Category Archives: Housing

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

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Chart of the day: World environmental child deaths


From the World Health Organization’s Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access], a graph of the leading environmental causes of childhood deaths worldwide [click on the image to enlarge]:

With the Trump Administration rapidly dismembering the Environmental Protection Agency, a new report reveals just why protecting the environmental saves lives, especially young ones.

From the World Health Organization:

More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports.

The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access] reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.

“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Top 5 causes of death in children under 5 years linked to the environment

A companion report, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. Every year:

  • 570 000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
  • 361 000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 270 000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
  • 200 000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
  • 200 000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

Ongoing and emerging environmental threats to children’s health

“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.”

For example, emerging environmental hazards, such as electronic and electrical waste (such as old mobile phones) that is improperly recycled, expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. The generation of electronic and electrical waste is forecasted to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes by 2018.

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Homeless in one of California’s richest cities


We started reporting in California back in 1967, just as hippies started flocking to California’s sunshine in hopes of, well, who knows what?

Many of them arrived in old Volkswagen vans and battered panel trucks, mobile homes for those with little money but high on hope [and a lot of other stuff, too].

We had moved to Oceanside, working for the late, lamented Blade-Tribune.

Every newsroom back then had police scanners, tuned to the frequencies of local police,m sheriff’s, and state law enforcement agencies, so we kept our ears attuned to code numbers for significant crimes as well as the occasional cop-to-cop banter.

We also had to learn another kind of code, the peculiar terms used by local cops to describe people, things, and activities. [One such term we learned a couple of jobs earlier was sail cat.]

In Oceanside, we started hearing a new term, creepy-crawler.

Which I soon learned meant hippie.

When parking becomes a matter class politics

Oceanside was booming, thanks to the Vietnam War, because the engine of the town’s economy was the adjacent Camp Pendleton, a veritable factory for turning out well-trained Marines to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

You saw the occasional pickup truck with a camper or a trailer, even cars like the Nash Ambassador with a front seat that dropped back level with the back seat to form a very comfortable bed, as we know from personal experience.

Until the creepy-crawlers came, the occupants of those vehicles had either been tourists or folks visiting Marines at the base, people who in any case looked like everybody else and contributed to the local economy by spending on meals and other things.

Creepy-crawlers, on the other hand sucked money out, what with their panhandling and all — or so the reasoning went.

But even worse, they freaked out the straights and scared people off, what with their long hair, unshaven skin and those weird clothes, the beads, and all that pot and other weird shit they were taking.

Not exactly what you wanted in a town where to official motto was Tan Your Hide in Oceanside.

Like many other cities up and down the coast, California began enforcing new or rarely used parking ordinances, aimed at hippies while simultaneously also banning those who had once been tolerated, thanks to all those pesky civil liberties lawyers who were fighting against selective enforcement.

In other words, the unwillingly unemployed and the working classes were also victimized along with the creepy-crawlers.

Hippies are, for the most part, long gone, but the poor remain, today’s victims of laws drawn up in a different era.

How a Santa Barbara tackles the problem

A few years after we worked in Oceanside, we took an interim job in Los Angeles, where we I handled printing jobs for an NGO. We met a graphics designed who lived in Santa Barbara, a town to the north I’d only passed through on the Pacific Coast Highway.

What’s it like? I asked.

You know what they say about Santa Barbara, don’t you? she replied.

Allowing as how I didn’t, she responded: It’s the home of the very rich and the very poor, the newly wed and nearly dead.

Just as Oceanside was middle class, Santa Barbara was home of some of California’s richest, and remains so today. And in very few places do the rich exercise their control so openly, with the shameless assistance of the local newspaper.

And in Santa Barbara, laws against folks sleeping in their vehicles are strictly enforced.

From BillMoyers.com:

Homeless in the Shadow of Santa Barbara’s Mansions

From the accompanying report:

Twelve years ago, the Safe Parking program, run by the nonprofit New Beginnings Counseling Center, began offering a provisional solution. Its program places those sleeping in their vehicles into 20 private parking lots scattered around the city and provides bathroom facilities and some security. The parking lots are available only overnight and the cars must move by early morning. The group estimates they take 125 vehicles off the street every night and help more than 750 people a year.

The stories that Safe Parking’s clients tell me often involve a catastrophic financial loss precipitated by unemployment, domestic violence, injury or illness and the resulting medical bills. Most are working, although they have often lost secure, decently paid jobs and now struggle to make ends meet with multiple part-time jobs. A growing number of those forced to live out of their cars are families. All have been priced out of a brutal housing market.

Rents in Santa Barbara have skyrocketed in recent years — 20 percent in the last year alone — with one-bedrooms priced at $1,500 or sometimes significantly higher. The simple calculus of supply and demand is partly to blame. With a vacancy rate below 0.5 percent, a crisis figure, the housing market is at the mercy of landlords. Nor are there enough subsidized units to make up the shortfall for low-income renters — or plans to build sufficient numbers of new ones to meet the need, advocates say. “Santa Barbara’s housing market is broken and has been,” explains Chuck Flacks, executive director of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness.

TrumpAscenscion™ sparks an Israeli land grab


Inspired by their new friend in Washington, the Israeli government decided to grab more Palestinian land.

And a direct beneficiary is a settlement backed by Trump’s choice for the Israeli ambassadorship.

From the Washington Post:

Israel approved the construction of 2,500 housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank on Tuesday, just two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with President Trump.

Netanyahu and members of his right-wing government have bristled at the harsh condemnations of settlement growth by the Obama administration, which condemned the Jewish communities as “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace.”

Trump, however, has signaled more accommodating policies toward Israel and has called for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a city claimed as the capital of both Israel and a potential future Palestinian state. The Jewish settlements have grown to house more than 400,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank.

“We’re building — and will continue to build,” Netanyahu said following the announcement.

There was no initial reaction to the announcement by the Trump White House or the State Department.

>snip<

But the potential sites could carry deep political resonance in the United States. Jeremy Ben- Ami, head of the liberal Washington-based group J Street, noted that about 100 of the possible new units are in Beit El, a West Bank settlement supported by David Friedman, Trump’s selection to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

UPDATE: More from the Guardian:

Israeli politicians have rushed to exploit what they see as a pro-Israel and pro-settlement US administration.

The announcement of 2,500 new housing units in the West Bank is one of the largest in years and marks a comprehensive rejection of December’s UN security council resolution, which described settlement building as a “flagrant violation” of international law and an obstacle to peace.

The decision, approved by the rightwing Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, seems certain to further increase tensions with Palestinians and the wider Middle East, already high over the Trump administration’s proposal to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said the move would have “consequences”. “The decision will hinder any attempt to restore security and stability; it will reinforce extremism and terrorism and will place obstacles in the path of any effort to start a peace process that will lead to security and peace,” he added.

Bubble alert: The housing bubble reinflates again


Cheap adjustable rate loans plus an insane derivates market brought the global economy crashing down nearly a decade ago, and now the housing market is reinflating, fueled in large part by more of those adjustable rate mortgages.

Those cheap loans triggered a massive housing price inflation, as loan officers signed off virtually all buyers, thanks to those robosigning machines [which are still very much in use].

And given that President-elect Trump has stocked his cabinet with Wall Street banksters, an Associated Press news story should send chills down our collective spine:

U.S. home prices rose again in October as buyers bidding for scarce properties drove prices higher.

The Standard & Poor’s CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-city home price index, released Tuesday, rose 5.1% in October from a year earlier after climbing 5% in September. Prices for the 20 cities are still 7.1% below their July 2006 peak.

The broader Case-Shiller national home price index was up 5.6% in October and has fully recovered from the financial crisis.

Prices rose 10.7% annually in Seattle, 10.3% in Portland and 8.3% in Denver. New York registered the smallest year-over-year gain: 1.7%. Los Angeles prices rose 5.7%.

From the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, a look at the course of the housing bubble through the end of July:

blog-housing-homes
And it’s not just home prices that are soaring. Rents are rising dramatically as well, another bad sign of a developing crisis:

blog-housing-rents

Chart of the day: Renters lose financial ground


As home ownership rates fall, mortgage interest rates rise, and the housing bubble reinflates, America’s growing numbers of renters are falling behind, with all but the oldest and the wealthiest [often the same folks] losing financial ground.

From a new report on housing and household finances from the Pew Research Center:

blog-renters

Headline of the day II: Daily life in Trumplandia™


From the East Bay Express:

Oakland Landlord Evicts Tenant, Then Hangs Pro-Trump Billboard on Building

‘On Christmas Day I’m being evicted. Can you believe that?’