Friday, October 31, 2008

I Voted

Not only did I do my ballot, but mailed it off last week. A really early voter.

Rain, Rain

It hasn't rained here since February. Moist, fresh air. I've opened the windows.

Update: I went for a walk in the sprinkles. Everyone was smiling--including me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Lizard in the Linen Closet

Who says suburban life isn't exciting?

"J," I called, "there's a lizard in the linen cabinet." Yes, a little baby lizard had taken up residence in our linen cabinet. I discovered this when I was getting fresh towels for the bathroom. We spent a good half hour trying to capture the lizard, as he moved from shelf to shelf to avoid our attempts to rescue him. We did not allow the cats to help, although they indicated a willingness--even an inappropriate eagerness--to do so.

I effected the rescue, and J released the little creature in the front yard.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Front Yard

J took a week off work to help me with the front yard. Actually, J took a week off work to dig most of the remaining ivy out of the front yard, remove the juniper that was in my way, turn the soil, turn it again with six bags of compost, and terrace the slope for me. We then laid out the plants and he installed them for me. And he did it all with winds that gusted to 35 mph. I supervised.

Some of the penstemon moved from other parts of the yard isn't going to make it, so we purchased new penstemon, which J planted on Sunday for me. We also planted more red feather grass, another mallow and a butterfly bush that has already attracted a butterfly. (Unfortunately we can't see this one from the house, so we'll only see the butterflies when we're standing at the corner looking at it.) We'll have to find some smaller plants for the foreground, and then install the erigeron on the border.

And, no, I haven't been oblivious to the economic crisis unfolding. I just don't have a whole lot to say about it that hasn't been said more concisely and better by others. One thing I have noticed though is that we're getting the usual crop of media pieces on frugality. This happens in every recession, and I've gone from being amused to irritated by them. Most of them are obvious--don't go out to dinner every night--or irrelevant to the vast majority--limit the cost of vacations. I mean, if I owned a house, I could sell it and move to a cheaper one, theoretically, but that's not an option for us. And it's not even an option for many people who own houses; they owe more on the house than it's worth. Most people's big costs are fixed and can't be reduced--rent or mortgage payment, transportation, health insurance, childcare. We can fiddle 'round the edges with food and entertainment, but most of us aren't eating extravagantly or buying big plasma screen TVs, or going on expensive vacations to exotic locales. I already use the library. I don't go to Starbucks every day. In fact, I rarely go to Starbucks at all.

Even things that once might have been considered extravagant are really necessities. I don't use my cell phone enough to make it worth keeping it, but with the demise of the pay phone, I do need to keep it for emergencies. At one point I investigated getting one of those phones that requires that you refill them with minutes, but I discovered that the savings over the basic plan I have now would be less than $2 a month. Without the "limited basic" cable service that I have, we wouldn't be able to get regular broadcast channels. So we might be able to cut out a few things, but it wouldn't save us more than $100 a month. And I suspect that's true of most people. Half the population lives in a household with an income of $50,000 or less per year. You only need to add up the cost of living to find that most of that income goes for basic necessities. Savings is all very well and good, but people have to have the incomes to make that possible, and most people don't.

And some of the ideas are positively dumb. For instance, carrying collision and comprehensive insurance on my car costs less than $100 a year. But it means that if a tree falls on my car or, as happened when we lived in Oakland, some idiot in an SUV runs into my parked car in the lot, I can get the car fixed for the cost of the small deductible. Coupon-clipping is great, if the coupons are for products you already use, but a lot of them are for packaged and processed foods that are overpriced even with the coupon.

And some of the ideas are obvious--rent movies for $2.99 instead of going to the theater for $20. Duh.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Contra Aphids

J ran across this in our local paper. I'm going to try it. At worst, I'll just have dried up banana peel in the yard.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Cook County Sheriff

I'm sure a lot of people have heard about this, the Cook County Sheriff who has refused to evict tenants from foreclosed properties, when those tenants had no notice of the foreclosure or the eviction order. Foreclosing lenders often don't bother to tell the tenants that a foreclosure proceeding has begun, don't bother to find out who lives at the property and ask the Sheriff to evict the owner from the property, without ever finding out that tenants live there.

I've written on this subject before here. I wondered why tenants seemed to believe that if their first notice of the foreclosure was the Sheriff's eviction notice. But it soon became clear that what happens is this: the mortgage servicer hires a Foreclosures-R-Us service to process the foreclosure. In California, that takes a minimum of four months. Then to save time and effort, the realtor hired to clear the building doesn't bother to find out whether tenants live at the property and proceeds to evict the owner from the property. In the process the realtor would have to file documents indicating that the owner had been served with the court papers. Unless the owner is hanging out 'round the foreclosed house, the proper service isn't happening. The F-R-Us service then proceeds to file an unlawful detainer action against the owner, gets a judgment, and has the Sheriff evict the people (yes, tenants are people) living at the property.

The Sheriff, who often has close, close ties to the real estate industry, turns a blind eye to the Order calling for the eviction of the owner and evicts everyone living at the property. In California what this really means is that tenants get the Sheriff's Notice, consult with a lawyer, and decide that it's easier to just move than to fight the eviction. Doing that would require spending money on a lawyer and moving quickly to stop the eviction. And all for 60-days' notice?

What really needs to happen here is that there should be some perjury prosecutions. The mortgage servicer has to allege that the landlord was served. In most cases the landlord wouldn't be served personally because he's disappeared. So there are other service possibilities, which would insure that the tenants received notice and could call up and say, "excuse me, but we're renting here." The F-R-Us service would then have to start over with the service of a 60-days' notice to the tenants. But that's clearly not happening. Oh, the District Attorney gets campaign contributions from the real estate industry too.

Rule: Read anything that comes to the house and if the Foreclosures-R-Us service doesn't know tenants live at the property, call them immediately and let them know. If they proceed with the eviction of the landlord, maybe, someday, a District Attorney will take action. In our dreams.

Update (10/14/08): Accredited Home Lenders filed suit against the Cook County Sheriff last week to force the Sheriff to carry out an eviction order. Accredited then withdrew the suit--I wonder if Accredited realized that they might have to show that the tenant(s) had received the legally required notice.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Brighter Than I Thought

Dean Baker, famous for having called the housing bubble in 2002, reports this morning that the Fed is going to lend directly to non-financial corporations that can't get loans though the usual channels. I guess it's because I'm a bit of a control freak that I didn't think giving money to banks (I mean, buying bad securities for high prices isn't exactly "purchasing") would solve our credit problems. What, I thought, if the banks just pocketed the money? The Paulson Plan (PP) doesn't require much of the banks or their officers, after all.

So I'm feeling a bit cocky this morning, and will therefore make some more suggestions, in no particular order or priority:

1. Can the $700 billion to the banks. It's throwing good money after bad. If the banks are insolvent, and it appears that they are, nationalize them. We can keep them, sell them, whatever, later on. Just get control and find out what's going on.

2. Make grants to state and local governments where necessary. State and local governments are losing revenue even as we speak, since they're dependent on tax revenue that is declining with dispatch. This won't increase spending; it will just keep spending even.

3. Freeze foreclosures. We have no handle on who owns what, who owes what, who can be saved, who can't. Just put everything on hold through the end of the year. That way, the government has time to figure this out and work out an orderly sell-off. (Yes, we're going to end of selling off a bunch of property for much less than the face value of the mortgages. Get over it.) And no one gets evicted before the holidays.

4. We're going to have a lot of unemployment. In addition to the collapse of construction and housing-related industries, retail is going to be in bad trouble and retail employs a whole lot of low-paid (and therefore precarious) workers. So dump a lot of money into unemployment insurance, so that these workers can survive. And because unemployment insurance doesn't cover a lot of workers, create a new fund to cover those workers.

5. Create new jobs--useful jobs. In addition to the army of financial regulators we'll need, every state has public projects that need to be done. Set priorities to employ the unemployed.

6. Provide funds to buy up foreclosed houses for use as permanent affordable housing. But insure that local governments don't just bail out the real estate industry by purchasing the abandonment-grade stuff that should be torn down.

J and I will be working in the garden today, so I'll come up with more ideas in future posts.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Lizard in the Yard

We've had all sorts of critters visit the yard--frogs, possums, racoons, cats--not to mention every aphid and whitefly for 30 miles. And we have lizards living in the front yard. This is the first, though, in the back. We think he was waiting for evening, when bugs fly toward the living room window and he could get an easy meal.

The day after this picture was taken, Dash was caught chasing the lizard across the yard. I grabbed Dash and allowed the little guy to escape. Emma, who is not known as kitty Mensa material, spent a couple of hours waiting near where she and Dash had first sighted the lizard, I guess hoping for its return.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Is It Extortion?

I try not to think of the current credit crunch as a conspiracy to extract free money from the taxpayers. But the problems the State of California is having arranging bridge loans makes me wonder. Governments are generally very good credit risks; after all, they have an ability to raise money from a nearly bottomless pit. (Yeah, us.) So I wonder if the threat not to lend to the state government doesn't indicate that the banks are overplaying their hand here.

There's a lot in the credit crunch that's bad. But there's some common sense in it too. As real estate prices have fallen, people find it more difficult to borrow against their houses. Well, they should find it more difficult. They don't have as much equity in their houses and the banks look at that in deciding how much to lend. And if the banks believe that prices may fall some more, they're going to be a lot more conservative in their lending decisions.

And cars. People are having trouble getting car loans, but if you read down into the articles, it's because they can't come up with the down payment from their home equity. See above. When they have to finance a car without that down payment source, they have to buy smaller, cheaper and, hopefully more fuel-efficient, cars.

Particularly in the big bubble areas, we can expect that all sorts of retail will go out of business. These businesses were subsidized with home equity extractions. Without that, there's a lot less money around and at least some, if not a lot, of retail establishments won't make it. So the housing bubble won't just bring us empty houses, but empty storefronts as well.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Silliness

One of the dumbest arguments in defense of the bailout of the banks is that we all participated in the bubble. It's hard to argue, though, that tenants participated in it. And arguing that someone who got a job as a clerk at Home Depot benefitted is pretty iffy. (After all, if the money had been put into something other than trading toxic securities, the worker might have gotten a better job doing something else.) We could, I guess, argue that real estate salespersons, construction workers and others received some benefit, but getting a job and then losing it happens to lots of people and we don't generally hold them accountable for the rise and fall of their industries. Some homeowners might have benefited, particularly if they sold their houses, but I can't see a windfall profits tax. And homeowners who face foreclosure or ruinous mortgage payments--I just don't see a lot of good coming out of their participation in it.

All this seems to be designed to cover the fact that the people who have done so much to collapse our financial system are the bankers and traders who packaged and sold mortgage securities they knew or should have known were junk. And it's possible that we'll have to deal with the problems they have wrought. But it shouldn't be easy for them. If they're going to get welfare, they should have to jump through the hoops we make single mothers with children jump through for a pittance and food stamps.

I have a vision of bankers filling out long, involved forms--maybe equivalent to the 28 pages that parents had to fill out in California to get their children insured through Healthy Families. How long would the equivalent form be when the bankers are asking for billions? Bankers would then bring their forms and the supporting documentation to a grungy office, either too hot or too cold, where they would sit on an uncomfortable plastic chairs, chairs that are bolted to the floor, for the day. Their caseworkers would then reject the application and the bankers would have to redo the forms and obtain more documentation. Oh, and don't forget the armed security guards protecting the office.

We wouldn't want them to develop a sense of entitlement, after all.