Sunday, December 28, 2008

Eyesore of the Month

A spectacularly amusing (and simultaneously sad) web site that "features" visual examples of crimes against the built environment. Visit architect James Kunstler's EyeSore of the Month for proof that poor taste knows no bounds.
Kunstler's commentary is acerbic & funny, often sharp, and occasionally mean spirited. But he is almost always right
in drawing attention to structures that actually reduce the quality of life in a community and, indirectly lower the collective cultural value in the process. Spend some time going through the archives-- especially if you need a good chuckle. [Visual Shock & Awe].

From Kunstler's March 2004 Eyesore - He writes:

Notice how these new "townhouses" in northern Virginia meet the street. From the ground up to about the eleven foot line, you get the ambiance of a self-storage unit. The upper stories are applique Georgian, meant to signify "historic architecture here!" The real message emanating from all this investment and effort is "no real future here." What the scene signifies is the tragic resignation of ordinary Americans to cheap falsehood in the service of an entropic economy. As America slides into the post-cheap-oil clusterf--k, houses like these will lose their value dramatically, and the people who bought them will be both stranded and ruined. [end of quote]

In the December 2001 installment of Eyesore, Kunstler writes,

The supergigantic Palladian window with the pop-in muntins doubles as a neighborhood heat-exchanger. [end of quote]

January 2008 Eyesore

October 2007 Eyesore

The Years 2004 through 2006 seemed to have an inexhaustible amount of example of bad design, poor decisions & bad work.

July 2006 Eyesore
February 2006 Eyesore
January 2006 Eyesore
March 2005 Eyesore
January 2005 Eyesore
April 2004 Eyesore
December 2001 Eyesore
January 2001 Eyesore - Typical Suburban House

For all the Johnny & Janie-Come-Latelys who thought some Libertarian self-promoter predicted the current recession, hundreds of Architects (and planners) like Kunstler and myself were warning you about the impending US Housing market collapse.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Story of Stuff

The fine people at The Story of Stuff have put together a short video that ties together American consumption patterns, Environmental Waste (i.e. garbage), Worker exploitation, depressed wages, Big Box retailers, corporate self-interests and Job Losses (among other things). While it sounds like a pretty bombastic claim, video host Annie Leonard makes a compelling argument. You can watch the FULL video online or download it for distribution. Ain't the internet great ?

From the website:
The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.

What do you guys think of the video? (Plus, the animation is VERY clever. SOS is a good presentation on the Environment for school aged children, too.) Leave a comment. Play nice.

Again, you can watch the FULL video online or download it for distribution.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mayor Daley Calls Appraisal System Fraudulent

Today, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley called the Property Tax Appraisal system fraudulent. In one specific neighborhood (Englewood) which has a sizable percentage of low-income households, the idea of having homes appraised at $300-$400K+, proved to be implausible even for a revenue hungry politician with a budget shortfall. Daley called for the Cook County tax assessor's office to revise and reassess how they arrive at those valuations. Daley is also calling for the IL State legislature to temper the rate at which property taxes can increase from year to year.

Part of the problem with the Cook County assessment system is that the current tax bills are based on assessments taken in 2006, before the current housing slide. [See the CBS local video of Daley's news conference.]

Well, Mayor Daley is right, the property appraisal system is fraudulent. However, he-- like a lot of other politicians & municipal officials across America, created a climate that enabled and encouraged this kind of greed to spiral out of control.

See, every Chicago Alderman (along with Daley) wanted new development and housing renovation in their neighborhoods to thrive-- rightly so. If housing values and construction numbers went up in a neighborhood, so too did (in theory) the tax base of their Ward. And what politician doesn't want to be seen as presiding over growth, expansion and wealth building in their own community? The Chicago Alderman-- along with Mayor Daley, wanted to also get the credit for this regeneration-- especially in previously depressed urban areas.

Also understand, the rise in property values means a rise in taxes, fees and income for ANY City, including a big city like Chicago. Mayors (and City Councilmen) want their budgets to be balanced, but they also want to add programs that get them re-elected. This had/has the obvious potential for a conflict of interest -- if left unregulated, to create problems over the long run. Of course, we know this is exactly what happened nationwide, on a much larger scale.

But as the race to increase development (and construction) in each Chicago neighborhood moved forward, so too did the greed meisters feeding the entire process.

I have a professional friend who confessed to me the other day that when she was looking for her house (just a few years ago), she felt the Mortgage Broker, Assessor and the Realtor had grossly overpriced the property. So she asked the assessor how they had arrived at the value of the property, and the person was stupid [brazen, really] enough to admit, "..well, this is the amount we think you personally qualify for". A STUNNING ADMISSION of GREED.

Alas, here we are at a situation where REALTORs, BANKERS, Assessors, are ALL COMPLICIT in not valuing the property at what its market rate is, but what they think they can milk the would-be home owner for. It's not about the cost to re-build that house-- heaven forbid, should a calamity strike. It's about what the sleeze-bag mortgage company/bank and the Realtors can pocket in the way of profit-- regardless of what the house is actually worth.

This current American Housing/ Mortgage Crisis is nothing more than a story of American GREED & THIEVERY. And that is why you now find your house values are sliding down. And THEY SHOULD go down, because it's apparent they've been over-valued from the beginning (or least since about 1980).

In the next few weeks, I'll post pics of homes that I KNOW are over-valued.
When are you home owners gonna learn, that buying an over-valued house (OR OVERPAYING FOR HOME REMODELING) is like paying $40,000 for a $19,000 car? You are the one getting screwed. Not the seller.

© 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bailout: Wealth transfer via Housing

Ok, some of you know I've been predicting this Housing (and thus national economic) housing crash for years. Ok, maybe some of you don't know it-- then you should read my FIRST POST on this blog, logged some 2 years ago.

Part of the HARD TRUTH you home owners don't want to admit is that MOST OF YOU live in grossly overvalued homes, and that ALSO contributed to this avoidable economic "crisis".
The fault for this mess does not lie merely with the investment bankers, mortgage companies, politicians/legislators who looked the other way while they amassed cash and built fake wealth on paper -- knowing it would someday implode. Many-- not all,  Homeowners assisted in creating this crisis. (I explain how in the coming paragraphs.)

But, by the time the middle class wised up to the chaos around them, it was too late. And as reported on CBS' 60 Minutes, 9/28/08, the charlatans who are largely responsible for this mess would have amassed enough cash to insulate themselves from the downside fallout. (Which, in a legal sense, implies premeditation-- don't you think? )
This is a crisis completely created out of greed and selfishness. A real Regan era, "I got mine who gives a F-- about the other guy" attitude. And it's likely that the world over is smirking with glee that Americans finally are having to pay for decades of greed and selfishness-- most recently distilled in the attitudes on display during the last 8 years by Bush et al.

So, how have (some of you) homeowners been complicit in this melt down? Because greed has created a climate where ALL OF YOU want your crappy, cheap [mostly suburban] homes that were built for $140-180K (over the last 15 years) to be assessed/valued at the 275-600 PERCENT MORE THAN WHAT THEY ARE actually WORTH.

As an architect, I more than have a good idea of what it costs to build a house. Trust me, even at $200-250K for a 1900 SF house, a contractor has plenty of room to make a fair profit. In my opinion, the TRUE cost of a house is about 70/30 (maybe 65/35) percent Labor-to-Material cost ratio. That is to say, about 70-65% of the cost of a house is in the labor. The rest is material costs. (This is a rough estimate. Some variances will occur by region, etc. Land costs and professional fees are additional, but not enough to change the ratio by usually more than 5-8% for most areas.) But those hideous vinyl clad houses in the 'burbs that routinely sold for $300-425K+ for 2400 SF (in the '90s and '00s), were probably built for only about $160-190k.

What Treasury Secretary Paulson is NOT TELLING YOU, is that a lot of that so-called BAILOUT debt/cost is a cost (or debt) manufactured on paper.

If you falsely inflate the value of a property/building that was built [true costs, including labor and profit]  for $200k, and assess it at $400-700k, then assign a mortgage (product) to the same property at $400-700K, you will create a limited buyers market. It is no wonder the average middle-class person cannot assume a mortgage for a house at that price-point.   Realize that municipalities, realtors, insurance companies and of course mortgage companies all have a FINANCIAL incentive for your house to be overvalued (to some extent), such that they can charge you more.- Property Taxes [municipal revenue] are based on the house value.
- Realtor commissions are based on the final selling cost.
(The higher the cost, the more the Realtor makes.)
- Insurance rates (thus profits) are based on house values, etc.

With these kind of financial incentives, who should be surprised that under-regulated industries were bound to push the limits of greed?The middle class home owner who DID NOT get in over-their-head also suffers as part of the collateral damage.

If a property is over valued, then it's a FAKE valuation-- and thus a fake debt (when financed.) You should note that banks can still make money on a house sold for less-- just not as much per customer.
Real wages the last 30 PLUS years have not kept pace with these fake housing values. If the TRUE value of these houses were placed with a more modest (i.e. less greedy) amount, then this housing CREDIT DEFICIT CREATED ON PAPER, would almost cease to exist immediately too. Because the truth is a house build for $150K [the widget, product] but sold for $425K still performs like a $150K house.

And because the house sold at $400K, but built for only $180K, PERFORMS like a cheap house, it is inevitable that it will lose money (faster)-- unless you can get realtors, home assessors and banks to play along with the valuation charade. Well, that is exactly what was going on [in the go-go 90s], until recently. The problem is, that kind of lie and fakery is not sustainable-- especially if REAL wages aren't keeping pace with real estate.

Another dirty part of this [2008] financial & housing crisis is that a substantial part of the hard working Middle Class will be swindled (i.e. foreclosed) out of their homes (and thus, assets) due to a woefully under-regulated [Republican manipulated] financial system. This is one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the the Working Class to the well-connected & privileged since the early 1900s. It is an orchestrated financial apartheid.

Because a substantial portion of the lousy mortgage products targeted people of color and lower Middle Class citizens, can there be any doubt that the authors of these predatory financial instruments KNEW IN ADVANCE that these were the people LEAST likely to be able to fight back and hang onto their house (and money)?

Investigations into  bank lending practices already show that a substantial portion of the people who were put into these lousy mortgages actually QUALIFIED for more traditional mortgage packages but were steered (conned) into these riskier financial products.

Again, this is a predatory, pre-meditated money grab to strip a portion of the population of what little money it already had. And since wealth through real estate is the primary means thorough which most working class American families build, gain and transfer wealth, taking homes from Working Class people --especially people of color-- is the fastest way to insure they remain among the working poor for the next 2-3 generations (or 50-75 years.)

It is DIABOLICAL. This reeks of hatred and real contempt not just for fellow Americans, but for all humanity.

As an architect, I can say there are indeed expensive homes that perform like expensive
homes. The problem is, the average home buyer the last 20 years let their own greed get in the way of hoping their crappy $150K house would be valued at $500K in 5 years. Todays consumers wouldn't know how to spot (evaluate) a TRUE $1+ million dollar house if it built itself in front of their own eyes.

The problem is, home buyers (caught up in keeping up with the Joneses), developers, realtors, and housing contractors were just as greedy and as complicit in this mess as the bankers and investment houses.

In a time where housing values have SOARED 3-6 TIMES faster than REAL INCOME, it is no wonder that a substantial portion of the population can't and WON'T ever be able to sustain that debt repayment on a mortgage product that changes rates. (Didn't this raise any red flags for any of you? Did you really think housing valuations could increase without real wages increasing and it wouldn't have any effect? Are you kidding me?)

The suburbs are FILLED with carcinogen clad, cheap homes that were built with low-quality, environmental killing vinyl products and other toxic materials for a fraction of what they were sold and assessed for. I have witnessed this first hand the last 15+ years. I routinely walked into homes that were built for $150-180K by a thieving (unqualified) developer, but sold to a suburban schmuck for $375-500K. And the developers and bankers laughed all the way to the bank-- until last week.

Those cheap homes are still worth something-- they just aren't worth the $425K you were hoping for when you bought the house. The real value is probably closer to $220-245K on one of these fake colonial 2400 SF houses. So, those of you in hock for one of these homes, would actually be better served if you could renegotiate your mortgage down to $220-245K. (This would require having it assessed for its true value-- not the false, inflated value.)

Hey, the $125-300K difference in value pre-crisis versus now was -- as the wealthy like to say-- just wealth on paper. You'll still have the same lousy cheap furniture, same bad wallpaper, and same personal effects you had before the crisis. It's just that you won't be able to get AS LARGE A LOAN against your assets [i.e. equity] as you could have pre-crisis.

But allow me to let you in on a secret:
The really wealthy folks-- the ones that truly do have $5 mil, $20+ million dollar houses that ACTUALLY ARE BUILT with quality products and are truly worth those numbers--- they KNOW your crappy vinyl/aluminum, or faux brick shack in the 'burbs is the social & economic equivalent of putting lipstick on a Chevy and trying to pass it off as a Bentley. (Sorry about the bad metaphor, but you get my point.) That level of fakery is not sustainable over time.

Old money never would have let you into that [true] multi-million plus dollar house club anyway. It's one of the reasons your crappy vinyl house has and NEVER WILL be featured in any design magazines or on a TV show.

So, the chickens are already home and will be roosting for years --if not decades-- to come. You better hope your grandchildren aren't so saddled with debt and anger, that they hold your sunset years in their power-of-attorney hands. You better start treating your younger relatives/caretakers well, and better buy long-term care health insurance with whatever money you have left. Because some U.S. taxpayers are about to feel some debt pain for the next several years.

And while it is true that a slew of GREEDY Contractors, Developers, Bankers/Mortgage lenders etc., all lied and manipulated the American middle class into falsely believing their homes were worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, the truth is you can't get something for nothing. And that is what the middle class is guilty of trying to do:  trying to get something for nothing. Unfortunately, only the middle class (or as Leona Helmsley use to say, "The Little People") will get screwed in the end.

Only time will tell how the economic fallout will manifest.  But this scenario HAS happened before. Too bad many of you failed to learn the economic, planning and urban development lessons of the past.  Societies and industries that allow greed to grow unchecked (i.e. an unregulated, truly free market) has -- and always will, produce chaos... eventually. History has shown this again and again.

For the fools out there who think you and your country can move forward, amassing stuff (and even wealth) and benefits (of any kind) without paying more taxes (or some other cost), then you are bound to again suffer the consequences of economic crises like this one.

Your taxes will go up, and they should. It is the cost of lessons not learned, stupidity, complicity and greed.
© 2008 - All rights reserved. No derivative works allowed. Quoting of this article requires permission in writing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bailout Should NOT be Another Patriot Act

Wealth (motivated by greed and selfishness)
Privatizes Profits but Socializes Losses.

So What does $500 Billion Buy? What Does 1 Trillion Buy ?

A reader asked what any of the bailout numbers represent in the real world. We know $500 billion, $700 billion or now the new Paulson plan of $1.8 trillion is a lot, but put this in terms that everyone can understand. A few examples for 2007:
* Microsoft generated $51 billion in revenue.
* Citi, who has been hit hard in the credit crisis, saw $159 billion.
* Walmart's 2007 total revenue was $388 billion.
* ExxonMobil generated $404 billion.
Those are the numbers for some of the largest businesses in the US. For the US budget, here are a few examples from Bush's budget in 2007:
* Veterans' benefits at $73 billion
* Education was $90 billion
* Interest on US debt was $244 billion
* Medicare $395 billion
* Defense was $548 billion
* Social Security was $586
In total, the 2007 federal budget was a total of $2.8 trillion. The latest updates for the Paulson bailout plan are pushing $1.8 trillion. For next year, we will start the year in a pretty big financial hole and it's going to have to be made up somewhere.

What does $1 Trillion Buy ?
(Hint: All those Things that Politicians Were not Willing to Extend to the Ordinary American-- precisely because "the little people don't matter" to wealthy politicians. Not only sould Americans have the opportunity to renegotiate their mortgages, but that $700B to $1T could easily have paid for Slavery Reparations and for 40 Acres and A Mule for the descendants of slaves.)

The American Public is the real FOOL if they allow themselves to be trampled over by this Bailout Legislation, while investment bankers get golden parachutes and bonus packages.. If you vote against your own economic interests (while politicians, liars & thieves get away w/ larceny and no jail time), then you deserve to have your money stolen from you.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Register for November 2008 US Election

US citizens, Illinois residents, and Chicago citizens alike, be sure to register for the 2008 US Presidential Election!
UPDATE: In general, you have until about October 3rd to register to vote for the November 4, 2008 election. Most states require you be registered 30 DAYS BEFORE the Election date.
BUT voter registrationDeadlines VARY BY STATE ! (Illinois deadline is Oct 7 for mail in, but you have a few extra days past that date -- in ILLINOIS ONLY-- to register in person at the Election Board offices.)

Go to the US Election Assistance Commission [EAC] website [] to find out the registration deadlines for your state. (Voter Registration requirements and deadlines vary by state.) The EAC website has the deadlines and general requirements for registering to vote for the November 2008 election FOR EVERY STATE.

You can download BOTH a VOTER REGISTRATION FORM, and the requirements for registration in your state from the
US Election Assistance Commission (US EAC). Mail in the completed registration form by the deadline or register in person. Some states may allow you to fax it in or you may need to take in the form in person.

MANY PUBLIC LIBRARIES (in many cities throughout the US) have voter registration forms.
Or, you may be able to register to vote at your local Driver Motor Vehicle Department.
The voter registration form (usually) is less than half a page long and shouldn't take you more than 15 minutes to fill out.

Take your time filing out the form, and complete ALL required info/questions. If you fill it out incorrectly or leave blank spaces, you won't be registered. If you need help filling out the form, ask a trusted friend to help you or go to your local library for help. (Avoid letting political staffers fill it out for you.)

If you filled out the form correctly, your local voter registration (municipal) authority should send you a voter registration acknowledgment (or card telling you where your polling place is located.)

If you don't receive acknowledgment of registration (or your voter card) approximately 35 days BEFORE the Nov. 4th, 2008 election date, then go in person to register. Don't wait.

Some states may allow you to register to vote via phone-- but many states do NOT allow you to register this way. (Don't confuse this with being able to cast your vote via phone.)
Go to the website to see what your state requires.

On voting day, bring at least 2 photo IDs with you when you go to vote. (Sometimes a current utility bill showing your name and address on it is accepted as additional ID.) Some states don't require ID, but many do. So be prepared w/ your ID on voting day.

Again, these ID requirements vary by state, so visit the site to see what is required in your state.

Citizens of the State of Illinois (ONLY) can get the Illinois voter registration form from the site. Download the IL PDF voter registration form, fill it out and mail it in TODAY!

Once registered, if your town/city offers it, take advantage of EARLY VOTING so you don't have to worry about getting to the polls before they close on Nov. 4th.

Chicago, Illinois (only) Early Voting - begins October 13, 2008 (Columbus Day) through Oct. 30th.
Visit the Chicago Elections Board website
[] to find out more about the Early Voting site in your Chicago neighborhood.

Tom Joyner & NAACP have joined to make getting voter registration forms easier. Call 1-800 MY VOTE1 to request a voter registration form (for any state in the Union). They will mail you the form, and you will need to fill it out and return the completed form to your city or state election board.

Mail in your Voter Registration !
Don't procrastinate !

Register to VOTE today !
Illinois deadline to register to vote is October 7, 2008 for the November 4, 2008 election.
(Other state registration deadlines will vary.)

Vote for Change.
Obama YARD Signs via or ShantyMinister's Flickr page.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

RTA Olympic Stadium to be Recycled ?

Ready to Assemble (RTA) meets Ikea Mondo. Stadium beta v. 0.9a

The Guardian is reporting that the 2012 London Olympic organizers are in talks with the City of Chicago to re-use the Stadium from the upcoming 2012 London Olympics for the 2016 games here in our beloved city. [See computer rendering of stadium above.]
Since the games in 2016 haven't been awarded to the host city as yet, these are just preliminary talks. The design h
as received some criticism for its lack luster aesthetics, but people seem intrigued by the idea of recycling a building-- especially one as large as a 60-80K seat stadium.

Apparently the idea is to design key components of the stadium so that they can be readily disassembled, shipped, then reassembled in the new location.

Usually prototypes cost MORE to build the first few units (because the design costs and engineering are all front-loaded). Add to that the cost of labor to disassemble, pack and ship across the ocean. It's nice to know Chicago will be inheriting someone else's bugs -- beta version 0.9a. Beta / version 1 items are always buggy.

Plus, if anyone has tried to assemble any flat-pack/ RTA item (like those from Ikea), you know you always have a part or two missing. And let's hope there's no particle board involved, because you know once the threads are stripped, good luck getting the parts to hold tightly together... [ just kidding.]
Just the same, watching this kind of Stadium go up in Washington Park might be quite entertaining.

I would imagine London will ask Chicago to "share" some of the upfront costs. I doubt it will actually be cheaper to recycle this stadium. Nonetheless, Chicago will garner more "Green Cache" for even attempting it. Afterall, Chicago is America's "Greenest City".

Speaking of GREEN... The Chicago Museum of Science & Industry is currently featuring a Green Pre-Fab Smart Home. They've actually assembled a full-size modular home on the grounds of the Museum. So visitors can walk-thru and around the house. The exhibit is open until early January 2009. The website has additional info on the exhibit.

Read more about the "Flat Pack Stadium" at the Guardian website.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Housing Valuation as a Social Construct

I changed the name of the Photo pool from "Home Inspection Nightmares" to "Home Construction Nightmares". I didn't want to confuse this with the This Old House (TOH) website, nor limit it to existing [older] homes -- as a considerable amount of new construction is also equally (if not) more horrific in its poor execution.

A perfect example of the kind of builder incompetence in "new construction" is shown courtesy of a fellow Flickr member: Shutters to Think. [click on the photos for a jaw-dropping close up view.]

Home owners and would-be owners should be aware that just because a house is newer, doesn't mean it has fewer defects or is built to a better nor safer standard than much older homes. Just because a house costs more, doesn't mean it's a better home -- or even a better place to live.
In fact, in many ways, I am convinced now that much of the new housing stock (built by for-profit developers & builders in the last 25 years) is of a lower quality than anything seen in the last 100 years.

I feel the "HOME Construction Nightmare" Flickr photo forum is a good way to prove that thesis. I am working on building the visual evidence of what I have seen the last 15 years: that the quality and visual appeal of homes is in decline (in the USA), because (in part),
the design of houses has been given/taken over by unqualified builders and money grubbing developers at the expense of safety and without any substantive consideration of end-user's long-term needs.

Housing quality and safety will not improve until consumers demand it and place their money where their concerns are. This is one reason why I know the housing bubble had to burst, and why I believe housing is currently as much as 60% over-valued in much of America. It's actually in the nation's (and consumers') long-term interest that the value of housing come down from the present [decade 2000s] irrational levels.

It's a fallacy to equate high cost of housing with quality or safety. And not unlike social issues surrounding race, property values based on LOCATION is a social construct [bias], often not based on economic costs or even true value in any objective, democratic measurable means.

Human valuation of commodities like housing/property, jobs/salaries, objects, time, expertise etc., is a strange, interesting and constantly changing phenomenon. For example, we all know that water is far more valuable than diamonds, yet the retail cost of acquiring small diamonds far exceeds the retail cost of acquiring drinkable water (in most industrial nations). And while that may be an imperfect example, I hope you see my point.

[A few notes about these photos, with thanks to Intangiblearts: Notice the window/shutter problem in the top photo. Also notice the fake applied "brick" on this building facade. There's no drainage for moisture that gets behind the soon-to-be mortar or fake brick-ettes. The doors and windows don't have drip caps and are already rotting and peeling. Lastly, can we all agree this kind of visual foolishness is beneath what our communities deserve?]

How a cheap vinyl-clad (carcinogen laden) house in one suburb is worth $475K while it's worth $225 in another area as close as 50 miles away (allowing for size, amenities, lot size, view, environmental issues, access, etc. all being equal), is nothing more than a sham and a social and economic lie.
We are beginning to see the corrections of a system that recognizes the inequity and the COSTS of such an obvious social [fairness] imbalance.

This is a thesis I'm flushing out.. but I hope you will all begin to consider the questions I'm raising.

More on this issue to come.
copyright ©2008
All rights reserved. This post may not be used or re-posted without permission.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My Corrupt Condo Association

There are a few fellow bloggers here in my Hyde Park Chicago neighborhood who regularity cite tales of crazy neighbors, thieving contractors and asinine developers. Who needs reality TV when our own neighbors and foes provide so much material & entertainment? And I often think, there but for the grace of God goes my dysfunctional community. Except, my own Condo community is [already] filled with liars, cheats and fools. And that describes the majority of the makeup of our Condo Board the last 15 years.

But my Condo Association has now hit a NEW ALL-TIME LOW.
(And it's really too bad, because we have a nice building/complex and a wonderful view of the Chicago skyline & Lake Michigan. See photo above.)

Now for the drama:
As it turns out, a former Board President and past Board member for our Association
(who still lives in the complex), has not been paying her assessments for the last, oh-- 6 to 12 [freakin'] years- - as far as the property management company can tell !

While this broad was on the CONDO Board, SHE WASN'T PAYING ASSESSMENTS !!! WTF!!??

The Property Management company is claiming they can only VERIFY the last several years have not been paid-- but that it could be more. Since the present Board is made up (in part) of crooks, liars, incompetents and pansies, it's not even looking as if the Board feels any compunction to sue this liar/thief for the money. It seems as though SOME of the current Board members have KNOWN about this "issue" for months-- if not years, but FAILED to take action until a more recent manager made it a PUBLIC issue.

Come the F--- on !?!!

In a somewhat relevant side note: last year, our Condo Board decided not to renew the contract with the Property Management Company-- D&K-- under whose watch the overwhelming majority of this corruption occurred. In my opinion, both the Board and the past Property Management company are culpable AND complicit. Severing the relationship with D&K was long overdue. Unfortunately, ending the management contract last year was way too little, way too late.

Now getting back to the crooked former Board member ---
One of the current Board members-- whom I believe is a co-conspirator [to the deadbeat former Board member] and whom I believe is also a thief-- is trying to spin the situation and talk her fellow nimrod Board members into RAISING the assessments in order to cover the shortfall (and not suing the past president for the money). WTF??!

The Condo Association's attorney has recommended trying to settle out of court and suggested placing a lien on the property-- in case the broad dies first or tries to skip town. The fear is that a protracted lawsuit would cost the Assn. much more (in attorney's fees, discovery, audits, etc.) than the amount to be collected-- about $24,000 [that we know of.] And I would agree w/ that analysis, except it would give me much pleasure to see this thieving wench with a theft and/or embezzlement conviction on her record. (The spectacle would be great. I think I would attend the trial.. I say pay the cost of the investigation and trial and throw the bitch in jail.)

Unfortunately, the now VP of the Board is trying to get this thing to go away, without a lawsuit, without collecting the money, and without doing any kind of audit or investigation. WTF ?!!

It's not clear if the newly elected & current Board president has a mind of her own, or if she will be easily manipulated by the long-time Board members.

Hhmmm.. sounds incredibly fishy-- doesn't it? Now you know what kind of "people" I am dealing with.

Now before you start to feel sorry for the master liar under scrutiny, understand her husband (who died several years ago) owned a Hardware store chain and probably left her a considerable amount of money. She has family, so she's not broke and destitute. It's not a hardship situation. She's just a lying, thieving, selfish crook (and that was the nicest thing I could think of to say.)

As for the current Board, I think the primary reason the now VP of the Board wants to give this crook a pass, is because I think the long-serving, do-nothing, know-nothing Board members are fearful that during Discovery (and a true audit of the Association's finances), that some OTHER BOARD MEMBERS will be outed as having pilfered funds from this 730+ unit, multi-million dollar complex too.

My theory is that the present Board is not looking to show mercy for the crook, so much as it's an effort to save their own sorry asses.

I also know specific [current] Board members have used their Board position to gain favors, preferential treatment by maintenance/repair staff, outside contractors, etc. So the thought of a trial (under oath) & Discovery is probably this Board's worst nightmare-- next to being convicted for their crimes.

Thus, it's not clear what will happen to this thieving broad. I am trying to bring this issue to the attention of my neighbors. Unfortunately, my neighbors are an apathetic bunch of dullards who are more concerned about whether or not their cable TV is working than the idea that the Board they ALLOWED to take office has been stealing money from them FOR YEARS --perhaps DECADES !!!

Of course, the current Board has been working very hard to keep this issue under wraps. Some of the current Board members are pals of the [former] Board member under scrutiny. It would be an understatement to say that the current Board has a vested interest in NOT seeing a full audit of payments and financial dealings for the last 10-15 years. (And I must add that I have caught some Board members lying to me and others regarding Association business. So, there is a culture of lying that pervades this Board and many of its past and present Board members.)

But a full and extensive audit is exactly what needs to occur. The Board has a history the last 8+ years of REFUSING to release copies of audits and other pertinent financial info to Association owners when requested in violation of the State of Illinois Condominium Act. I know.. you are shaking your head.. but it's true. And not a single person in the complex has the backbone to sue or to make it an issue. It's totally disgusting what has happened the last 20 years with this Assocication... I've tried blogging and getting the word out to neighbors, but it's difficult when less than a handful of people are interested in pursuing these issues out of a community of over 1000 people.

But like most crooks, the people behind this coverup are stupid and it was inevitable that they would trip themselves up. Stupidity, selfishness and arrogance are the three primary traits of thieves.

If there are any lawyers out there interested in taking this case pro-bono for me, please email me. I have a limited budget, but maybe something else can be worked out. I've been trying to solicit my neighbors to pool money to sue the entire Board.
We need to weed out the thieves.

Oh, and I'll have to also tell you guys about the current Board member who is (supposedy) a University of Chicago Grad, who TRIED TO OPEN FLAME BAR-BE-QUE INSIDE her carpeted apartment (complete with charcoal briquettes). F---ing amazing, isn't it? And this fool won re-election to the Board. WTF??

There's a lot more to the story, I just can't post it all in one sitting.

[Coming soon, my commentary on the Federal Indictment of Chicago Building Department staff for bribery. What took the Feds so long?]
© 2008

Monday, May 12, 2008

Developer MIA

Hmmm, the chatter & number of Blogs documenting the shadiness of the Construction/Development world (in the USA) seems to know no end...
Horror Stories surrounding Contractors, Developers and low-quality residential construction are abundant.

As I told my brother-in-law 5 years ago, "you can't keep building houses for $170K, then sell them for $800K to people making $85K, and not expect this whole thing to blow up. At some point, market forces are going to realize that a $170K house is not worth $800K-- almost regardless of location."

Read how one Bentley driving Northside developer has allegedly fled the country -- owing money all over the place []

Personally, I don't think developers and contractors should ever be given the benefit of the doubt. Experience tells me they almost always lie.

(Also, Please consider posting your horror story photos to the Shantyworld "Construction Nightmares" photo group.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

New Housing Development, Not!

Clever Concept Meets Public Performance Art

This photo has been shooting around the internet. It created quite a chuckle in architecture offices around the country. I thought it was something some wacky Californian came up with (notwithstanding the obvious earthquake danger).

Thankfully, it is NOT some moron's idea of Adaptive Re-Use, nor some hillbilly condo development scheme. It turns out this House Truck cousin is part of a theatrical set for the Openluchttheater outdoor Theatre Company located in Amsterdam.

The original production was back in 2005 for the play "Ivanov" by Tsjechov. Clever set design. You can see more photos of this set at the SonnyRadio website. (But don't use their website button to forward the photo link to your friends. It it could be a vehicle to gather email addresses for spam..)

Funny. Pheeww. Close one.

Siemens Eco Solar Phone - Be Green, Recycle

The Home Electronics Saga Continues..
(updated 3/16/08)

Before my TV started to die, my Siemens cordless phones started to show signs of an impending expiration as well. I have to say, my 8 year old cordless Siemens Gigaset phones performed well. For a cordless phone, the clarity was eq
ual to any corded phone, imo. But apparently, several cycles of re-charging these things has taken a toll.
Now, in addition to looking for a new HD TV, it appears I am inching closer to being forced to buy new phones for home use. (People are complaining my phones are starting to sound static-y. Not good.) Since we all know that electronics equipment isn't always environmentally friendly, I try not to buy products that once disposed, cause harm to the environment.
This is where Siemens comes in..

A ShantyWorld FIRST !
The Siemens Solar Phone (Cordless phone).

This is one gadget that neither Gizmodo nor Engadget have listed first. Since I love my Siemens 2420 Gigaset phones, I decided I would first give their new phones a look. (I like the Siemens phones in part because they are not only the clearest cordless phones I've ever used/owned, but Siemens engineering is consistently solid.)

Siemens also has a line of phones that use SIM chips, so you can pop your mobile phone SIM card into your home phone and have access to your mobile's calenda
r & phone book. Nice. Siemens also has a line of phones that work as intercoms, which let you see a live pic on your handset of who's at your front door.

Anyway, I surfed over to the Siemens site (3/3/08) and saw that they've introduced the "SOLAR" -- clearly an iPhone knock-off in the style department. According to Siemens, it's a "self-charging solar phone". Interesting.

From the Siemens website:
Solar, the high-end phone in the design study “Gigaset Eco Visions” uses all-over solar cells for a self-sustaining energy supply. It recharges naturally in the sun. The eco-index indicates the renewable energy use. Made of pure, separable materials (metal, eco-plastics, glass) the Gigaset Solar is truly state of the art high-tech inside and out. OLED touchpad technology allows a function-depending key indication on the Solar’s transparent display.

According to the Siemens Gigaset blog, the Solar is the second in a Trio of Eco-Friendly Home/Office Communication (SHC) devices to be rolled out over the next year by Siemens. (Errr, EFHOC is a posh way of saying "phones"...) From the Siemens site, "The phones have been engineered to be eco-friendly in terms of design, technology, materials, and characteristics throughout the entire product lifecycle – from manufacturing to recycling." [UPDATE 5/31/08, see new photo of Solar prototype above.]

The Leaf and Stone are the other two models that make up the SHC Trilogy. I've been eyeing the Gigaset S675 & S450 DECT phones & to replace my 2420 system, but consistent with my early adopter ways, I might have to wait until the Siemens Solar comes out. Too many gadgets, too little time (and cash).

Recycling of Electronic Equipment (in the USA) -
A lot of big box office supply and electronics retailers will recycle your old electronics equipment for you. Just call your local store in advance to make sure the location near you will take your old stuff. Some locations offer FREE recycling services. Others charge a small fee ($5-10 depending on the type of equipment.) Many of these stores have drop-off boxes/ spaces in their stores for old equipment. Either way, it's a good idea to properly recycle your old electronics. - Database of places to recycle your old electronics equipment.
eCycling - US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) web page listing Electronics recycling info, for computers, old TVs, cell phones, etc.
There are plenty of other places that can direct you to recycling programs, but at least you've got a few places to start.

Be GREEN, recycle those old gadgets.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Building Performance Art

I want my COLOUR HDTV!
Ok, so my 18 year old Sony TV is slowly dying... and I figured I'd start looking for a new HDTV to replace it. If you want a good starting point from which to assess tech equipment, you have to seek out geeks who spend their time doing the analysis.

Looking for more info on the subject, I turned to the podcasts of Leo LaPorte
at . LaPorte, along with Scott Wilkinson ( have done the most due diligence & have the best recommendations , imo, on how to select a good HDTV. With their "help", I have my selection narrowed down to either a Sony Bravia or Sharp Aquos-- only because for the size I'm looking for (26" max.), those were the best two units with the features, ports etc. that I need. (I also want to hook the HDTV up to my computer and I want more than 1 HDMI port..)

As I'm madly Googleing prices on the Sony unit, I stumble upon this HD ad for Sony HDTV units via one of the bit Torrents, Azureus. Through the Azureus client, you can (legally?) view a High Definition (HD) version of the Sony PAINT Commercial. (The commercial supposedly aired back in 2006, but I never saw it...) The "Paint" commercial is but one in a series of clever Sony commercials done in Europe highlighting the Bravia HD technology.

With the backdrop of a soon-to-be-abandoned (?) Urban High-Rise residential complex, the filmmakers shot a Fireworks-style Performance Art piece utilizing exploding paint bombs/cans, resulting in quite the colorific visual. It's part Performance Graffitti and Reality Voyeurism in one. My favorite shots are the ones from inside the building, as the color is exploding. The architectural landscape is an interesting backdrop to the performance.

You have to see it for yourself.

I'll resist the temptation to describe it in detail. Try to find the HD version though-- it's much better than watching the tiny YouTube clip.

It's a great blend of good Art Direction, High Concept and fantastic film editing. No CGI (computer graphic imaging) was used to create these images. That's what makes it all the better as a snippet of film art.

The YouTube version (below) is OK, but you've REALLY got to see this in higher resolution and at a larger size.. preferably with surround sound. YouTube also has a "making of" film clip summarizing the set-up for the shoot, the materials used, etc.

Quick "Sony Bravia Paint Commercial" facts:
Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Filmed: June 2006
Prep: 4 months to plan, 250 people over 10 days to set-up film shoot
Material: 70,000 litres of paint
622 Bottle Bombs used
455 Mortars
Clean up: Dozens of people over 5 days to clean up paint
Paint: was supposedly environmentally friendly
Sony Bravia site:

No NIMBYs were hurt during the filming of this commercial (so I understand..)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Construction Nightmares

The ShantyWorld Flickr Construction Nightmare PHOTO Group is now alive and active.
If you thought YOUR contractor was stupid, take a look at these other guys..
The Flickr group is free, and I hope it will be informative and fun for visitors and members alike.

Special note to Licensed Home Inspectors, please post your photos of bad construction.

Home Owners & Realtors: Please post your photos of bad construction & repair work.

Please do not post Full nor company names of these crummy "contractors" !
DO NOT post specific addresses, but the city and neighborhood location would be OK. We don't want people -- especially not me, to be sued.

Flickr Group name: Home Inspection Nightmares
Flickr Adminstrator: shantyminister (no spaces)

If you want to view or share your own photos with this group, you'll need to sign up for either a (free) Flickr account, or you'll need to use your Yahoo mail (or SBC Global or ATT DSL) account to post to the group.

This Flickr group will be monitored.
Let's Post !

© 2008

Construction & Home Inspection Nightmares

As Americans tighten their belts with respect to their own disposable income, you can be sure more property owners will move to repairing and renovating their existing properties instead of trying to upgrade to new digs. As a result, more home owners are bound to find themselves face-to-face with the reality that their existing property may have (existing) defects that need to be corrected. It's also likely that these same property owners will also encounter a contractor that may (or may not) actually complete the renovation work correctly.

Coincidentally, as I listened to the rebroadcast of Tavis Smiley's, the State of the Black Union (2008) on C-Span, a displaced New Orleans resident spoke about her experience with contractors who promised to do repair work to her New Orleans home, took her money, but never showed up to finish/complete the work. I have said (even here) many times, that that is not a problem unique to the victims of Katrina. [ See my post on Mike Holmes, Contractor.]

So when I stumbled on (yet again) Home Inspection Nightmare examples on the This Old House website, courtesy of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) , it reminded me that I need to post examples from right here in Chicago. The "Home Inspection Nightmares" section on the TOH web site is their MOST visited section. Most visited! Amazing. On a positive note, it does point out that anyone who owns or is looking to own property, should learn how to avoid (financial) disaster by learning from the mistakes of others.

There were a few patterns that appeared as a result of this "worst of" American homes...

1. That the states with the most lenient Home Inspection (HI) laws (i.e. laws regulating the selling of property), tended to have a significant number of dangerous construction problems. The states having more lenient HI laws included California, many southern states, and yes, my beloved Illinois. (Illinois came in the lower 35% percentile. Calf. was one of the worst in the nation, followed by many southern states.)
2. Communities with more relaxed building codes, tended to have high incidences of shoddy construction, and a high percentage of homes with dangerous existing conditions. [Makes sense, doesn't it?]

Unfortunately, there were fewer correlations between location and the number (or severity) of construction. Shoddy construction seems to know no real demographic. (Even well prepared property owners experience fraud.) While it is true poorer households do suffer a high rate of contractor fraud, middle and upper income households experience a significant rate of contractor fraud as well. In fact, some of the most egregious construction practices occurred in homes valued over $750K. (The primary difference between the rich and the less rich, has more to do with resources available to the household to later seek out a remedy-- to sue the contractor. Of course, suing a contractor usually comes well after a breach of contract or trust, when the damage is already done.)

Let's dispense with the chit chat, and get to the examples..

This contractor seemed to think no joists and no sub-floor were required under the bathroom. They just went ahead and installed new drywall over a wall that had no joist and no sub-floor supporting it. The GC is being rightly sued. Unfortunately, in the 4+ years when this work originally was done, this group of Contractors have worked on many other homes and will probably continue to work on other homes in the Chicago area. What is so sickening about this is, none of the trades involved in the job (the plumber, the dry waller, painter, etc.) did anything about trying to get this situation corrected. How do they sleep at night?

Photo of this same area from below.

Notice how the floor joist was totally cut away by the moron that is the plumber. (Actually two floor joists were completely cut out, but it's hard to see that in this picture.) The white dashed lines show where the joist material SHOULD have been. This contractor later came back and instead of correcting the problem, covered it up with a mudset coat, and literally painted the area (to disguise water damage, the old areas from the new, and the fresh cut wood. )

From the same moron Contractor..

This same house (photo below) was suppose to be undergoing repairs as of a result of damage sustained by a fire. The General Contractor didn't think anyone would notice that the sub-floor should have been replaced--even though it was in his written contract that the sub-floor be replaced. (Uumm, how do you replace a sub-floor AFTER all the new drywall and walls have been installed? This GC repeatedly ignored directives to install materials in the proper sequence.)

In the photo below, why remo
ve, clean & reinstall the radiator, when your position [as the GC] is that the home owner is too stupid to care about the details of how things get installed ? Just cut out the new wood floor AROUND the radiator leg. This "method" saved some dumbass floor contractor the hassle of having the GC's HVAC contractor move the radiators. Notice how that wretched sub-floor (above) shows through under the "new" wood floor. Almost too stupid for words.. Disgusting work, yet typical.

I hope the rest of these photo
s speak for themselves...

trical outlets and switches in wet areas (including showers) are abundant.

And just in case you new homeowners are feeling secure... It appears that a large share of these kinds of mistakes are present in a considerable portion of NEW HOME CONSTRUCTION as well.

So, those of you buying a NEW HOME should ALSO hire a licensed Home Inspector (and/or hire an architect) to help you during the buying process.

I am starting a public FLickr pool of Home Inspection Nightmare shots.
I'll post a link to the FLickr pool later. We can share photos and learn from one another. (Or send me your shots. Photos need to be UNDER 1 MB in size if you email them to me.)
- © 2008,

Monday, February 04, 2008

Tesla Update - Video Test Drive

I was surfing for my usual Mac Podcasts several weeks ago, and came across's video podcast (April 2007) where they managed to get a test ride in the new TESLA (all electric/green) Sportscar. (It's not your mother's Prius.) You can download the HD video from iTunes or can view the stream from the Revision 3 website. (For iPod and iPhone users, the file is video iPod-ready.)

Tesla has been plagued by personnel changes in the company, battery and other technical delays. Tree Huggers & motorheads alike can hardly wait 'til the Roadster hits the market. Read my earlier post (11/9/2006) about the Tesla Roadster.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

They're From Around the Way

Shanty "Pre-Fab Quickies"
Work has been crazy, but I wanted to post a few quick items so my 2 readers won't think I've fallen off my drafting stool and have forgotten about the blog. I'll call these quick posts, "Pre-Fab Quickies." Corny, I know..

Not unlike former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, I've always loved Chicago. Once you get to know the City, it's easy to see why visitors and natives alike can list-- with considerable ease, those items, places and people that shape why Chicago is fabulous. Over the last few months, I've added a few reasons to my list. (I'll share a few of those reasons in later posts..)

For those who want a quick visual slice of Chicago, I encourage you to visit the Flickr pages that have "Chicago" as part of the tag. This designer is particularly fond of the fabulous amateur (and pro) photos posted of Chicago Architecture on the Flickr site. The photos are just fabulous. (This one reason why I love the internet..) What makes so great is not just that images are there for all to see, but that Flickr has a way to search for images by topic, subject, interest. One such example is a photo by "Menlo" on FLickr of Marina City (shown above left).

Crooks Don't Go Away, They Just Find New Chumps

From the continuing saga of "Lies My Contractor Told Me"
, come more contractor horror stories. (You can also substitute the word "Developer" for "Contractor". ) My friends and clients know that I've been warning them for 15+ years that it's not a matter of IF, but WHAT your contractor will lie to you about. (The "when" starts almost immediately..)

That is why I was so glad to stumble on a really good Cable TV Construction show from Discovery HOME Channel called, "Holmes on Homes". The entire premise of the show is about lying, incompetent contractors, and the damage and danger they've been leaving behind. The show takes place mostly in Canada, although one episode was recently shot in the US.

Enter this burly, Canadian Alpha male contractor named Mike Holmes to the rescue. In each episode Holmes breaks down (for some unlucky homeowner) how and why the previous contractor's work was wrong/unsafe/not code-compliant, etc. Then, Holmes and his crew rip out the crummy work and do it the right way (more or less).
Apparently, there are a lot of incompetent, lying contractors and developers in Canada too. (Pheeew --it's not just the Chicago area that has its share of lousy contractors. Again, feel free to substitute the word "Developer" for "Contractor".)

While the designs are builder-esque, the craftsmanship of the work seems very solid. Check your local listings for air times. (In Chicago, the show is on cable TV daily, with several repeats during the day. How did I miss this show the first 6 years ??) Alternatively, you can buy the DVDs from the previous 6 seasons from

A lot of people think I'm crazy when I tell them I've never NOT had a contractor lie to me about some aspect of a project. And it doesn't matter [to the contractor] the client demographic, location, project size, complexity, dollar value (of the project), nor project type: public vs private, commercial nor residential.. I have found that nearly all contractors lie -- at least here in the state of Illinois. It must be a genetic requirement for being a contractor. Nonetheless..

Newbie homeowners (and those looking to work with a contractor) really need to educate themselves before they buy into a development or hire a contractor. When you don't, this show explains just how badly a project can go when an incompetent contractor is hired by an unprepared homeowner.

SouthSide Blogger

I stumbled on a fun blog that Chicagoans and Condo owners (regardless of locale) should check out: "I Hate My Developer".
(found at

"I Hate My Developer" chronicles one southside Condo Owner's trials with her Condo Association's developer, city officials, contractors and neighbors. It's smartly written, and very funny. It's both comedy and tragedy (in a good way.)

See, I too, live in a Condo.. and I've often thought the story of the shenanigans in my not-so-little condo community would make a great 21st century reality TV show. If we could get Hollywood to document (and pay us) for all the drama we get to live through as residents, all of our Association's financial problems (and special assessments) would be alleviated in the first season's airing.

Think: Melrose Place (the 1990s TV Dramady soap opera) with all the racial conflict of a Clinton / Obama Democratic primary battle, set in Chicago's multi-cultural Hyde Park. This show could be good stuff, people.

First, you have to understand that I live in a LARGE, 700+ multi-unit complex-- which makes consensus gathering nearly impossible. Competing agendas and wide-spread incompetence makes for lively Association meetings. Don't get me wrong, as an architect, I love the architecture of the building. The complex is done in a sort-of International, Miesian-lite kind of style.

It's a late '50s modern high-rise with a largely glass facade, and NewYork styled, tiny galley designer kitchens without the starchitect pricetag.
Who needs to live in the high-priced Mies van der Rohe 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments when you have Meisian-lite here on the southside? All the drama, but none of the property tax, gawker tourist problems. The southside is such a bargain.

Secondly, we have all the cliche reality show storylines that make for a hit show. We've got generational, race and class issues, prostitution, comic relief (from incompetent Board Members, employees and residents), we've had murder, suicide, domestic violence, and the occasional resident celebrity siting.

As a prequel to the series, we'd have to re-enact the episode where a 50+ year-old Board member tries to open-flame bar-be-que in one of the apartments. (Did I mention we don't have balconies-- and this person was cooking on a carpet and claims to be a Univ. of Chicago graduate ?) That episode would probably earn high ratings, ala the Jessica Simpson Chicken-of-the-Sea Tuna type humor. So many story lines are possible...

Our "building" is home to a cadre of D-list (mostly local) celebs, authors, TV/radio personalities, and we even have a few "has-been" national celebs. Our building is often used for TV/ movies shoots, and we have some of the best lake-front views of the City of Chicago. (I have a wonderful view of Lake Michigan.) We're a stones throw from the University of Chicago campus, the World famous Museum of Science & Industry, the DuSable Museum, and Presidential Candidate Barack Obama lives in the neighborhood.

I have episode outlines...I just need someone to option the show. Takers?

©2008 All Rights Reserved.