Volunteer Group Lags in Replacing Gulf Houses – New York Times

But almost 18 months after storms destroyed more than 250,000 homes, Habitat for Humanity says it has built just 10 houses for poor hurricane victims here, 36 in New Orleans, and a total of 416 along the entire coast, from Alabama to Texas. More are under construction, for a total of 702.

That slower pace reflects, in part, the more complex houses that Habitat builds in the United States, as well as the mind-numbing issues ”” involving insurance costs and government regulations ”” that seem to have bogged down efforts to rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But Habitat International is starting to face criticism that its procedures are slow, rigid and perhaps unsuited to helping disaster victims, however rewarding its efforts are for its volunteers. The organization is working through its independent local affiliates, which function like franchises and which have tended to build a dozen houses a year each.

Source: Volunteer Group Lags in Replacing Gulf Houses – New York Times

I am not surprised that the house building process has been slow. Having lived on the Gulf coast for eighteen years I am fully aware how government priorities change after a hurricane redesigns the neighborhood and the insurance companies update their risk profile. The first casualty is always the flood plain map. This directly affects where new homes can be built and who can get insurance.

Last year I helped build the walls for a Katrina house on the mall in Washington, DC. While I was there I asked some of the simple questions that bog down all Habitat building projects.

  1. Do you have the land and is it out of the revised flood plain?
  2. Can you get insurance?
  3. How are you qualifying the families?
  4. Does this house plan meet the family needs?

The people I talked to acknowledged that these problems and others were going to take some time to solve. The governments and insurance companies have to force the home building onto higher, safer ground. The new house locations are probably far away from work and relatives. This makes transportation a big problem. Since Habitat is building just a few house designs, it is likely that there are a number of families who need bigger houses or houses for special needs. The Habitat folks were hopeful that these problems would diminish over time. They felt that they were getting a lot of cooperation from local businesses and governments but I am sure they hoped to have a lot more houses completed by now.

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The Christian Science Monitor | Life at America’s bottom wage

Drawing on government data on the American workforce, labor economists highlight several patterns in the low-wage workforce:

  • Most workers don’t work the minimum wage for very long. Of workers who are 10 years into their careers, only about 13 percent have spent half or more of their career earning within $1.50 of the minimum wage, according to a 2001 study.
  • Minimum-wage workers are concentrated in low-skill service-sector occupations, including food service, retail, and motel housekeeping. Among Labor Department occupations, “leisure/ hospitality” leads the pack with 14.3 percent of workers earning $5.15 or less per hour. (Workers in some occupations such as food service can earn less than $5.15 if they earn enough tips to equal the minimum.) By contrast, just 0.4 percent of manufacturing workers earn minimum wage.
  • Of the 6.6 million workers who would be directly affected by the proposed minimum-wage hike to $7.25 an hour, 61 percent are female, 29 percent are age 16 to 19, 21 percent are Hispanic, 16 percent are black, and 9 percent are single parents, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

    Those numbers are all higher than the share of those groups in the total workforce. By contrast, 16 percent of those affected will be married parents – many fewer than the 29 percent of all workers who are in that group.

  • Many low-wage workers also face a high level of job insecurity. People with low skills are more likely to be unemployed, according to government data. And many low-wage workers have only part-time jobs. Of those directly affected by the proposed wage hike, 21 percent work fewer than 20 hours per week, whereas just 5 percent of the overall workforce is in that category. In addition to low skills, barriers to employment can include substance abuse or mental illness and other disabilities.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor | Daily Online Newspaper

Some additional barriers I have noticed in Habitat families trying to get and keep a job are:

  • Credit card debt
  • Illness/Short term disability
  • Transportation issues
  • Amount of time needed for training to get a better paying job 
  • Children with special needs
  • Family members moving in

The Fine Line between Social Activism and Rumor Mongering

DUKE (NON) RAPE UPDATE: Lots of new developments at K.C. Johnson’s blog….

Link to

Over the last couple of weeks I have been reading some of the background material on the  Duke Rape case. The dropping of the rape charge coincided with questions about how far I was willing to go with social activism. I was particularly interested in with the level of involvement by the faculty and their path toward healing on this divisive issue. From one point of view this rape case described race relations at Duke as a festering wound that white students do not see. The quote best describes this position comes from the original Group of 88 statement.

“They don’t see race. They just don’t see it.”

In my investigation I found that Duke has set up a website to coordinate news release on the incident. It is interesting to note that the Group of 88 statement was removed from the original Duke website and is not available on this new site either. It is only available from the Google cache. The Duke site has a nice collection of documents and links that try to explain how Duke is dealing with the problems. I have not reviewed all of the documents and links  but the selection appears to be impartial. 

Although it is debatable how bad race relations were before the incident, they are definitely worse now. I was disappointed to not find many signs of healing on Duke’s website. It would be nice to see some signs of healing and progress but I doubt black and white students discuss the problem. The problem is far more complex now. White students who did not see race problems before the incident, have been given a whole new understanding of bigotry. From the evidence that has been released to public scrutiny there are two groups of victims, the woman and the lacrosse players. It is fascinating how quickly the black students and faculty gave up on “due process” and proceeded to presume the guilt of the lacrosse players. By all accounts the district attorney’s actions were over zealous.  All of the legal procedures that were developed over the years primarily to help black defendants get a fair trial were ignored because the defendants had a different color skin. Black students and faculty should have experienced a strange sense of deja vu. The white students will see a different story. They will conclude that the black students and faculty are exhibiting the same form of bigotry they are complaining about and that a white student’s rights to a fair trial are less than if they were a black person.  These are uncomfortable subjects for students and faculty to discuss so I doubt they will.

In my opinion the actions by the faculty is the most regrettable part of this incident. I would have expected that the faculty would have shown more humility and realized that the preliminary findings by the district attorney were the equivalent of rumors. The faculty had the intellect, experience, and sensitivity to make the wise decision and set an example of wisdom for the students. They failed. They took the preliminary findings as fact and lead the university down a regrettable path. A little humility would have gone a long way to preventing this catastrophe to the prestige of the faculty and Duke University. Rick Martinez of the News & Observer recently wrote an article that encourages Duke to look at itself. Hopefully they will find healing in the process.

I have learned that there are quite a few pitfalls when dealing with race related social activism.  Like the Duke faculty I will inevitably know less facts about the big issues than I am comfortable with but I will be confronted with the desire to move forward to improve pressing social issues. Managing this mix of facts, rumors,  latent prejudices, and social change is a great challenge. I have learned that I can do more damage than good if I am not very careful with the words I choose to repeat. I hope that if I keep an eye on humility as I develop my recommendations, then the changes I advocate will show more wisdom. If we are lucky this wisdom will contribute to an improving situation. If the wisdom is not accepted, I hope that it will be accepted as my best effort to make things better and that no harm was intended.

Crime prevents Habit for Humanity from Building

Last week I was asked if I wanted to be interviewed by a television reporter about an upsurge in shootings in a local neighborhood. I am on the Board of Directors for the Habitat for Humanity affiliate that builds in this neighborhood. Half of all of the homes we have built over the last seventeen years have been in this neighborhood. This neighborhood is a major part of our mission. We have a housing lot near this shooting and the Board recently decided to not build on this lot for at least a year due to increased crime. The news story was going to be about how the upsurge in crime has caused our Habitat affiliate to postpone building.

I declined the interview. I knew some of the facts about the neighborhood but I was woefully short on wisdom on crime and our growing involvement in community activism. I voted to postpone building but I was uncomfortable with the decision. I was afraid that my discomfort with the decision might do more harm to the neighborhood than good. I felt guilty about my decision to forgo the interview but it was the right decision for the board. Our Development Director was available. He was reasonably informed on the facts and willing, so he did the interview. He did a nice job. Here is the link to the newscast.

Crime Prevents Habitat For Humanity From Building

Over the next couple of days I thought about my actions several times. The board’s decision to postpone building was a direct result of existing Habitat partner families questioning our wisdom of putting additional families on that street. On one hand I believe that adding families to the presently empty lots changes the neighborhood for the better. Our mission is to use decent, affordable houses to transform families and neighborhoods. The grace exhibited by the donors and volunteers can transform the character of the partner families in many positive ways. It also affects the neighbors who carefully watch the construction progress but it doesn’t stop there. Something magical occurs to families as they are transformed by the responsibility of home ownership. Financial discipline and responsibility become paramount family issues. Before they know it these families have climbed up the rungs of prosperity and new doors are opened for them. We have two families whose finances have improved enough that they traded up to a larger, conventionally financed house. Many others have acquired significant home equity. For families who cannot afford to save, their home is their nest egg.

On the other hand I do not want to see a partner family or volunteer shot. The upsurge in shootings makes the property unattractive to both the potential home owners and the volunteers. Something bad is going on in the neighborhood. Ignoring the problem will probably get someone we know shot. Postponing building and increasing our community activism on reducing crime is our Plan B. It is uncharted territory for us. Our communications with the city leaders have always been good but they will increase as we search for ways to reduce crime. We are both striving for the same goals though I doubt we will bring any additional wisdom to the table. It is hard to be truly helpful when you are an outsider. The city leaders have some big problems to deal with. Maybe the increased public awareness will attract some outside help that will be helpful.

Esquire:Feature Story:Three Things You Don’t Know About Aids In Africa

Link to Esquire:Feature Story:Three Things You Don’t Know About Aids In Africa

Here are the three things:

  1. It’s the wrong disease to attack.
  2. It won’t disappear until poverty does.
  3. There is less of it than we thought, but it’s spreading as fast as ever.

Curious about which disease should be attacked? Read the article.

America the charitable: a few surprises

Recent research shows some unexpected links between income and giving.

Link to America the charitable: a few surprises

Here are the highlights:

  • Charitable giving plays an even larger role in the economy than is suggested by some $260 billion in annual contributions. Each dollar of giving appears to create $19 of extra national income, according to a book released this past weekend.
  • Demand for nonprofit services gets proportionately bigger, not smaller, as a locality’s income rises, a Federal Reserve economist finds.
  • The philanthropy of the wealthy may not hinge on tax incentives to the degree many believe. In one new survey, a majority of wealthy givers say they would contribute the same amount if the estate tax were abolished. Ditto, they said, if they could no longer deduct the value of gifts from their taxable income.

Poverty (Baklava)

We’ve moved from 14.7% poverty rate in 1966 to a 13.3% poverty rate in 1997 (5th year of Clinton) to a 12.6% poverty rate in 2005 (5th year of Bush). Trends of poverty are interesting: In the past, the poverty…

Link to Poverty (Baklava)

Despite doing a fair amount of work in the poverty area, I was unaware of the actual poverty rate. This data came from the census. In Habitat we mainly use the dollar amounts to identify our potential homeowner group. My gut feeling was that things had improved somewhat so it was nice to see encouraging numbers.

Having a bad night at Habitat!

Last night was a disaster at our board meeting for Habitat for Humanity. We had been feeling pretty proud of ourselves recently. We had five partner families in the queue for new houses and we had ten lots to work with. We had been focusing on raising funds and coalitions to build the houses. Then it happened. Due to local crime issues(e.g. people getting shot) our mortgage chairman recommended that we not build any more houses on a street we already have five houses on. He brought in the past mayor to talk to us and she agreed. Since I had the real estate appraisals by the county available, I looked up the appraisals on that street. Three of the houses are worth less now than when we built them. Habitat houses are transforming tools. It is tough to imagine that the house will transform the family in a positive way if the family loses money on the house. In our entire mortgage portfolio we have four home owners with negative home equity. Most of our home owners have built up quite a nice nest egg due to rising real estate values. I could not help but agree with the others that we postpone building on that street for at least a year. Ouch, there goes four lots!

Then our construction chairman comes in with higher development costs for four lots in another part of town. This project was on shaky ground because of high development costs. His figure indicated that the lost cost would go up an additional $5,000 per lot. I do not think we can cancel the project since we have already taken federal funds to buy the land and build the infrastructure. It looks like the federal funds will only cover half of the development costs. Our original plan was that the federal grant would cover the land and most of the development costs. Cash flow is a serious problem.