Saturday, July 26, 2008

Juxtapositions: Foreclosures and Candy Spelling's New Penthouse

The Los Angeles Times very kindly handed me a blog post on a platter this past week.

Roger Vincent reported in the July 22nd edition that Candy Spelling, widow of Aaron Spelling, has purchased a new condo for $47 million. That translates into a whopping $2,848 per square foot for the two-storey, 16,500 square foot residence at the top of a Century City tower that's still under construction. This is how down-sizing works at the top of the food chain.

Twenty years ago, the Spellings built LA county's largest home (56,500 square feet with 123 rooms) and took a lot of flak for it at the time. "The Manor," as it was called, was deemed offensively extravagant by many. I found this to be rather amusing criticism from a community in which the term "over the top" must have been coined -- and in the 80s, yet, a decade in which greed was "good" and advertisers proclaimed that we all needed to wear gold because we're "worth it." Ah, show biz.

On the other hand, while Mrs. Spelling was formulating her plan to change residences, "more than 1% of US households were in some stage of foreclosure in 2007," according to Seeking Alpha's February Housing Market Tracker post. reported that nationwide foreclosure activity jumped 97% in December of 07, and here in California the picture was particularly bleak:

"With a total of 481,392 foreclosure filings on 249,513 properties during the year, California documented the highest number of foreclosure filings and the most properties in some stage of foreclosure in 2007. The state’s total foreclosure filings more than tripled from 2006, and the state’s 2007 foreclosure rate — 1.9 percent of its households entering some stage of foreclosure during the year — ranked fourth highest among U.S. states." (Nevada was highest at 3.4%.)

The situation has not improved in 2008; witness the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout.

LA Times writer, Tim Rutten, mused on the meaning of this "new low in the high life" in his July 23rd column:

"As Candy Spelling's condo deal illustrates, so much wealth in the U.S. is concentrated in so few hands . . . Recent data suggest that the richest 1% of U.S. households -- those with annual incomes of $348,000 or better -- now control 34.3% of the nation's net worth, while the bottom 40% of households dispose of just 0.2% of America's wealth."

Rutten calls this a new "Gilded Age." Harvard Magazine reinforces this comparison with an article in July's issue entitled, "Unequal America:"

"Income inequality has been rising since the late 1970s, and now rests at a level not seen since the Gilded Age—roughly 1870 to 1900, a period in U.S. history defined by the contrast between the excesses of the super-rich and the squalor of the poor."

The article is long but fascinating reading, covering everything from speculation regarding the effects of the disparity on the democratic process to the fact that life expectancy actually has decreased recently in some U.S. counties.

There seems little doubt that the fabric of our country's economic distribution system is shredding. The situation requires massive change unless we're content to descend into a society resembling that of feudal lords and starving peasants.

Of course, it's unlikely that the lady of "The Manor," Candy Spelling, will ever be feeling any economic pain. True, she'll be leaving behind the family manse with its 11 bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, the gift-wrapping room, the doll museum, the screening room, etc. That means that she'll certainly have to unload quite a few possessions to squeeze into a condo with less than a third of the space of the former homestead.

Wonder if there's going to be a garage sale . . .

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, July 18, 2008

Prefab and Modular Housing: Solutions to the World's Housing Crisis?

Over five years ago, "Environmental Health Perspectives," the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, wrote about the global housing crisis and its effect on human health and welfare. Sadly, the situation has not improved. Of course this crisis must be addressed, especially in areas where there's terrible suffering and disease as a result of lack of shelter and clean water. But it's also worthwhile for those of us who are more fortunate to rethink just how much space we need to live and how that space might be constructed.

I've written in the past about ultra-small houses ("Small House, Big Benefits?"), which offer interesting alternatives for many people. Another option we can consider is prefabricated housing. Prefab homes are manufactured off-site in standardized pieces that are easily transported to the site for quick assembly. They're inexpensive and durable, and have now, at last, qualified as trendy. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC is opening an exhibit on July 20 entitled, "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling." The high-fashion angle is confirmed in an article in Gothamist.

If you want to be at the cutting edge of prefab homes, check out FabPrefab where the joys of modernist prefab construction are extolled.

An article on New Hampshire Public Radio's website explains that prefab housing has been around for over one hundred years and mentions an environmental benefit:

"Prefab housing also taps into the desire for more sustainable and ecologically-friendly architecture. "

There's also a video on the site that shows the assembly of the prefab "Cellophane House."

You can find a variety of green prefab housing choices at LowImpactLiving.

And what retailer would be a natural for getting into the prefab business? IKEA, of course. They're building prefab apartment houses in Sweden and soon in the UK. The IKEA-ized name for the product: BoKlok.

Another unusual approach to housing is discussed by Bob Vila, who writes on his website about using steel shipping containers for modular construction:

"Inter-modal construction means applying many methods – often unconventional ones – for housing and commercial construction. It frequently implies recycling materials for reuse as building components. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. converted steel shipping containers for use as portable command centers and medical facilities in Korea. Now, architects, designers, planners, and homeowners are finding renewed interest in these inter-modal steel building units (ISBUs) as they look for affordable, sustainable housing options for the 21st century."

If you can stand to read the tiniest font size ever created, in white on black, no less, the Houses of the Future website has interesting information about new steel modular building.

If you're an investor in housing, the International Property Investment website discusses the advantages of steel modular housing from the Australian perspective. L.A. readers, you may want to note the comment about its advantage in an earthquake: "it may collapse, but it won't kill you." Most comforting, if slightly mystifying.

And if you want to get the current perspective on our main concern, the global housing crisis, take a look at this inspiring video of Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. The organization's motto is: "Building a more sustainable future using the power of design."

Of course, the power of architectural design is only part of the equation that will add up to a sustainable future; another part of it is each of us making thoughtful choices as consumers. If you're planning on buying or building a home or office space, this could be a great opportunity for you to contribute to that sustainable future by considering carefully what you need and how you can fulfill those needs. There might be an unusual solution that would be green, creative and, thanks to MOMA, very, very cool.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Experience Talks" Radio Show Appearance

Here's another Monty Python "And now for something completely different" post:

I was pleased to be invited to return to "Experience Talks" to read a new three minute original essay. The show will be broadcast on Tuesday, July 15th, 2:00 p.m., on KPFK, 90.7 FM, our Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Pacifica Network station. You can hear it streaming on-line here or, if you miss the broadcast, you can hear it later in either the KPFK "Experience Talks" archives or here, where you'll also find a link to the December 18, 2007, show on which I read my first essay, a memoir about political activism on campus during my college years.

You can check out this link for the complete line-up of guests who will be interviewed on the upcoming broadcast, including Ellen Geer, artistic director of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum; actress Marsha Hunt, a leader in the campaign against the blacklist; and journalist and playwright Bernie Weinraub. My essay, in which I talk about age discrimination in Hollywood, will be on at the end of the show.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Potpourri: The Green Roof Doghouse, the Disappointed Australian, and the Popularity of SUVs

Here's a bit of potpourri for your 4th of July weekend:

The LA Times featured an article today about building a doghouse with a green roof. Sounds a bit odd, but it does make sense. It offers you a lovely little gardening area and it will make your pet's home cooler -- "in every sense of the word," as the article mentions. You can get instructions from the article or link to a landscape architect and sculptor who will happily sell you their snazzy versions for $1,000 to $4,000.

In case you're wondering what happened to the Ian Usher, the Australian who auctioned his entire life on eBay, here's the scoop: he was disappointed that he had to settle for $384,000, a bid that doesn't even cover the value of his house. He's committed to honor the bid, however, and is ready to move on to the next phase of his life. He's decided to complete one hundred life goals in one hundred weeks and has set up a website where anyone who's interested can track his progress. The goals are primarily adventurous (skydiving, bungee jumping, running with the bulls in Spain) but one is to sell a book telling the story of his adventures. Does anyone do anything without a film crew following them around or a plan set up in advance to sell a book?

Finally, I had hoped that the cost of gasoline would result in significant changes in our auto-buying habits and, fortunately, that seemed to be the case. The popularity of hybrids is up, that of SUVs is down. Or so I thought. Then Jacqueline Mitchell at Forbes Magazine reported on the most difficult cars to find -- the ones that are "so popular that auto manufacturers are selling them faster than they can build them." In first place on the list, no surprise, is the $21,500 high-mileage, hybrid Toyota Prius. But in second place is "the not-so-expected gas-guzzling $74,700 Lexus LX Series full-size luxury SUV that gets a combined 14 mpg." The likely explanation? Brand loyalty. Luxury-loving Lexus owners are willing to pay a premium for comfort. I wonder if they'll be willing to pay the price of the effects those kinds of vehicles have on our environment.

The Fourth of July is our celebration of Independence Day. Maybe eventually we'll realize we should also celebrate Interdependence Day -- every day.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob