Tag Archives: urban lifestyle

BALTIMORE MAY SELL HOMES FOR $1 TO REVIVE NEGLECTED NEIGHBORHOODS

In order to revitalize distressed neighborhoods in Maryland, councilmembers and local community advocates are pushing for a government program that would sell thousands of vacant buildings in Baltimore for $1 each. In turn, buyers would have to promise to refurbish and live in the properties for a certain period of time.

 

Baltimore

 

According to a bill adopted by the Baltimore City Council last month, the program would revitalize “marginal neighborhoods by matching construction ability at the grass roots of Baltimore to production of affordable housing for workers’ families and neighbors.” The idea is modeled after the 1973 “Dollar House” program, which sold rundown, city-owned houses for $1 and helped rebuild ravaged neighborhoods in the city throughout the 1980s. The original program also granted buyers low-interest loans to rehabilitate the properties as long as they lived in the homes for a certain amount of time.

Now, advocates want to restore the program to curb the city’s blight epidemic and prevent more homes from becoming vacant. The program would also create construction jobs, say advocates.

On the other hand, the housing commissioner argues that the program is outdated and that there is not enough government funding to address the estimated 16,000 to 46,000 vacant homes in Baltimore, reports The Baltimore Sun. That’s triple the amount in the ’80s. Plus, about 250,000 fewer people live in the city compared to when the program first started.

Nonetheless, real estate agent and affordable housing specialist Mable Ivory applauded the idea, arguing that city governments have implemented similar programs to revitalize distressed areas in Detroit and Harlem. “It has been proven that when home ownership increased among residents in neighborhoods like Harlem and Detroit, which were once plagued by urban blight and flight, crime declined and the communities became more beautiful as owners took pride in their neighborhoods and took better care of them,” she said in an email. “Baltimore seeks to mirror the success that has been experienced in Harlem and Detroit by creating a similar, discount homeownership program.”

Whether interested in buying a vacant property in Baltimore or purchasing an affordable home elsewhere, Ivory advises potential purchasers to “do their due diligence and research” before taking on the cost of homeownership. “If possible, before bidding on the properties, homeowners should do a property inspection with licensed professionals, such as contractors, architects, and engineers, to have a clear and full understanding of all the repairs needed to make the home inhabitable; the cost of the repairs; as well as the time it will take to complete the entire renovation. The good news is that there are mortgage loan programs available like the FHA 203(k) mortgage loan program, which provide financing for the total renovation of a home.”

Selena Hill   

by April 13, 2018 Editor’s Note: This post originally published on December 27, 2017

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For people of color, banks are shutting the door to homeownership

Fifty years after the federal Fair Housing Act banned racial discrimination in lending, African Americans and Latinos continue to be routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at rates far higher than their white counterparts.

This modern-day redlining persisted in 61 metro areas even when controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount and neighborhood, according to a mountain of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records analyzed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The yearlong analysis, based on 31 million records, relied on techniques used by leading academics, the Federal Reserve and Department of Justice to identify lending disparities.

It found a pattern of troubling denials for people of color across the country, including in major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Antonio. African Americans faced the most resistance in Southern cities – Mobile, Alabama; Greenville, North Carolina; and Gainesville, Florida – and Latinos in Iowa City, Iowa.

MODERN-DAY REDLINING

No matter their location, loan applicants told similar stories, describing an uphill battle with loan officers who they said seemed to be fishing for a reason to say no.

“I had a fair amount of savings and still had so much trouble just left and right,” said Rachelle Faroul, a 33-year-old black woman who was rejected twice by lenders when she tried to buy a brick row house close to Malcolm X Park in Philadelphia, where Reveal found African Americans were 2.7 times as likely as whites to be denied a conventional mortgage.

The analysis – independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press – showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.

“It’s not acceptable from the standpoint of what we want as a nation: to make sure that everyone shares in economic prosperity,” said Thomas Curry, who served as America’s top bank regulator, the comptroller of the currency, from 2012 until he stepped down in May.

Yet Curry’s agency was part of the problem, deeming 99 percent of banks satisfactory or outstanding based on inspections administered under the Community Reinvestment Act, a 40-year-old law designed to reverse rampant redlining. And the Justice Department has sued only a handful of financial institutions for failing to lend to people of color in the decade since the housing bust. Curry argued that the law shares part of the blame; it needs to be updated and strengthened.

“The Community Reinvestment Act has aged a lot in 40 years,” he said.

Since Curry departed nine months ago, the Trump administration has gone the other way, weakening the standards banks must meet to pass a Community Reinvestment Act exam. During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the Justice Department did not sue a single lender for racial discrimination.

The disproportionate denials and limited anti-discrimination enforcement help explain why the homeownership gap between whites and African Americans, which had been shrinking since the 1970s, has exploded since the housing bust. It is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.

This gap has far-reaching consequences. In the United States, “wealth and financial stability are inextricably linked to housing opportunity and homeownership,” said Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, an advocacy group. “For a typical family, the largest share of their wealth emanates from homeownership and home equity.”

The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show the median net worth for an African American family is $9,000, compared with $132,000 for a white family. Latino families did not fare much better at $12,000.

What lenders keep secret

Lenders and their trade organizations do not dispute the fact that they turn away people of color at rates far greater than whites. But they maintain that the disparity can be explained by factors the industry has fought to keep hidden, including the prospective borrowers’ credit history and overall debt-to-income ratio. They singled out the three-digit credit score – which banks use to determine whether a borrower is likely to repay a loan – as especially important in lending decisions.

“While quite informative regarding the state of the lending market,” the records analyzed by Reveal do “not include sufficient data to make a determination regarding fair lending,” the Mortgage Bankers Association’s chief economist, Mike Fratantoni, said in a statement.

The American Bankers Association said the lack of federal enforcement proves discrimination is not rampant, and individual lenders told Reveal that they had hired outside auditing firms, which found they treated loan applicants fairly regardless of race.

KEPT OUT

“We are committed to fair lending and continually review our compliance programs to ensure that all loan applicants are receiving fair treatment,” Boston-based Santander Bank said in a statement.

New Jersey-based TD Bank, which denied a higher proportion of black and Latino applicants than any other major lender, said it “makes credit decisions based on each customer’s credit profile, not on factors such as race or ethnicity.”

Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.

Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination.  

In an April policy paper, the American Bankers Association said reporting credit scores would be expensive and “cloud any focus” the disclosure law has in identifying discrimination. America’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., has argued that the data should remain closed off even to academics, citing privacy concerns.

At the same time, studies have found proprietary credit score algorithms to have a discriminatory impact on borrowers of color.

The “decades-old credit scoring model” currently used “does not take into account consumer data on rent, utility, and cell phone bill payments,” Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina wrote in August, when he unveiled a bill to require the federal government to vet credit standards used for residential mortgages. “This exclusion disproportionately hurts African-Americans, Latinos, and young people who are otherwise creditworthy.”

A case study: Philadelphia

Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in America where African Americans were disproportionately turned away when they tried to buy a home. About the same number of African Americans and non-Hispanic whites live in the City of Brotherly Love, but the data showed whites received 10 times as many conventional mortgage loans in 2015 and 2016.

Banks also focused on serving the white parts of town, placing nearly three-quarters of their branches in white-majority neighborhoods. Reveal’s analysis also showed that the greater the number of African Americans or Latinos in a neighborhood, the more likely a loan application would be denied there – even after accounting for income and other factors.

When Faroul applied for a loan in April 2016, she thought she was an ideal candidate. She holds a degree from Northwestern University, had a good credit score and estimates she was making $60,000 a year while teaching computer programming as a contractor for Rutgers University. Still, her initial loan application was denied by Philadelphia Mortgage Advisors, an independent broker that made nearly 90 percent of its loans to whites in 2015 and 2016.

“I’m sorry,” broker Angela Tobin wrote to Faroul in an email. Faroul’s contract income wasn’t consistent enough, she said. So Faroul got a full-time job at the University of Pennsylvania managing a million-dollar grant.

But that still wasn’t enough. When she tried again a year later, this time at Santander Bank, a Spanish firm with U.S. headquarters in Boston, the process dragged on for months. Her loan officer kept asking for new information, she said – or sometimes the same information again.

By this time, Faroul had been trying to get a mortgage for over a year, and the process itself was damaging her credit. Every time a lender pulls a hard inquiry on a credit report, the score goes down to guard against people who are trying to take on a lot of debt.

“They had done so many hard pulls that my credit score had dropped to 635,” she said.

Then, an unpaid $284 electric bill appeared on Faroul’s credit report. It was for an apartment she didn’t live in anymore. She paid the bill right away, but the bank said it couldn’t move forward.

Civil rights groups and real estate professionals said Faroul’s experience follows a familiar pattern of discrimination by banks and mortgage lenders that has kept people of color from building wealth.

“It’s one thing after another. It’s like pulling layers off an onion,” said Arlene Wayns-Thomas, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which represents African American real estate professionals.

Wayns-Thomas, who has been selling real estate for 30 years, said her black clients are treated differently by lenders.

“They may not like what happened between the last time you were working on this particular job to this one. They may see there was a gap,” she said. “I have seen situations where they’ve asked people for the children’s birth records.”

“The things that happen behind the scenes is what’s disturbing,” she said.

A change of tune from lenders

For Faroul, things suddenly took a turn for the better after her partner, Hanako Franz, agreed to sign on to her loan application. At the time, Franz – who is half white, half Japanese – was working part time for a grocery store. Her most recent pay stub showed she was making $144.65 every two weeks. Faroul was paying for her health insurance.

The loan officer had “completely stopped answering Rachelle’s phone calls, just ignored all of them,” said Franz, 32. “And then I called, and he answered almost immediately. And is so friendly.”

A few weeks later, the couple got the loan from Santander and bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper. But Faroul remains bitter.

“It was humiliating,” she said. “I was made to feel like nothing that I was contributing was of value, like I didn’t matter.”

Contacted by Reveal, the lenders defended their records. Tobin, who turned down Faroul on her first application, said race played no role in the rejection.

“That’s not what happened,” she said and abruptly hung up. A statementfollowed from Philadelphia Mortgage Advisors’ chief operating officer, Jill Quinn.

“We treat every applicant equally,” the statement said, “and promote homeownership throughout our entire lending area.”

Faroul’s loan officer at Santander, Dennis McNichol, referred Reveal to the company’s public affairs wing, which issued a statement: “While we are sympathetic with her situation, … we are confident that the loan application was managed fairly.”

Reveal’s analysis of lending data shows that nationally, Santander turned away African American homebuyers at nearly three times the rate of white ones. The company did not address that disparity in its statement but said it was more likely to grant a loan application from an African American borrower than five of its competitors.

Redlining history repeating

Lending patterns in Philadelphia today resemble redlining maps drawn across the country by government officials in the 1930s, when lending discrimination was legal.

Back then, surveyors with the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drew lines on maps and colored some neighborhoods red, deeming them “hazardous” for bank lending. Leading causes of risk, according to government officials, included the presence of African Americans or immigrants.

This practice has been outlawed for half a century. And for the last 40 years, banks have had a legal obligation under the Community Reinvestment Act to solicit clients – borrowers and depositors – from all segments of their communities.

But in many places, the law hasn’t made much difference. When you combine home purchase loans, refinancing and home equity lines of credit, banks were more likely to deny a conventional loan application than grant it in more than 40 percent of Philadelphia. People of color were the majority in nearly all those neighborhoods.

“You’re killing us here,” said Cindy Bass, a member of the Philadelphia City Council, who worked for a mortgage company before entering politics. The data shows banks have frozen out borrowers in much of her district – including Nicetown, a North Philadelphia neighborhood where boarded-up row houses dot the landscape.

“We need dollars. We need investment,” Bass said, “like every neighborhood needs investment.”

Nicetown is among the neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s. In his assessment, government surveyor W.R. Hutzel said the hazardous neighborhood had some positives, including “new industry – good transportation” and a high school. On the other hand, he wrote, it had a “heavy concentration of negro.”

Today, the economic recovery largely has bypassed Nicetown. Blight is a major concern. Some of the vacant homes, empty for years, have attracted squatters. Although it’s just a few blocks from Temple University Hospital, banks and mortgage brokers largely stay away. Lenders have been particularly stingy when it comes to home improvement loans. From 2012 to 2016, they made 67 home improvement loans here and denied 315.

“It creates this cycle where properties fall into dilapidation for a long period of time,” said contractor Eric Marsh Sr., 48, whose family has lived in Nicetown for three generations.

Marsh started his own construction business “because I saw dilapidation and empty houses,” he said, and wanted to help. But because banks rarely lend here, there’s no capital to improve the neighborhood. So Marsh gets most of his jobs in more affluent sections near the center of town.

“I was wondering why people weren’t purchasing these houses or renovating them,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older and talked to people, I’ve found out that a big part of it is the lack of lending in neighborhoods like this.”

‘It’s like a glass ceiling’

It’s not only historically redlined areas that suffer from a lack of credit. Some neighborhoods that were predominantly African American decades ago have since gentrified and are now majority white. Today, they benefit from a large number of home mortgages from banks.

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

Other neighborhoods that experienced white flight after World War II have become home to a substantial black middle class. And in those neighborhoods, banks are more likely to turn away borrowers.

Four miles from Nicetown, toward the suburbs near the Awbury Arboretum, the homes of Germantown are set back from the street behind garden patios and beautiful stone facades.

This area wasn’t redlined in the 1930s. Government officials colored it green – “the best” – and blue, which meant “still desirable,” and told banks to lend here. Back then, most residents of Germantown were white.

Today, this part of Philadelphia is majority African American, and the homes are occupied by middle-class workers – teachers, nurses and union craftsmen. Yet in every year from 2012 to 2016, banks denied more conventional loans of all types than they made in Germantown.

“It’s like a glass ceiling,” said Angela McIver, CEO of the Fair Housing Rights Center in Southeastern Pennsylvania. “OK, we’ll allow you to go this far, but … you’re not going to go any further.”

 Source: RevealNews.org – By  and  / February 15, 2018
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What if an Irma-like hurricane hit New York?

It sounds like a Hollywood disaster movie.

A Category 5 hurricane churning in the mid-Atlantic suddenly veers northwest — and heads straight for New York City.

The good news is that, for now, experts agree a Cat 5-sized deluge appears to be a meteorological impossibility in the U.S. Northeast, given today’s sea temperatures and weather patterns.

The bad news: A storm doesn’t need to pack the wallop of a Harvey or an Irma to knock out the region. Superstorm Sandy, whose wind speed was a relatively tame 80 miles per hour when it reached New Jersey, did $70 billion of damage in October 2012. Irma made landfall in Puerto Rico at 185 mph.

But if there’s anything we know about climate change, it’s that the boundaries of what’s possible keep shifting. As yet another hurricane, Jose, grinds up the Eastern Seaboard, the black-swan scenarios offer alarming perspective. Imagine what the Great Hurricane of New York might look like:

Winds of 100 mph and 12 inches of rain at high tide push a 16-foot storm surge through the funnel-like entrance of New York Harbor. It wouldn’t take Irma’s killer gusts or Houston’s torrential 50 inches of rain to create a wall of water swamping 500 miles of New York City coastline. The Hudson and East rivers would cascade into Manhattan, overwhelming subways, sewers and roads. Corrosive seawater would fill the aging Lincoln and Holland tunnels to New Jersey, as well as the vulnerable railway tubes beneath the Hudson.

Crazy? Climate change means meteorologists and emergency managers must now consider scenarios they never confronted before. That’s especially true given the rising sea. The water level around New York is 1.1 feet higher today than in 1900 and could increase as much as 2 feet more by 2050.

Global Warming
“With global warming and sea-level rise, what we’re seeing is the effects of these storms amplified,” Ernest Moniz, energy secretary for President Barack Obama, told Bloomberg TV.

The potential risks, however remote for now, are enormous for the New York metro area. Sandy, which hit New Jersey as a “post-tropical” storm, flooded almost 90,000 buildings, with 443,000 New Yorkers living in inundated areas. In one part of Staten Island, floodwaters reached 14 feet. Bridges reopened quickly, but close to 2 million people lost power, and cell service for more than 1 million people was reduced or lost. Rebuilding is still going on five years later.

One of the legacies of Sandy was a change in the number of evacuation zones, which the city doubled to six. Roughly 3 million New Yorkers now live in one of those zones.

Megan Pribram, assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness at the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said for a storm on the scale of Harvey, the city would evacuate some low-lying coastal areas.

Unprecedented Rain
Harvey-sized rains would be unprecedented in the U.S. Northeast, according to Allan Frei, chairman of the geography department at Hunter College in Manhattan. The most serious flooding in the region was Hurricane Irene in 2011, when 15 or so inches of rain left parts of Vermont underwater.

A Category 3 hurricane — with winds up to 129 mph — hit the New York area in 1938, when “The Long Island Express” caused 18-foot surges. Another Cat 3, Hurricane Hazel, produced wind gusts of 113 mph in Battery Park in 1954, according to Nassau County’s Office of Emergency Management.

Still, Frei said climate change increases the odds that severe rainstorms like the one in Houston could strike New York City. And if New York ever got that much rain, “it would be absolutely devastating.”

“If a storm causes a big storm surge at the same time as it’s raining, and if it hits during high tide, that would be — I can’t even imagine,” Frei said. The sewer system would probably be blocked with debris, diminishing its capacity to drain the city, he said.

New York City is updating preparedness plans to incorporate the lessons of Harvey, said Daniel Zarrilli, senior director of climate policy and chief resilience officer for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Part of that includes the tens of billions of dollars spent since Sandy.

Billions Spent
Hospitals and public-housing complexes have been refitted to offer more flood protection at a U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency expense of more than $10 billion. Utility Consolidated Edison Inc. has spent $1 billion for upgrades to its underground steam, electric and gas infrastructure. A $340 million boardwalk in the Rockaways has been redesigned as a sea wall protecting beaches and homes. The city has planted trees and other vegetation in flood-prone neighborhoods to soak up runoff and ease the burden on the city’s sewer system.

The NY-NJ Metropolitan Storm Surge Working Group is pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve a $30 billion system of retractable sea barriers at the mouth of New York Harbor and in the Throgs Neck narrows north of the East River. Similar engineering projects now protect cities including New Orleans; Rotterdam, Holland, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

The system could protect about 800 miles of coast from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to the Bronx, and as much as $1 trillion in assets, said Robert Yaro, former executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a policy-research group.

“We in New York are far behind, and among the cities on Earth we have the most to lose,” Yaro said.

Source: Bloomberg 20 Sep 2017
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What it’s like to live in women’s-only housing in NYC

You get a housekeeper, but you can’t bring boys over

Though apartment buildings designed for professional women—think the Barbizon Hotel on the Upper East Side, or the Martha Washington Hotel on Park Avenue—are largely a thing of the past, some of these women-only enclaves still exist in Manhattan. One of these is the Webster Apartments on West 34th Street, and the New York Times is ON IT.

Specifically, they recently ran a profile of a 24-year-old resident of the building who ticks basically all the boxes you’d expect from someone who lives in what is basically a glorified dorm. She’s a recent New York City transplant (check) who works in fashion (check) and doesn’t mind the living situation because she lived in sorority houses in college (check). Her room, which measures just 13 feet by 8 feet, is decorated with twinkly lights (check), a copy of The Devil Wears Prada (check check), and a poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (checkcheckcheck). “I had to live in Manhattan,” she told the Times. “I was so excited when I went to get my license and it said New York, New York.” (Oh, honey.)

But what’s really interesting to us, as professional real estate gawkers, are the specifics of this particular living arrangement, which isn’t so different from the ones offered at trendy “co-living” situations like WeLive or Common—but without the cool start-up factor, and with far more stringent rules.

Residents at the Webster Apartments get their own rooms, but have shared bathrooms—five or six to a floor, to accommodate 25 to 30 women (each room also has its own private sink). According to the Times, rents in the building go from $1,000 to $1,800, and are determined by a sliding scale “pegged to the resident’s income.” Residents must also be employed, “at least 35 hours a week or have an internship or fellowship of at least 28 hours a week,” with a yearly between $30,000 to $85,000.

What do you get for that price? Actually, quite a lot: Housekeeping, two meals a day, plenty of common spaces (including a TV room and a library), and per the Times, “social events, most with an educational or professional bent”—resume workshops, mixers, and the like. (The resident they profiled mentions a painting workshop, but there are also yoga classes and movie nights, among other things.)

When you compare the cost of living there to something like WeLive—where a studio will soon cost $3,050 (albeit with a private bathroom)—it may seem like a pretty decent deal, particularly if you’re new to the city or not inclined to live with strangers. There is still a rule that men aren’t allowed into rooms—and given that these sorts of boardinghouses came from a general fear of women’s well-being in early-20th-century New York City, it’s not surprising that it exists, though that doesn’t make it any less weird in modern-day New York City. (Though the building apparently has “beau rooms” that are “uniquely decorated recalling ‘Legends and Lotharios.’” where you can take a, well, beaus.)

But the Webster’s website notes that it’s been filled to capacity since it opened in 1923, so clearly there’s a demand for this sort of housing—even if the audience for it is limited. And the resident the Times spoke with, at least, is happy with her situation—especially considering it’s temporary, since the Webster has a five-year limit for residents. “Even when my mom came to visit me last month and stayed on a cot in my room, she was like, ‘I don’t want to go back home!’” Isn’t that sweet.

 

Source: Curbed New York – BY DEC 9, 2016

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The myth about warming up your car on a cold day

Since modern cars have fuel-injection systems their engined don’t need to be warmed up. (Stefan Redel, sredel@sredel.de/iStockphoto / Getty Images)

The Stegosaurus disappeared more than 100 million years ago, doomed by its tiny brain and a changing world. Then we come to the carburetor, a crude fuel-mixing device that once ruled the automotive universe.

Today, the carburetor is largely extinct, kicked aside by the modern fuel-injection system. Yet millions of drivers still seem to be stuck in the Jurassic Period. I thought of this recently when I watched a man spend 10 minutes warming up a fuel-injected Toyota that could have been driven seconds after it was started.

Few processes are as poorly understood as the cold-weather start. Back in the days of carburetion, a car couldn’t be driven until it was warmed up. Today, warming-up is a counterproductive exercise that wastes fuel, harms the environment and damages your car. Let’s have a look at the science, history and flawed folklore behind the automotive warm-up:

Virtually every car on the market today is equipped with a fuel-injection system that adjusts gasoline delivery based on temperature, throttle setting and engine load – because of this, your car can be driven almost immediately, even at low temperatures.

Even in extremely low temperatures, most fuel-injected cars can be driven away less than 30 seconds after start-up. The best way to warm an engine is to drive away as soon as possible and keep the load low until it reaches ideal operating temperature. Accelerate gently and use small throttle openings. Driving loads the engine and warms it more quickly than extended idling.

Engines are most efficient when they operate in their optimum temperature range. Running an engine when it’s cold causes increased emissions and engine wear. The goal is to get the engine into its preferred temperature range quickly.

Using a block heater can dramatically reduce the wear on your engine by improving oil flow on initial start-up. According to tests by Environment Canada, a block heater can improve overall fuel economy by as much as 10 per cent – you get zero miles per litre while idling and fuel economy is best at optimum engine temperature, so you should reach the target zone as quickly as possible. Environment Canada tests also showed that warming up an engine with extended idling leads to sharply increased emissions.

Although driving away as soon as possible is optimum, you may be limited by visibility requirements – the defroster system in your car won’t work until the engine generates enough heat. This can be offset by the use of a plug-in interior heater. Some manufacturers offer windshields with embedded heating elements, which speed defrosting.

The science and engineering that govern engine performance are relatively simple. Metal parts expand and contract with temperature and are designed to work best within a specific range. The efficiency of fuel combustion also varies with temperature – a cold engine burns extra fuel.

The catalytic converter unit installed in your car’s exhaust system is less efficient when it’s cold. This is another reason why short warm-up times reduce emissions.

Many drivers base their warm-up practices on outmoded technology and outdated thinking. When cars had carburetors, engine warm-up was essential – trying to drive a carbureted car when it was cold was like waking up a temperamental senior citizen from a deep sleep. Modern fuel injection systems automatically adjust themselves to deliver the correct amount of fuel, and are ready to go almost immediately.

Extended-idle warm-ups were once encouraged due to lubrication technology. Old-school oils didn’t work well in low temperatures. Modern synthetic oils can flow well at temperatures as low as – 40 C.

Use remote starters wisely. Many drivers start their engines far ahead of time so their car will be toasty warm when they get in. This extended idle has a high cost. According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (a division of the U.S. Department of Energy), excessive idling shortens the life of your exhaust system and spark plugs because a cold engine creates more damaging combustion byproducts than a warm engine. Carbon and soot buildup also reduces the effective lifespan of engine oil.

Source:  PETER CHENEY The Globe and Mail Published Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 5:00AM EST

 Read more questions and answers from Peter Cheney and Globe Drive here

Since modern cars have fuel-injection systems their engined don’t need to be warmed up. (Stefan Redel, sredel@sredel.de/iStockphoto / Getty Images)

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UN: Higher-density cities key to better urban life

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The United Nations has advice for city planners around the world: Move people closer together.

Designing more compact, higher-density cities is key to improving the well-being of the world’s burgeoning urban population, said Under-Secretary General Joan Cloas, the executive director of UN Habitat and a former mayor of Barcelona.

He said too many cities are characterized by urban sprawl that make it harder for people to get around and get access to basic services, especially in vast slums where the poor live far away from their jobs, medical services and food stores. Growing suburbs, meanwhile, discourage the use of public transportation, biking and walking, which in turns contributes to pollution through reliance on cars. And mega-cities are encroaching on farm land and environmentally sensitive areas.

Clos said the world’s average urban population density is “extremely low” at an estimated 2,000-3,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. For comparison, he said Manhattan has a population density of 56,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. In the world’s highest-density city, Hong Kong, he said the figure is 96,000.

More than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a number that is expected to reach 65 per cent within 40 years, Clos said.

“It’s a huge transformation in the life experience of a lot of humans. And this requires, political attention, economic attention, social attention,” he said at a news conference ahead of World Habitat Day on Oct. 7.

Clos acknowledged the difficulties involved in trying to build high-density city centres and offered no easy solutions. In New York and Hong Kong, high-density comes with some of the world’s highest living costs. But Clos said those are extreme examples. In Europe, he said, the average urban population density is more like 15,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. He said offering affordable housing involves difficult political decisions – perhaps replacing subsidize gasoline with more subsidized housing.

Clos said high-density need not be the same as overcrowding.

“What cannot be sustained is spontaneous urbanization. When we have spontaneous urbanization instead of well-designed, high-density cities, we have overcrowding,” he said. “And that is what is happening in the favelas, the slums and other places.

Thomas Elmqvist, a Stockholm University professor, said there is opportunity for planning well-designed cities. Sixty-per cent of the world’s land projected to become urban by 2030 has yet to be built, according to a new study titled Cities and Biodiversity Outlook, which involved more than 200 scientists.

Elmqvist, the scientific editor of the study, said 25 per cent of the world’s protected areas are now within 17 kilometres (11 miles) of urban areas. He said in 10 years, it will be 15 kilometres (9 miles).

Clos is the director of UN-Habitat. He spoke Friday ahead of World Habitat Day on Oct. 7.

Source: Alexandra Olson  © 2013 The Associated Press

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Architecture for the ages

Architects Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman designed a house that could easily shift to accommodate children, future renters and, one day, their golden years.

Architects Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman designed a house that could easily shift to accommodate children, future renters and, one day, their golden years.

Young adults are getting squeezed out of the housing market. Their parents, meanwhile, want to downsize without leaving familiar neighbourhoods. The solution couldn’t be simpler to a growing group of designers: Rethink (and rebuild) the family home to suit several generations for the long haul.

When a strange young man entered her bedroom, Kelly Rossiter wasn’t entirely surprised. “He had had a bit too much to drink,” says Rossiter, who lives in Toronto, “and had gotten lost on the way to the front door.”

On the way, that is, from a party at her daughter’s place; Rossiter and her husband Lloyd Alter live below their daughter Emma, now 28, in a 1913 house that’s been split into two apartments. The door that links the suites in their home is usually left unsecured. “But after that night, I began locking the door whenever she had a party,” Rossiter says.

That incursion was a “rare hiccup” for the three family members, who occupy the same house that Alter, 63, and Rossiter, 57, have inhabited since 1984. Recently, instead of trading it for a condo in another area, they hired David Colussi of Workshop Architecture to divide the rambling building into a duplex. Now they live in a suite in the first floor and basement; Emma is upstairs with her fiancé and a roommate.

Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman designed their family home so that part of it could be converted into a rental when their children moved out.

Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman designed their family home so that part of it could be converted into a rental when their children moved out.

 

Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman designed their family home so that part of it could be converted into a rental when their children moved out.

 

Like a growing number of Canadians approaching retirement, Alter and Rossiter have taken a creative approach to the architecture of the “empty nest.” Rapidly rising housing prices – particularly in Toronto and Vancouver – are squeezing the middle-class expectation of home ownership for young adults. At the same time, their parents, people such as Alter and Rossiter, are not always eager to move into apartment living or to give up on the advantages of a familiar neighbourhood.

Rather than moving house, why not reshape our houses to fit us?

Such adaptability can be built into a house’s architecture. One example is the Grange Triple Double, a house by Williamson Chong Architects: Their clients, a Toronto couple in their 30s with a young son, decided to move in with the husband’s parents. They built a bespoke house that would accommodate them all together with rental income – and then change, multiple times, as the family’s needs evolve through the decades.

“The ingredients for this kind of house,” explains partner Betsy Williamson of Williamson Chong, “are spaces that are discrete yet flexible.”

The Triple Double, at about 3,200 square feet plus basement, sits on a corner; it is a three-bedroom, three-bath home which spills across three levels – and abuts rental space located on the ground floor and in the basement. The tenant space can be configured as one or two apartments; half or all of it can also be joined to the main house with the removal of cabinets or wall sections. In addition, one of the house’s bedrooms can be closed off as a semi-private area for the older residents. In time, the architects imagine that the house could take many different configurations; for instance, one or both of the grandparents might move into the main floor rental space.

The Grange Triple Double, a house by Williamson Chong Architects, was designed and built to change, multiple times, as the owners' needs evolve through the decades.

 

The Grange Triple Double, a house by Williamson Chong Architects, was designed and built to change, multiple times, as the owners' needs evolve through the decades.

 

The Grange Triple Double, a house by Williamson Chong Architects, was designed and built to change, multiple times, as the owners’ needs evolve through the decades.

 

From the architects’ point of view, such adaptability is fairly easy to design. The house’s heating and ventilation systems can be separately controlled in each of three potential units; extra sound insulation provides a buffer of privacy. But the biggest consideration is, as Williamson explains it, a matter of space. “You need rooms,” she says. “You need rooms that are closed off that can be opened up to each other.”

This logic can be applied to houses that don’t have the scale or the unusual geometry of the Triple Double project. Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman of LGAArchitectural Partners, who are married and have two children, designed their own house a decade ago, when they were in their early 50s. “When we moved in, we had teenagers,” Goodman explains, “so we tried to figure out, what kind of house would work for that age of our family and what would work after that?”

‘It’s important to think about what you’re building for,’ Goodman says, ‘not just right now, but in the longer term. And how much longer?’

‘It’s important to think about what you’re building for,’ Goodman says, ‘not just right now, but in the longer term. And how much longer?’

 

‘It’s important to think about what you’re building for,’ Goodman says, ‘not just right now, but in the longer term. And how much longer?’

 

The first need was privacy: Their kids wanted their own space, and they got it in the basement, which is high (the windows start three feet off the ground) and has two bedrooms, a bathroom and a living room, plus generous windows.

That basement has room and the plumbing rough-ins for a kitchen; it also has a space for a front door and staircase which is, for now, buried under soil in the garden. (“We thought, if we give the kids their own door when they are 14 or 15 years old, we’ll never see them,” Goodman explains.) Now the kids have moved out, and the couple is preparing to rent that space out, providing a source of income.

And the upper levels, with about 1,600 square feet, two bedrooms, are still larger than the average Canadian house of 50 years ago. Goodman says he and Levitt are happy to reduce their ecological footprint, and simply don’t need any more space.

There is a lesson in this: Design matters. Levitt and Goodman are excellent architects, and their house is efficiently planned to be comfortable and adaptable despite its relatively modest size. “It’s important to think about what you’re building for,” Goodman says, “not just right now, but in the longer term. And how much longer?”

The upper levels of Levitt and Goodman's house, with about 1,600 square feet, are still larger than the average Canadian house of 50 years ago.

The upper levels of Levitt and Goodman's house, with about 1,600 square feet, are still larger than the average Canadian house of 50 years ago.

 

The upper levels of Levitt and Goodman’s house, with about 1,600 square feet, are still larger than the average Canadian house of 50 years ago.

 

That raises the question of old age and a potential loss of physical mobility. Levitt and Goodman will live, still, on two levels; this goes against the emerging wisdom of “retirement communities,” in which people are choosing to retire to houses that are often on one level and wheelchair-accessible. Kelly Rossiter and Lloyd Alter have likewise chosen to live on two floors.

But is that even a problem? Alter, who is a writer on design and sustainability and an adjunct professor at Ryerson University, argues passionately that being located in a walkable neighbourhood, served by transit and connected to neighbours, is what matters as one ages.

“Older people, when they move into single-family houses in subdivisions, they’re setting themselves up for failure,” he says. “It’s a hell of a lot likelier that they’ll lose their keys before they lose their ability to walk up the stairs.

“This is one solution: this re-intensification of our neighbourhoods.”

Levitt and Goodman plan to live on two levels into retirement.

Levitt and Goodman plan to live on two levels into retirement.

 

Levitt and Goodman plan to live on two levels into retirement.

 

As Alter correctly points out, the conversion of houses into apartments (and back again) is nothing new – especially in Toronto, where such ad hoc adaptations have always provided a major portion of the city’s rental housing. But for upper-middle-class families, they now make sense. “Now we’re going into a generational change where the kids don’t have enough money,” Alter says, “and the parents have the house and don’t need it.

That idea drives much of the business for the Vancouver design-build firm Lanefab, which specializes in energy-efficient laneway houses. Since the city made zoning changes in 2009 to allow such projects (small new houses in the backyards of existing houses), the firm has worked with clients who are house-rich, aging, and ready to simplify their lives.

“If you’ve got an 80-year-old house in Vancouver, being able to move into a new building that’s energy-efficient – that’s appealing,” says Lanefab’s Mat Turner. “They can stay in their neighbourhood, in a house that’s custom-designed for them.”

This sort of promising equation may be enough to break some middle-class expectations about dwelling and family. Alter and Rossiter, with their upstairs-downstairs living in Toronto, are finding that their friends love the idea. “People come, they see it, and they say, ‘I’d love to do this,’” Alter reports. “‘If I could ever get my kids to go for it.’”

 

Source: ALEX BOZIKOVIC The Globe and Mail: Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016

Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman designed their family home so that part of it could be converted into a rental when their children moved out.

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