our needs), is it reasonable or moral to treat the most vulnerable members of our society as mere pawns, readily sacrificed for the ultimate greater good?  This question is particularly important as it is these very people whom we purportedly seek to benefit in our strategy of expanding our healthcare system.

I for one would rest more comfortably if I felt that those who are making decisions that affect all of us were true leaders and made decisions which were consistent.

HOME IMPROVEMENT

If you have never embarked on a major renovation of your home or apartment, allow me to share my experience in doing that with you so that you can make an informed decision before you proceed. 

I had always been told that kitchens and bathrooms were the most expensive and complicated of these projects – so I naturally chose to introduce myself to the subject by redoing the kitchen.  It was a major overhaul that involved incorporating a small bedroom off the kitchen, installing quarry tile flooring, updating all the fixtures and purchasing custom made cabinetry.  The key, I realized was designing the new kitchen in such a way that it was functional as well as attractive.

Although I had a good sense of what I wanted I thought that it would be wise to employ the services of a designer and fortunately I had one on whom I could rely.  She was a customer of my mom’s store in New York but she lived about twenty minutes from my apartment in Chicago.  She was very talented.  So I hired her and together we worked out a beautiful plan for a marvelous new kitchen.

Then I had to select a general contractor and one of my friends who was a very particular person recommended the services of a firm that she had hired to redo her own kitchen.  Their specialty was in building custom cabinetry.  I thought if Paulina were satisfied with the job I would use them as well.

Everything was set and we were about to begin demolition.  Since I lived in an apartment built in the 1920’s, the walls were all constructed of lath and plaster and there was going to be a lot of plaster dust floating through the air.  I didn’t want to breathe this – but I more particularly didn’t want my two dogs, Tristan and Josh breathing it.  So I made arrangements to board them on a Monday-Friday basis at a pet motel that was a fifty mile drive one way from the apartment.

The contractor gave me an estimate of six weeks from start to finish.  The quarry tile and the new appliances were on order.  The only thing that had to be constructed was the cabinetry in which their firm specialized.  Having heard that contractors had a habit of starting a job and then not showing up for days at a time, I suggested that we double their six week estimate to twelve weeks after which they would pay a daily penalty for not completing the job.  The contractor pooh-poohed that idea and I caved in and agreed to sign the contract as they had presented it.

I had packed away all the pots and pans and dishes and spices and was all set for them to show up the following Monday.  I remember the project was to commence on June 3rd because I had taken our staff out for a festive luncheon the previous Friday to celebrate the best month our firm had ever posted.  I got to the lunch a little late as I had a few things to finish up at the office before joining the staff.  When I got to there I didn’t feel very well.

I sat there trying to maintain the sense of enthusiasm and camaraderie which the lunch was intended to foster but barely touched my meal.  That evening I was at the office late and went into the men’s room to wash my hands before going home.  I was shocked to look at myself in the mirror as I washed up.  My eyes were the color of a very dark legal pad – a sickly shade of brownish-yellow.

I had contracted serum hepatitis (along with four other patients) from an improperly sterilized needle at my new dentist’s office.  The doctor with whom I consulted said that my readings (whatever those were) were off the charts.  His advice was to rest and to avoid any alcohol for a one year period.  I had no problem with either part of his prescription as my body automatically wanted to sleep about twenty hours a day.

But in three days we were going to start on the kitchen.  I got up early that Monday to find that the team of kitchen wreckers had arrived.  I let them go about their business as I piled the dogs into the car.  We got about half way there when I wanted to sleep – but I pressed on turning the air conditioning on full blast to try staying awake.  Finally we got there and I signed them into their room and started back for home.

About halfway home I was so tired that I pulled off the expressway, found a quiet suburban street and parked the car.  I went in the back and lay down, waking three hours later.  I continued the drive back to the apartment and went in to find the workmen were still doing their demolition and, despite the heavy plastic that had been taped over the door to the old kitchen I could see the dust in the air that had been generated from their work.  I went to my bedroom to lie down and when I woke the apartment was silent and night had fallen.

The next morning the workmen returned, demolishing the little bit that they had remaining and continued to haul away the debris.  They finished the job mid-afternoon and the apartment was silent.  One of my friends who lived down the street had invited me to join her for dinner.  She made a wonderful meal which I barely touched and I remember trying to stay awake while eating.  I crashed on her couch and she let me sleep until I woke up at two in the morning.  She had gone to bed  and I let myself out of the apartment and went home to my own bed where I slept another six hours.

The sun beamed into my bedroom’s windows.  I was feeling better that morning and the shade of my eyes had improved to the point that they were merely a putrid yellow.  I went into the bathroom to throw some water on my face and wondered what the contractor would be doing today.  I hoped that they would do it quietly since my curiosity about the project was being strongly challenged by my desire to return to bed.  While I waited for them to come to work, I lay back on my bed and when I woke it was noon.

There was still no sound of activity from the kitchen.  I had given the contractor the key so I knew that they could get in – merely that they had not showed up that day.  I was still too ill even to bother calling to find out what was going on.  When the phone rang it was my friend from down the street to find out how I was feeling and to invite me to dinner again that evening.

After demolishing the kitchen the contractors were to be found nowhere during the next four weeks.  During this time I was driving my dogs to the kennel on Monday, picking them up on Friday to protect them from both the dust and the noise I expected that would be going on.  In addition to that cost and paying for gas, I was challenging myself to complete the drive without falling asleep.

But after a month of extensive rest my body was now content with getting only twelve hours of sleep a day.  The whites of my eyes were beginning to look almost normal and the follow up blood tests indicated a great deal of improvement.  I was now strong enough to call the contractor to find out why there had been this delay.

Howard, the contractor’s senior partner could have had a career in Congress rather than woodworking.  When we finished our conversation, I realized that despite the very profound  explanations he had given, he had said absolutely nothing concrete but merely danced around the issue.  Had I been feeling better I would have recognized that but this thought didn’t occur to me until about an hour after we had concluded our chat.

Well, for those of you who were thinking about doing a kitchen remodel let me tell you that six months after starting this project, the cabinets were finally installed.  During this time if it had not been for the charity of friends and the availability of restaurants I would have starved to death.  But there they were, the lovely cabinets which I had ordered.  But as I looked at them I thought they didn’t look as deep as I had expected them to be. 

I went to the box in which I had packed my everyday dinnerware and pulled out a dinner plate.  It was a standard 10” size and I put it in one of the cabinets.  (The doors for the cabinets had still not been installed – that was scheduled for a few days later).  I placed the plate as far in the cabinet as it would go – and discovered that there was about a two inch part of the plate that protruded from the cabinet.

I called the contractor and told him that he had a problem and I needed him to come over so I could show it to him.  He promised to free up his schedule so that he could swing by the next morning.

When Howard came over the next day I had the plate sitting in the cabinet.  I said, “Howard, we have a problem.”  He looked around the kitchen, casting his gaze on and past the plate and said, “Oh, what is that?”  I could feel my blood pressure starting to rise.

I said, “As you can see there is a dinner plate sitting in one of your cabinets.  I checked the original plans and you constructed these with a depth that is three inches shorter than what I specified.  Obviously, when you place the doors on these cabinets, this plate won’t fit.”

His response was, “Well, couldn’t you just lean them up in there?”

I had not yet begun to unpack my kitchen gear – and for that I am truly thankful.  Had I been anywhere near the box containing my kitchen knives I would have been writing this post from a prison cell where I was confined for the balance of my natural life.    I would no doubt have hacked him to death with my finest butcher’s knife.

I remember shouting at him at the top of my lungs (something which anyone who knows me realizes is totally out of character) – but after this six month ordeal I had finally reached the breaking point.  I think he knew I was seriously beyond the point of being angry.  So he said that “in the interest of saving time” rather than reconstruct the cabinets from scratch he could make an extension to bring them up to the original specifications.  He assured me that he could do this quickly and I would finally have my new kitchen..

Well quickly turned out to be yet another two months.  But I finally got my kitchen done, the extension and the doors were installed and as we went over our little punch list of things that needed minor attention. Howard handed me an invoice for $3,500.00 for the “changes” I had made to the plan.

He didn’t know how lucky he was that I had returned to my normal calm demeanor because by that time I knew exactly where my cutlery was.  Rather than discuss it with him I merely turned it over to my attorney to handle.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson.  If I ever have the insane notion of remodeling something in a house again I will sell the old place and find one that meets my artistic needs and desires.  Remodeling is just not worth the aggravation.

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