Percentage of delinquent FHA loans keeps rising

The economic and social consequences of COVID-19 might be just beginning. A new report suggests a number of FHA mortgage holders are behind in payments:

More than 17% of the Federal Housing Administration’s almost 8 million home loans nationwide were delinquent in August, according to a new study from the American Enterprise Institute.

“Rising FHA delinquency rates threaten homeowners and neighborhoods in numerous other metro areas across the country,” American Enterprise Institute researchers said in the just released report. “It would be expected that these delinquency percentages will increase over time…

The increase in late FHA loan payments is even greater than the rise in the number of overall mortgage delinquencies since the start of the pandemic…

A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas warns that highly indebted FHA borrowers are at risk of losing their homes when payment forbearance programs end.

More people falling significantly behind on their mortgages – plus other issues related to housing – could have ripple effects on a number of actors:

  1. Americans who need housing. If you cannot afford your mortgage or rent, what viable options do you have?
  2. Mortgage providers. If a lot of mortgages go into default or foreclosure, what does this mean for these large financial actors?
  3. Local governments and communities. With larger numbers of people without housing and limited housing, what happens? What happens to local tax revenues?
  4. Housing investors and people with resources. Does this mean they can take advantage of opportunities?

The memory of the burst housing bubble just over ten years ago lingers. While few predicted a worldwide pandemic and the resulting impact on housing, we could know within a few months whether this will lead to another housing crisis.

Trying to use statistics in a post-evidence political world

Ahead of the presidential debate last night, my Statistics class came up with a short list of guidelines for making sense of the statistics that were sure to be deployed in the discussion. Here is my memory of those strategies:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  1. What is the source of the data?
  2. How was the statistic obtained (sample, questions asked, etc.)?
  3. Is the number unreasonable or too good/too bad to be true?
  4. How is the statistic utilized in an argument or what are the implications of the statistic?

These are good general tips for approaching any statistic utilized in the public realm. Asking good questions about data helps us move beyond accepting all numbers because they are numbers or rejecting all numbers because they can be manipulated. Some statistics are better than others and some are deployed more effectively than others.

But, after watching the debate, I wonder if these strategies make much sense in our particular political situation. Numbers were indeed used by both candidates. This suggests they still have some value. But, it would be easy for a viewer to leave thinking that statistics are not trustworthy. If every number can be debated – methods, actual figures, implications – depending on political view or if every number can be answered with another number that may or may not be related, what numbers can be trusted? President Trump throws out unverified numbers, challenges other numbers, and looks for numbers that boost him.

When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005, he hinted at this attitude toward statistics:

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don’t mean the argument over who came up with the word …

It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President [George W. Bush] because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? …

Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Combine numbers with ideology and what statistics mean can change dramatically.

This does not necessarily mean a debate based solely on numbers would lead to clearer answers. I recall some debate exchanges in previous years where candidates argued they each had studies to back up their side. In that instance, what is a viewer to decide (probably not having read any of the studies)? Or, if science is politicized, where do numbers fit? Or, there might be instances where a good portion of the electorate thinks statistics based arguments are not appropriate compared to other lines of reasoning. And the issue may not be that people or candidates are innumerate; indeed, they may know numbers all too well and seek to exploit how they are used.

Using public art to promote diversity in Naperville

Naperville is more diverse today than in past decades, it has a history of promoting public art in its downtown and along the Riverwalk, and it was home in recent years to multiple incidents of racism. Put this all together and a recently formed group just completed a new art installation:

https://www.napervilleart.org/

In part, this is a response to a downtown mural commissioned in 2014 that featured little diversity.

Three thoughts:

  1. Using public art, an already accepted medium in downtown Naperville, to make a new statement seems like it could be effective. At the same time, having more art that promotes diversity in the community in more prominent locations also matters.
  2. How much room is there in downtown Naperville to do different kinds of art? At this point, there are a number of murals, statues, and sculptures. How varied could future works in these formats be and what new formats might be included? More artistic freedom and new aesthetics – downtown Naperville generally has a red brick, several story building look – could also contribute to a sense of diversity.
  3. The conversation about art gets at larger questions about race and ethnicity in Naperville. Although it is more diverse than in the past, is it welcoming to all people? Do all residents feel comfortable in the downtown and in other local institutions? How does the community tell its own history? What is the vision for the future?

Utilizing the front porch during COVID-19

With social life changed to COVID-19, front porches offer a unique opportunities for social interaction:

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

Thanks to the pandemic, the front porch is enjoying a new golden age. Like their near cousins, stoops, steps, even fire escapes, porches offer a semipublic setting where we can meet friends and neighbors face-to-face—even if those faces are masked. In the words of Claude Stephens, founder of a tongue-in-cheek group called Professional Porch Sitters Union Local 1339, a porch is “the only place where you can feel like you are outside and inside at the same time; out with all of the neighbors and alone reading a book.”…

“The front porch was an escape from the heat of the wood-burning kitchen stove,” explains historian Donald Empson, the author of “The Street Where You Live,” an architectural guide to St. Paul, Minn. “On the porch, in the cool of the evening, the family could gather to discuss the day’s events and exchange the latest news with neighbors strolling by.” Porches offered neighbors a place to exchange gossip, to spin sagas and sing songs, to flirt and court and air political views. The front porch at the turn of the century was Starbucks, flash mob, church social and Facebook rolled into one…

We no longer need front porches to broadcast our political agendas or to keep cool, as our grandparents once did. But we still need them, perhaps now more than ever. Porches give us a physical space to safely host friends, neighbors and passersby for the small talk and deep conversations otherwise difficult to foster in the middle of a pandemic.

If you’re yearning to add a porch, a 300-square-foot version will set you back an average of $21,000. One study shows you can recoup 90% or more of that investment at resale. But you can’t place a dollar value on the intangible elements of a porch—a social lubricant, a casual meeting place, an eye on the world, a place that’s a little bit yours and a little bit theirs.

Architects, urban planners, and others have argued for decades that front porches and the social life associated with them would help improve community. By spending time in a zone connected to the single-family home yet open to people passing by, residents open themselves up to interactions in a way that is not possible with the common holing up inside to watch TV or driving in and out of the garage at the beginning and end of each day.

It would be interesting to see how exactly front porches are being used right now. There is a time period of home construction lasting at least a few decades in the postwar era when front porches were not common. Older homes may have home as might some newer homes, though these newer porches can be fairly small or more cosmetic than usable. Do people in neighborhoods where front porches are more common report higher levels of social interaction during COVID-19?

In addition to the new opportunities for social interaction during COVID, the front porch can also function as a work or social space separate from inside life yet still connected to the home. With many working from home or students going to school remotely, the front porch offers a covered yet open-to-nature space. Just make sure the Wifi works well…

Trying to define the “average American home”

One writer/realtor describes the features of today’s typical American home:

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Homebuyers now realize that although space is important, it’s not necessarily the most important feature to have. To have enough space to be comfortable, today’s average American home measures about 2,400 square feet. This is definitely up from the 1973 average of about 1,500 square feet for a single-family home, but it’s down quite a bit from the 4,000-plus-square-foot McMansion…

People like finished basements, a home office, a large master bedroom, a big (we’re talking the size of a child’s bedroom), customized walk-in closet with organizer features, and a tricked-out ensuite master bathroom — think of one with spa-like amenities, such as a linen closet, a separate shower stall and tub, a double vanity, and a private toilet room…

Even when you adjust for inflation, you’ll find today’s median home price has increased 900% from 1973, but incomes have increased only 600%. Americans have become used to spending more of their paychecks to get the American dream of homeownership…

“Live, work, play” became the motto of the day as people grew weary of being car-dependent. Being able to walk to shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment has become just as important as the home itself to many homebuyers.

This description appears to draw off two sources of data: Census data that regularly provides numbers on square footage, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, and prices (among other things) as well as real estate knowledge of recent trends.

Whether this gets us to what “the average American home of 2020 looks like” is a tricky question. At first glance, several things seem to be missing from the description. What does this typical home look like? It is somewhere between more traditional pre-World War II styles, postwar styles like ranches and split-levels, and more recent options like McMansions? How old is this typical home? While newer homes and features receive a lot of attention, many homes are at least a few decades old. And while the factor of the neighborhood is mentioned, where are people buying homes and then what is happening to these homes in terms of renovations and alterations?

Much of this also depends on local context. Given regional architecture plus the variation in housing markets as well as communities, finding the modal American house might just be near impossible. Perhaps there could be a set of typical American homes that could encompass some of the common variation.

Walmart and Crate & Barrel feature the same designer but different products, aesthetics, audiences

Two advertisements, both featuring designer Leanne Ford, recently arrived on the same day in my mailbox. I did not expect that Crate & Barrel and Walmart would both feature the same person:

I wonder about a few things:

  1. What is the overlap of consumers/audience between these two stores? Perhaps there is more overlap than I think.
  2. While each advertisement features the same designer, there are noticeable differences. For Crate & Barrel, Ford is adding to the modernist style. For Walmart, she and her husband are providing tools to tackle home projects. The first is leaning more towards art, the second is leaning toward getting things done. Even how it is presented is clearly different.
  3. Having some familiarity with both retailers, my sense is that both do not often use famous names to sell products. In contrast, a retailer like Target has tried this a number of times. Does this signal a new approach for both retailers? If so, it is interesting that both think Ford will help them appeal to potential customers.
  4. Just thinking out loud about more consonant pairings: Walmart and Ikea? Target and Crate & Barrel?
  5. I cannot help but think about Bourdieu in this context. The idea of home design has grown in recent decades in the United States and the concept and its purveyors – such as HGTV – are broadly available. Yet, how exactly this plays out in different class contexts can vary. Design for middle to upper-class residents means something different than design for lower to middle-class residents.

Considering the environmental and material costs of Internet music

A new book considers what it takes to record, produce, sell, and consume music in today’s world:

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Listening to music on the Internet feels clean, efficient, environmentally virtuous. Instead of accumulating heaps of vinyl or plastic, we unpocket our sleek devices and pluck tunes from the ether. Music has, it seems, been freed from the grubby realm of things. Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” thoroughly dismantles that seductive illusion. Like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy. Devine writes, “The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras.” He supports that claim with a chart of his own devising, using data culled from various sources, which suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions—some forty million more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000. Given the unprecedented reliance on streaming media during the coronavirus pandemic, the figure for 2020 will probably be even greater.

The ostensibly frictionless nature of online listening has other hidden or overlooked costs. Exploitative regimes of labor enable the production of smartphone and computer components. Conditions at Foxconn factories in China have long been notorious; recent reports suggest that the brutally abused Uighur minority has been pressed into the production of Apple devices. Child laborers are involved in the mining of cobalt, which is used in iPhone batteries. Spotify, the dominant streaming service, needs huge quantities of energy to power its servers. No less problematic are the streaming services’ own exploitative practices, including their notoriously stingy royalty payments to working musicians. Not long ago, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s C.E.O., announced, “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans.” In other words, to make a living as a musician, you need to claw desperately for attention at every waking hour…

Devine holds out hope for a shift in consciousness, similar to the one that has taken place in our relationship with food. When we listen to music, we may ask ourselves: Under what conditions was a particular recording made? How equitable is the process by which it has reached us? Who is being paid? How are they being treated? And—most pressing—how much music do we really need? Perhaps, if we have less of it, it may matter to us more.

A full consideration of the ethics of music production and sales could raise a number of concerns. In addition to the environmental issues, how about how musical acts are treated? Who profits from streaming? How many people in the music industry come out in the end as better people?

In a non-COVID-19 world, it seems like an answer would be to support local live music. Even though live shows take up space and energy, if the musicians do not have to travel far, the audience is taking it all in without any recording and equipment for listening on their own standing in the way, and there is a positive collective spirit, this might be the ideal. This shifts the attention away from music as a commodity – I can own or stream a tremendous amount of music – versus music as an experience. Alas, this might be hard to do even without a pandemic given propensities toward large tours (particularly the mega-tours of the most famous acts) and lots of travel.

Thinking beyond music, this line of argument highlights how many of the direct outcomes or effects of consumption or actions are even further removed for people when information, products, and experiences are put through the Internet. If I am streaming, I may know the data comes from somewhere. But, how many people have seen a data center, let alone have some idea of what is involved?

Housing appraisals reflect existing racial inequalities in housing

A new published sociology study connects housing appraisals and race:

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

For decades, research has shown that houses in predominantly Black neighborhoods have been generally appraised at lower values than houses in majority-white neighborhoods. This is true even when comparing housing stocks that have the same characteristics (age, square footage, number of rooms, etc.) and neighborhoods of equal socioeconomic status.

The new study finds that the racial composition of a neighborhood was an even “stronger determinant” of a home’s appraised value in 2015 than it was in 1980, to Black homeowners’ increasing disadvantage. Analyzing reported home values, Howell and Korver-Glenn found that the race appraisal gap has doubled since 1980: The difference in average home appraisals between neighborhoods that are majority-white and those that are predominantly Black and Latina was $164,000 in 2015, up from about $86,000 in 1980.

Rather than explaining the racial inequity as a vestige of historic segregation, the study finds more culpability in a method used to calculate appraisals today, the “sales comparison approach,” which determines a home’s appraised value by looking at the prices of other similar homes that were recently sold from the same neighborhood. The real estate industry sees this as a race-neutral way of appraising homes so that it doesn’t run afoul of fair housing laws, and it is one of the key criteria used for determining property values. But what makes this method problematic, according to the study, is that it basically grandfathers in racist home pricing that existed before fair housing legislation.

In other words, if an appraiser is calculating  the value of a home in a Black neighborhood by comparing it to houses recently sold around it, then chances are she is comparing it to other Black-owned houses that, because of the legacy of segregation, have handicapped values in the market compared to similar homes in white communities appraised at higher prices. The unfairly valued prices of homes in Black neighborhoods before the 1970s thus serves as the baseline for how homes are appraised and priced today. While the Fair Housing Act and Community Reinvestment Act forbade practices like redlining and denying mortgage loans based on race, they did nothing to readjust housing prices in segregated neighborhoods after they were passed.

In other words, past decisions and actions valued homes in white neighborhoods more than homes in black neighborhoods because of racism. Today, appraisals that typically compare homes in like neighborhoods perpetuate those different homes values. The system carries on these inequities even if no appraiser is intentionally racist; the way things are done continues the patterns set decades before.

There is another question here as well: what exactly are appraisals and housing values based on if they contingent on factors like race and not just on the characteristics of the home? Is there inherent value in a particular configuration of home traits – say a three bedroom, two bedroom home with a two car garage – or is the value completely dependent on what society says it is? I know the market is involved and the head of an international appraisal association is quoted later in the article cited above talking about supply and demand. But, if supply and demand says some homes are worth more because of the people who own them and the people in the neighborhood, this does not exactly sound like a desirable “free market.”

The rise of a sermon phrase – “a city on a hill” – to explain American exceptionalism

An English professor describes how a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 came to describe the United States:

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century…

Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires…

The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation…

My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.

Another example of how civil religion develops: several centuries after a sermon is given, it is picked up and interpreted by political leaders and others who want to tie several strands of social life together. Implied above is that another politician in another time period – say Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s – may not have been able to prompt the spread of this connection in American life. Ronald Reagan, who tried to be optimistic about American life, helps give the quote, which had some public airing because of John F. Kennedy, new life in a particular context.

The 17th century context of the meaning of a “city on a hill” is fascinating given what the phrase came to represent. If Winthrop meant to use the phrase in contrast to Catholic interpretations, the fact that the phrase came to represent a powerful America is a twist. The Protestant interpretation discussed above applied to a small context. When Americans use the phrase today, they tend to mean a powerful city on the hill, casting light on the countryside below or holding a fortified position or occupying the high ground. The American bastion of freedom and Christendom has replaced the prior holders of this title.

This phrase also gives more credence to cities than Americans have over the course of their history. Even with some important cities on a global stage, Americans are generally anti-urban and instead embrace suburban life. Updating the phrase, perhaps Americans would rather say “the suburban megachurch on the hill” or the “quiet yet stately suburb on the hill.”

Looking at which way Midwest suburban swing-state voters are leaning

Here is an update on the landscape of suburban voters in Midwest swing states ahead of the 2020 presidential election:

https://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/ohio/

Trump’s chances for a second term rest heavily on being able to maintain the margins he won by in 2016, particularly in suburban areas. He plans to campaign outside Toledo on Monday, as liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death stokes questions of whether the sudden court vacancy would energize more suburban voters who support abortion rights or social conservatives in small-town and rural areas who oppose them.

Republican lawmakers and strategists in Ohio say they are seeing research that shows a near-uniform drop in support from his 2016 totals across every suburban region of the state…

There is less debate in other states. Pennsylvania Republicans say across the longtime GOP stronghold of Chester County west of Philadelphia, for instance, Trump has slipped as far as he has in Ohio’s suburbs, though in more populous towns and in a state he carried by fewer than 45,000 votes…

A central question is whether Trump can, as his campaign predicts, spur even more support than in 2016 from rural voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. The Trump campaign has tried to appeal to suburban voters – see the rhetoric about Democrats wanting to “abolish” suburbs – yet also seems committed to trying to get as many votes as possible from more rural areas.
  2. These suburban locations in the Midwest are an interesting mix of prosperity and problems. They are located within Rust Belt states where changing economic conditions, particularly the loss of manufacturing jobs, have threatened what were once growing, prosperous states. On the other hand, many of these suburban voters are in relatively good position compared to others in their metropolitan region or their state.
  3. As Trump courts rural voters, population change in rural America is more complex than just saying the rural population is declining. See this 2019 research:
Figure 3
https://carsey.unh.edu/publication/rural-depopulation

Our research provides clear evidence of depopulation across a broad swatch of rural America. Depopulation seemingly is now built into the demographic fabric of some parts of rural America—a result of chronic outmigration among young adults of reproductive age, along with population aging and high mortality rates. Yet, depopulation is far from universal. Many rural regions continue to grow, often rapidly, including exurban areas just beyond the metropolitan suburban fringe, and high-amenity recreational and retirement areas. These counties are likely to hold their own demographically in the future. The situation is much different for the depopulating rural counties caught in a downward spiral of population loss.