Wednesday, March 31, 2010

BPL Details Measurements for Branch Decisions

The Boston Public Library has released a list of measurements for deciding which branches should remain open. The measurements include access, location, foot traffic, internet use, and proximity to schools and community centers. For details, see BPL press release.

More Warming in Boston Housing Market

Figures from the Warren Group show areas near downtown Boston accounting for much of the upswing in the city's housing market, at least in condos.

The latest figures are for the month of February, and the comparisons are with Febraury of 2009.

Among the highlights in areas with more than a handful of transactions:

Areas near downtown Boston. Condo sales increased in February by more than 22 percent, and they're up so far this year by 26 percent. The median price was up in February by 31percent, and it's up so far this year by almost 29 percent.

Roxbury and the part of the South End. The median price for February was up by almost 54%, and it's up this year by almost 59 percent. But sales are down, with a smaller drop in February.

Sales of condos in Dorchester were down by 34 percent, but the median price was up by thirty-four percent. Last year many of the condo transactions in Dorchester were distressed sales, which helps explain how the increase over the year before was from $110,000 to $143,000.

Sales were up by more than 40 percent in Jamaica Plain, but the median price was down by almost 19 percent. In Charlestown, condo sales for February quadrupled (from only 4 in 2009), with the number of sales for this year almost tripled. There was little change in the median price this year for condos in South Boston, but sales were up in February by almost 26 percent, and for the first two months of 2010 by more than 37 percent.

The Warren Group also reports single-family home sales increasing in areas such as Dorchester, West Roxbury, and Roslindale. In Hyde Park, single-family home sales increased by 20 percent, with the median price going up in February by almost 38 percent. In West Roxbury, the median price for February was up by more than 12 percent.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Library System Rooted in Branches

Like discount stores, public libraries are outlets for inventory, but they’re also a threshold space. If the hush of decorum protects visitors from thought police and casual annoyance, it also allows for more contact with the world, whether people in a room or thoughts on a page.

Libraries also have other kinds thresholds, whether computers, toys, a table for a card game, or information on a flyer. Advances in technology are changing the role of library as a warehouse for materials, and those changes are still very much in debate. For all that change, there’s still great attachment to libraries as a community space, sometimes even intensified by changes in the way children learn or spend time after school.

Some thoughts on why branches matter can be found in this week’s Dorchester Reporter. More thinking about the future of branches can be found in an interview on BNN News with BPL President Amy Ryan. One experiment with a redefinition of library space can be found at the Boston Street Lab, a temporary storefront library that recent operated in Chinatown. BNN News did a report on Boston Street Lab earlier this year. For thoughts on different kinds of access provided by libraries, there are the president of the Friends of the Dudley branch, Sarah-Ann Shaw and author and BPL trusee James Carroll. For a deeper contemplation of library space, there’s the scene from the Wim Wenders film, Der Himmel uber Berlin.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rep. Brian Wallace on Not Running in 2010

The following statement was issued today by Brian Wallace, the state representative from South Boston's Fourth Suffolk District:

"In 1970 I began my career in politics working for then Rep Ray Flynn in room 460 at the State House. Politics was something that I found was in my blood and I loved walking into the State House every day flushed with the anticipation of that day's calendar and the inordinate amount of constituents calls that we received in Ray's office on a daily basis. When the brand new Tynan Community School opened up four years later I was able to work as Assistant Coordinator with another fine gentleman who became my dear friend. His name was James “Stretch” Walsh and he was a legend. Stretch and I were able to employ a lot of local kids who now have children of their own. In 1977 my friend Ray Flynn ran for the Boston City Council and he hired me to work on his council staff when he won that election. Politics, once again, called.

"In 1979 as Ray was running for his second term I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to work as a Probation Officer in Brighton District Court where I learned a lot about the law, those who make it and those who break it. In 1983 Ray decided to run for Mayor of Boston and it was once again hello to politics and good bye to the courts. I worked in the Mayor's office from 1983 to 1991 when I came back home as Executive Director of the South Boston Boys and Girls Club, a place where I had grown up and a place that shaped my entire life. Someone once said, "The friends you meet at 12 years old are unlike any friends you will ever meet in your life." I believe that totally and I still count those 12 year old friends from the Club as some of my best friends no matter where they live or no matter how many times we talk each year.

"In the early 90's I began a new career as a television sports announcer and writer. I announced over 500 high school and college games as well as having my own weekly series called "Scenes from South Boston" on Cablevision in Boston I was asked to write a weekly syndicated column called "Brian's Beat" which I enjoyed and which led to my first book "Final Confession." And as much as I loved the camera and the keyboard, my first love remained politics and in 2002 I had the incredible honor of being sent to the State House to represent the people of the Fourth Suffolk District.

"My very first week as the newly elected Representative brought me some sound advice from a very wise longtime State House employee who worked in the clerk’s office. He called me down to his office one day and asked me where I wanted to make a difference as a state rep. I stared back blankly and he told me that reps come into that building all the time and think they can change the world and end up accomplishing little because they are running from one hearing room to another.

"Most of them try to focus on everything and never develop a passion for anything. You will vote on a thousand bills but you can't concentrate on them all. He told me to think about 3 priorities and come back in a week, which I did. I told him that substance abuse was a serious problem in our town. He ticked off #1. I told him that Mass. was only one of two states in the country without a film office and no film tax credit. He ticked off #2 and I told that we needed the revenue and jobs from racinos and casinos. He smiled and put off three fingers. "There's your start," he said. "Go get 'em."

"I made my maiden speech on April 15, 2003 and I explained why Mass. needed the revenue and the jobs that racinos and casinos would bring. I have spoken each and every year since being elected about casinos and racinos. It now looks as though casinos and racinos will finally become a reality. I asked for and received a seat on the mental health and substance abuse committee where Marty Walsh, Steve Tolman, Jack Hart and I have accomplished a great deal including the introduction of 3 Recovery High Schools in Mass. and a slew of new recommendations which zero in on doctors who overprescribe opioids, make tamper proof prescription pads a reality, make drug education in middle school a reality and allow parents to know when and if their children have been treated at an emergency room for an overdose amongst others. .And on July 21, 2008 I stood with Governor Patrick as he incorporated my bills into the state's new tax film credit law at Loew's Boston Common. Since that day Boston has become the Hub of movies and the benefits have been enormous. I am proud that my bill to name the South Boston Court House after Judge Joe Feeney became a law. It is one of my proudest achievements and means a great deal to me and would to my father if he were alive. Marty Walsh and I worked on and passed some of the most important labor legislation in history.

"But when all is said and done it has been 40 years since I first walked into Room 420 with Ray Flynn and I have indeed made thousands of votes, but I never forgot that I came from the lower end of South Boston. I carried that mantle proudly whether I was in a room at the State House or a room in Washington. As for me, I have written two more books which have sat on a shelf, staring at me and getting dusty for the past 8 years. I really want to get back to my writing career. And most important of all, I want to spend some quality time with my family. On December 31, 2010 I will walk out of my office in room 472, just down the corridor from where I walked in forty years ago, for the final time. It has been a great experience! I have made many lifelong friends in that building, although we are not twelve years old anymore. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your friendship, support and guidance and for the privilege of representing you. "

The Mortgage Trail: From Bottom to Top

It’s hard to imagine what investment banks and derivatives have to do with three-deckers in disrepair, but there are ways to connect the dots. Starting at street-level, there’s last December’s report by Jennifer McKim for The Boston Globe about a trail of bad loans connected in some ways with a single developer. More than two dozen of the loans were by a single mortgage banking company—by the way, not a bank that was directly pressed to satisfy mandates of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). As the Globe reporter took pains to discover, the owners of the properties may have been victimized, though they didn’t always fit the profile of the local buyers who only wanted a place to call home but got in over their heads.

At the other end of the financial trail, there’s, with Andrew Leonard’s review of the new book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short. And that begs the question of regulation, with one possible answer yesterday by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In short, the answer is that you need oversight with a real firewall to keep the bubble-and-burst from happening all over again.

You don’t have to look beyond three-deckers to see the market extremes, or find that what looks like a bad loan waiting to happen becomes—usually on someone else’s books—a foreclosure petition. A year and a half ago, my curiosity was aroused by a three-decker unit at 310 Fuller Street in Dorchester that sold for $365,000 on February 29, 2008—at a time when it was quite clear three-decker condo prices were definitely going downhill (see Dorchester Reporter). The other two units in the building had sold less than a year earlier for only $355,000. After foreclosure action on the units sold earlier, a foreclosure petition was filed on the more expensive unit last September by CitiMortgage, Inc. The loan--$328,000—was originated by a company called Dreamhouse Mortgage Corporation. On its website, the company said, "Our team of experienced mortgage experts is committed to your success and will go above and beyond traditional means to insure your satisfaction." You can write a book about it, but you can’t make this up.

The CRA is still being blamed for the meltdown because many toxic loans were absorbed on the secondary market by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To the extent they enabled bad primary lending, the secondary lenders should have been regulated more aggressively. It would be easier to blame their failings on the CRA if the toxic loans had lacked for other investors. According to Michael Lewis, this was not the case. As Leonard writes, the loans were originated due to sheer market forces--being readily scooped up by leading investment banks: “These banks were not creating complex derivatives tied to subprime mortgages because of government policy pushing homeownership or because individual homeowners were irresponsibly prone to lying about their income. Far from it; these banks had discovered that billions of dollars could be made transforming lousy mortgage loans into securities supposedly safe enough that they could be sold to pension funds or anyone else. So they had a huge financial incentive to encourage the creation of even more crappy loans.”