Monday, April 21, 2014

The worst cities to live in for renters

The housing market is supposedly recovering, yet the homeownership rate is dropping. Meanwhile rents in urban areas were already high but now are absolutely skyrocketing. What’s going on? As millions lost their homes many of the houses were and are being bought up by large investors. And what do these investors want? They want rent and lots of it. According to a NY Times report, In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class, “In December, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan declared ‘the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has ever known.’ ”

Since the Great Recession the squeeze on 99% of us has gotten much tighter. What does this mean for people looking for a place to live? People used to be able to buy a house and put down roots. But in most cities buying a house is just out of the question for most people. Prices are back up and climbing fast, while salaries and wages for most of us are stagnant if not falling. So coming up with a down payment and qualifying for a mortgage is beyond the reach of many city-dwellers.

And now already-strapped home-buyers are competing with the big money. Many of the houses that come up for sale are sold in “all cash” deals, which means regular people are competing with “investors.” Because these investors pay cash sellers know they don’t have to wait for a buyer to get approved for a mortgage that could fall through.

In The Coming Nightmare of Wall Street-Controlled Rental Markets, Rebecca Burns, Michael Donley and Carmilla Manzanet of In These Times explain that investors have already purchased around 200,000 single-family houses to convert into rentals. And even as the “recovery” takes hold, they write, “In the final months of 2013, the rate of homeownership dipped to an 18-year low of 65.2 percent, down from a 69.4 percent peak prior to the 2007 financial crisis, according to U.S. Census data.” These houses are not going to homeownership, they are being turned into rentals – to be rented back to the people who used to live in them. According to Stan Humphries, the chief economist of Zillow, between 2007 and 2013 the United States added, on net, about 6.2 million tenants, compared with 208,000 homeowners.

With Wall Street as your landlord things can only go one way. As rents rise you face eviction so they can move someone in who will pay more – especially in areas where tenants have been able to get rent control ordinances passed. Bloomberg News gives an example of a community facing an eviction assault. In the story, In Silicon Valley, a New Investment: Eviction, Bloomberg describes how one company now owns 70% of the apartments in East Palo Alto and is systematically evicting tenants in rent-controlled units, writing, “Equity Residential has filed 236 unlawful detainer, or eviction, cases that have been unsealed in San Mateo County Superior Court since December 2011, according to the court website. At least 160 cases -- or 68 percent -- ended with a writ of possession of real property, giving the tenant 24 hours to move out.”

So with home-buying out of the question in many cities rents are high and climbing fast. Especially if you want to rent a house instead of an apartment. Renting an apartment or a house brings different stresses because apartments are built to be rented, while houses can be sold and you have to move. In expensive (bubble?) places like Silicon Valley people who are lucky enough to find a house to rent (typically $3,000+ a month) live in fear that the owner will sell and boot them, or drastically increase the rent.

What does all of this mean for working people looking for a place to live? It depends on where you are. CBS News reports, “Although the average rent across the U.S. is $1,231 per month, in certain areas it can be triple that number.” What are the worst places in the country for renters? There are some considerations for looking into the worst cities to rent. It is not just which city has the highest rents, it also matters what the percent of median household income this represents – if you make the median income for the area. It costs more to live in Beverly Hills, but people who live in Beverly Hills generally make enough to afford it.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition Los Angeles is the “least affordable” big city because median rent now makes up 47 percent of median income, but it isn’t one of the 5 highest rent areas. It’s least affordable because so many people have low incomes. And Miami is next on the “least affordable” list because median rent makes up 43.2 percent of median income. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies also looked at what percent of their income renters are spending in various area and found that nationally half of all renters are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This is up from 38 percent of renters in 2000.

Of course, this doesn’t matter to a person making the minimum wage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition looked at how many hours minimum-wage employees have to work per week in each state just to rent an apartment and still be able to survive. (See this chart.) West Virginia was lowest at 63 hours. Hawaii was 175 hours. California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. were all over 130 hours.

So using a number of sources, here is a list of 5 cities with shockingly high rents.

#1 Williston, North Dakota
Why Williston? It is located right in the middle of the “oil boom” and as a result has some of the highest rents in the country. According to Courtney Craig at the Apartment Guide blog, “A 700-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Williston easily can cost more than $2,000 per month. Looking for a little more space? A three-bedroom, three-bath apartment could cost as much as $4,500 per month.”

The reason for the high rents is more of a reflection on how bad things are in the rest of the country than how good things are in Williston. People are hurting for good-paying jobs and for a while there was so much work available that people flocked to Williston. The population grew from 14,700 in 2010 to more than 30,000 now, and the housing stock is used up. But so are the jobs. So with few jobs and even fewer places to live Williston is having problems. A recent Wall Street Journal story told of how “Jay Jones, a 25-year-old pipe fitter from Virginia, arrived in Williston last July in his 1993 Buick Century with a makeshift bed he installed in place of the back seats. He stayed in his car until October, when temperatures started to drop.” According to a local KFYR report, “Currently, Williston Public School District #1 has 133 homeless students.” And a recent FOX headline says even more: Dark side of ND's oil boom: Meth, heroin, cartels _ all part of growing drug trade.

#2 is San Francisco, Silicon Valley and San Jose
Census Bureau numbers from 2010 to 2012 show that San Francisco’s median rent was $1,463 and this holds all the way down to San Jose, with a median rent of $1,441. That means that half of the housing – almost all of which is occupied by longer-term tenants with rent control -- are rented for $1,463 or less, and half – the only places you will see on the market -- for more; often for much, much more. (Note that CNN reported in February that San Francisco has seen rents rise 12.3 percent year-over-year through January to a median average of $3,350 for a two-bedroom apartment. “An apartment in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood that rented for $2,100 in 2010, for example, now rents for $3,200 a month...”)

But median pay is higher in the city itself. 37.6 percent of rentals in San Francisco go for 35 percent or more of household income. As you go south this changes. In San Jose it is 43.8 percent of rentals going for more than 35 percent or more if household income. (The earlier-mentioned CBS report says the median San Jose studio apartment is $1,455 and the median two-bedroom apartment is $2,350.)

Part of the problem is that San Francisco itself has a very limited area for housing. Surrounded on three sides by water there’s only so much land to use. So if more housing is to be built it has to be in buildings that go upward – mid- to hi-rise. But the city has zoned most of the land to prohibit buildings taller than 40 feet! As a result most of the new housing is luxury housing for the wealthy that will bring the builder top dollar. One problem is landlords evicting lower-income apartment dwellers so they can turn the buildings into condominiums for higher-income people. According to a Reuters report, “evictions in the city jumped 25 percent to 1,716 in the year ended February 2013, according to a report by San Francisco's budget and legislative analyst.”

The result of these high -- and rapidly increasing – rents is social disruption. Well-paid Silicon Valley tech employees come to the city to live in hip neighborhoods, causing rents to skyrocket (never mind buying). People of more modest means are being pushed out, and they are not happy. People have been protesting what are called “Google buses.” These are plush, usually-white buses companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other tech companies provide for their own employees to get to work. Meanwhile these and similar companies are famous for dodging their taxes, leaving cities and regions with little ability to upgrade transportation infrastructure or address larger social problems.

#3 Boston
According to the same Census Bureau survey of 2010-2012 Boston’s median rent is $1,260 per month (CBS: Median studio apartment: $2,000, median two-bedroom apartment: $3,505.)

Boston’s “Long-time insider” Mark Pearlstein explains the market, saying, “Rents are at an all-time high, as are sales prices. And I'm starting to see greed by all the property owners who are really trying to push the rents even higher.”

Bobby Sisk reports at WBZ-TV, in Future Of Boston: Expensive Housing Market Puts Squeeze On Workers, that “For many families, finding an affordable place to live is a struggle, whether buying or renting.” People are “moving farther and farther outside the city because it’s getting too pricey.”

#4 Washington, D.C.
Washington, DC’s median rent is $1,236 (Census Bureau 2010-2012) -- 40.7 percent of median household income. (CBS: median studio apartment: $1,675, median two-bedroom apartment: $3,110.) It would take a wage of $28.25 an hour to support a modest 2-bedroom home in DC.

Rents are so high and have been rising so fast in DC that it has inspired a group ofcandidates to run on the “The Rent Is Too Darn High” slate for D.C. mayor and the Democratic State Committee. The reason this committee matters is that DC is fighting to become a state so they can be represented in Congress. Republicans just oppose giving DC statehood because a large percent of the population is black and votes Democratic, states get two senators and Republicans don’t want two more Democrats in the Senate. The idea is to get DC statehood into the national Democratic Party platform.

Petula Dvorak at the Washington Post explains in D.C.: A city divided and increasingly unaffordable,

“We never could’ve imagined, 20 years ago, that this would be an issue, that the city would be too expensive to live in,” said Sekou Biddle, a former D.C. Council member who ran on the Rent slate and won a seat as the at-large member of the Democratic State Committee.

Her column notes that DC has lost half of its affordable housing units in the past decade. “Meanwhile, all those fancy high-rises we see going up are increasingly unaffordable for the new folks moving in and making decent salaries.”

#5 New York
It is so notoriously hard to find a place to rent in Manhattan that the joke goes, “I’m so sorry to hear about Mr. Collins. Does that mean his apartment is available?” And the frequently-heard 1%’er complaint is, “You Try to Live on 500K in This Town.”

But even for all of New York City -- not just Manhattan -- Census Bureau 2010-2012 puts the city at #5 with median rent at $1,187 and for a studio apartment: $2,300.

Like San Francisco there is little room in the New York area to build new housing, except up. And much of the new housing going up is targeted toward the luxury market that can afford to pay much higher prices. (See Ain't Nothin' Going On but the Rent: In NYC, $100 Million Apartments Are a Thing.) As a result rents are skyrocketing but New York City has rent control, allowing people to remain in their (rented) homes with reasonable rent increases. But as “market rate” rents increase dramatically landlords have been raising the stakes to get people to move out so they can charge more. There are reports of landlords destroying their own apartments in an effort to get tenants out. There is a bill before the NY state legislature making this kind of “rent sabotage” a crime.

According to a recent NY Times story, “New York’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to expand the number of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers to ease the housing crunch. But tenant advocates say that, in order to make a dent, the mayor must also focus on the loss of affordable apartments.” “The mayor has also promised to set up a fund to help tenants, most of whom go to housing court without lawyers, fight landlord wrongdoing.” De Blasio has also pledged to create 200,000 new homes for low- to moderate-income New Yorkers within 10 years.

In America you’re all set if you have a lot of money. People with a lot of money (the 1%) “own” almost everything. They have “property rights.” The rest of us have to pay them to let us use the things they own, like a place to live. The payment for those things is called “rent.” We even have to rent the money to buy things – for example mortgages, car loans, credit cards, etc.

But all is not lost Detroit is having an art boom and the rent is low. The average two-bedroom rental in the Detroit/Ann Arbor/Flint area goes for $843. Flint, Michigan’s median house sellsfor a little over $40,000.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Life-changing hacks to make adulthood easier

1. Always get the name of the person you are speaking with. Because an effective way to argue with some corporate person on the other line is not: “The person I spoke with last time I called Con Ed said that I’d paid my bill.” That sounds like you either spoke to a ghost or are trying to scam the electric company. Save yourself some time and energy: “I spoke to Ashley, her employee number is 1234567, and she said I’d paid my bill.” BIAAATCH.

2. Leave your heels under your desk at work and wear sneakers for the commute. It may feel fun and rom-commy to be running through the streets to work in your heels, but that shit wears off its charm the second you feel the first blister forming.

3. You don’t have to drop a zillion dollars on anti-aging face cream — just get a drugstore brand with retinol. Our beauty editor Carly Cardellino says that you do not need to let an upscale makeup store salesperson talk you into getting a $300 serum made of crushed-up diamonds and glowworm jizz. Just go to CVS.

4. Use adhesive velcro to stick phone and laptop chargers underneath your desk. You WILL NOT be the girl whose phone dies every afternoon at 4 p.m.

5. Did you accidentally send a text to the wrong person? DON'T PANIC. Put your phone on airplane mode and it will fail to deliver. You're so welcome.

6. Order your drinks at "kids' temperature" at coffee shops.You'll save yourself a burnt tongue, the biggest #firstworldproblem our nation faces today.

7. Marshmallows help sore throats. So you've got an excuse to treat yourself when goddamn mouth-breathing Linda at work gives you a cold.

8. If some dude keeps blowing up your phone, send him the following text message. "SERVICE ERROR 305: MESSAGE DELIVERY FAILED. FURTHER MESSAGES WILL BE CHARGED TO YOUR ACCOUNT." Take that, Neckbeard.

9. When you heat leftovers, space out a circle in the center of them. It'll make them heat more evenly. Because nobody likes scalding hot potatoes and cold meat, except maybe aliens.

10. If you've got a ridiculously expensive candle that's burned too low to light with a regular lighter or match, use a dry spaghetti stick.

11. To avoid a mess at your #AdultDinnerParties, use unscented dental floss to neatly cut cheese or dessert.

12. Plump up a flattened pillow again by putting it in the sun for 30 minutes. I don't know why this works. It just does. I'm 27 now, and I know things.

13. Those plastic hangers you sometimes get when you buy clothes from places like Old Navy have clips that are good for keeping bags of chips fresh. As seen here.

14. Wrapping a wet paper towel around your warm beer and putting it in the freezer will make it frosty in 15 minutes. Like Paula Cole, you don't wanna wait. To have a beer.

15. And frozen grapes chill white wine while you drink it. Just freeze the grapes. (Delicious summer snack too, bee-tee-dubz.)

16. A hanging shoe rack is great for storing cleaning supplies on the side of your bathroom door. Instead of tripping over your spray bottle of OxyClean every time you have to pee.

17. If nothing's worked for a bad breakout or you've been feeling run-down, use apple cider vinegar as an all-purpose healing mechanism. Dilute it with water to use as a toner, shampoo, or dietary supplement... just make sure it's one of these, with "the mother" in it. Salad dressing will not improve your skin.

18. Run out of bleach for a load of your white laundry? Use white vinegar. It's better for removing pit stains and general body-related clothing stains anyway.

19. Get removable platform shelves for your cabinets and closets. Double the space! And you will never ever get around to installing actual shelves.

20. Set up Kayak price alerts for flights to every city you eventually want to visit. Maybe you didn't plan on that long weekend in Paris this year, but for a round-trip flight that cheap, what the hell, right?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Trivia about the origin of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia debuted back in 2005. The story behind the development of It’s Always Sunny is as humble and improbable as they come. You’ll likely never hear again of what was essentially a home movie being turned into a pilot, which impossibly was greenlit, and which would last for nine seasons (so far), become the cornerstone comedy hit of a now successful network, and also become the first sitcom ever to get a cable-to-cable syndication deal (reruns of the FX hit play on Comedy Central). There was no focus testing. No lighting. No big stars. There weren’t even small stars. It was just three struggling actors goofing off, and it was transformed into comedy gold.

Here’s how it happened:

1. Depending on who you ask, the unaired pilot for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia cost between $85 and $200, almost all of which was spent on tapes. That has to make it the cheapest greenlit sitcom pilot in history, and if not that, certainly the cheapest pilot ever for a show that ran for a decade.

2. The original title of the show was actually, It’s Always Sunny on Television, and the unaired pilot was set in Los Angeles. It was only after FX picked it up that the set location was moved to Philadelphia (Rob McElhenney’s hometown) because the network thought there were already too many sitcoms set in Los Angeles and it wanted to distinguish itself.

3. It was actually more important at the time for the series to distinguish itself because it hadn’t yet developed its misanthropic streak. In the original pilot, they’re not so much terrible people as they are mistaken as terrible people by misunderstandings (over the course of the first season, they eschewed the misunderstandings and owned up to their terribleness). It was also centered around the entertainment industry (they were struggling actors) rather than owners of a bar.

4. The credit sequence is also probably the cheapest ever to produce. It was just Rob McElhenney taping Philly footage with a camcorder and editing it together. The theme song — “Temptation Sensation” by Heinz Kiessling — like much of the first season soundtrack, is music from the public domain.

5. The pilot was not really originally designed to land a show. They were just friends hanging out who decided to put together the pilot for themselves, and to show other people, because they thought it was funny. But once they saw that it was funny, McElhenney began showing it around until FX saw it (and loved it) (several other networks, including HBO, passed).

6. The genesis for the entire sitcom came with an idea that McElhenney had to create this awkward situation where a friend reveals to another that he has cancer, and instead of sympathizing or consoling the guy with cancer, the friend tries to get the hell out as fast as possible (the storyline for the pilot was transformed into the fourth episode of the series,”Charlie has Cancer.”)

7. There were actually two versions of the unaired pilot. The first one was very bad, and in it, the role of Mac was played by David Hornsby (who would later play Cricket).

8. A version of the Sweet Dee role was originally played by Jordan Reid, who was McElhenney’s girlfriend at the time. The two would later break up, and Kaitlin Olson was brought in to replace her. According to Jordan Reid, who is now married to Kendrick Strauch of The Harlem Shakes, she was let go after the break up with McElhenney.

9. The role of Carmen was played by Morena Baccarin (Homeland) in the unaired pilot. She was a college friend of Glenn Howerton’s and appeared as a favor.

10. When Kaitlin Olson auditioned, she read Glenn’s part, and was pissed off to later learn that she wouldn’t get to deliver the lines on camera.


Kids react to seeing a walkman

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

If a nuclear bomb exploded in downtown Washington, what should you do?

Funny question in the headline, yes?

But since President Obama worries more about the threat of terrorists' improvised nuclear device going off in a major American city than anything Russia can throw at us, I was wondering if the government had deigned to share with us citizens any tips for, you know, surviving something their own intelligence points to as the likeliest unlikely Black Swan event.

Well, no. And yes.

No — very few people in Washington, D.C., who work for the government have any idea what they would do if a 10-kiloton nuclear device exploded at the intersection of 16th and K streets.

You can always look to movies to figure this stuff out, right? And in movies, since nuclear radiation is BAD, the thing to do is to get away from it as quickly as possible. In the movies, electronics are fried, too, the response is chaotic, and hundreds of thousands of people die.

Interestingly enough, though, the government has done quite a bit of work to figure out what exactly would happen if a suitcase nuke — which, I know, doesn't really exist, but, for the sake of this example, bear with me — actually did explode a few blocks from the White House.

And curiously, and perhaps hearteningly, it turns out that there is quite a lot that you or I can do if we get stuck in Washington when something like that happens. Choices we make could very well make the difference between our imminent death and a relatively full and happy life, assuming the bomb is a one-off.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory released a report in 2011 that spells all this out. It hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves.

It's called the "National Capital Region Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism" and it makes for fascinating reading.

Did you know, for example, that:

1. The WORST thing for someone to try to do, in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that they survive, is to get in a car and drive away.

2. Unless you're within about a third to a half a mile radius of ground zero and the shelter options are poor, the BEST thing for someone to do is to find a stable location inside a well-built apartment or office building — the majority of which will remain standing outside that half mile radius — and stay there for 24 hours.

And if you were very close to ground zero and you did survive — and a lot of folks will — the best thing for you to do is to:

A. Take immediate shelter somewhere, because fallout will rain down on you if you don't.

B. Wait an hour.

C. Then, walk about a half-dozen blocks laterally until you find intact large buildings to shelter you.

3. The electromagnetic pulse from a ground burst will NOT, in fact, knock out all types of communication. Some? Maybe.

4. If you live in a single-family house with thin walls, your chances of surviving in the immediate aftermath of a blast and not getting cancer later are exponentially higher than if you seek shelter in a bigger building, even one that might literally be next door.

5. Rescuers should NOT put on radiation protection gear if it will slow them down. So long as the fallout has stopped falling, they're best advised to turn out in their normal gear.

6. Though thousands of people will die from the blast effects, almost all — about 96 percent — of the other potential casualties could be avoided if people understood the basics of what to do in the event of mass radiation exposure.

7. Did I mention that the worst place to be in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear blast is in a car trying to get away? The so-called DFZ — the Dangerous Fallout Zone — will extend out as much as 20 miles, but it is likely to be extremely narrow. (If it's not, that means the concentration of radioactive particles will be lower.) The vector and location of this zone depends on the wind. And its size will shrink with every passing hour.

8. Penetrating trauma from broken glass is probably the largest treatable cadre of blast injuries.

I admit that I don't know what forum the president or anyone else could use to educate people in major cities about this stuff. Government never wants to alarm people. But maybe a little bit of alarmism is worth it, if it turns out that a terrorist's nuclear blast is a lot more survivable than we might think, if only we do certain things.


Horrible confessions from fast food workers

Hilarious flight attendant safety speech

The facebook baby invasion might be a figment of your imagination

Getty Images
Last year, I experienced a Facebook trauma that made me question if I could ever trust my News Feed again. There I was, scrolling away and minding my own business, when the photo of a sonogram popped up: “The arrow is pointing at baby’s scrotum/peepee!!” the caption exalted. “That’s our boy!!! Mommy and Daddy love you soooo much!!!!” For some reason, I hadn’t registered that this would be my News Feed’s natural progression after all of those engagement ring, “OMG I SAID YES, NOW CHECK OUT THIS ROCK!,” photo shoots. And like that, I started seeing baby Facebook photos everywhere.

Or maybe, like many other Internety 20-somethings, I was just being melodramatic. Because according to a piece on Wired,which enlisted the help of Microsoft Research computer scientist Meredith Ringel Morris, there really aren’t that many baby photos out there.
After a child is born, Morris discovered, new mothers post less than half as often. When they do post, fewer than 30 percent of the updates mention the baby by name early on, plummeting to not quite 10 percent by the end of the first year. Photos grow as a chunk of all postings, sure—but since new moms are so much less active on Facebook, it hardly matters.
New moms undershare. I’m probably more likely to see someone taking a selfie with Crab Cakes Eggs Benedict than their progeny. But I am probably less prone to be shocked by bacon and eggs than I am by a peer entering the parenthood stage of life.

Morris said that another reason why baby photos might seem to show up more frequently could be because they get a disproportionate amount of likes and, thus, get promoted on feeds. I’ll admit, I panicked and liked the “Peepee” shot… I’m part of the problem!

So what it all comes down to is, we all need to chill out and stop whining about the baby pictures. Even though some people definitely do overshare—a Twitter employee recently live tweeted her own labor—it’s not that big of a deal.