Category Archives: Making Things Better

World Habitat Day is a Reminder that Everyone Deserves Decent Housing

habitat-dayby Bonnie Alter, London

The United Nations has designated the first Monday in October as annual World Habitat Day. This is the day to reaffirm that decent shelter is a basic human right and a time to join together to remind governments that the lack of decent, affordable housing is unacceptable.

Monday, October 5 is World Habitat Day this year and the theme is “it all starts at home.” Habitat for Humanity International is campaigning for security of tenure in the world and neighbourhood revitalization in the U.S.A.

human-day.jpg

According to the United Nations, more than 100 million people in the world today are homeless. Millions more face a severe housing problems, living without adequate sanitation, with irregular or no electricity supply and without adequate security.

Security of tenure means that people have a right to keep their house and not have it taken away from them because of corruption, poverty, bureaucracy or discrimination. Eighty percent of the world’s population does not have legal documentation to protect their housing rights. Across the world secure housing is a confirmation that families can grow and develop, economies and communities can flourish without fear.

Habitat for Humanity is focussing on neighbourhood revitalization in the U.S. This can be done through government funding at federal and state levels. Through these funds affordable housing can be built for low-income families.

By working with National Service members, more affordable housing can be built. Recently President Obama signed the Save America Act which expands the reach of the Service.

What Can We Do to Support World Habitat Day?

What can we do? Lobby governments, donate money, organize or attend events, have discussions, forums, workshops. Send a photo of yourself holding a sign that says “It all starts at home” and submit it to Habitat’s photo petition. Spread the word that affordable housing is a right for all.

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/10/world-habitat-day.php

Disney World signs on to High Speed Rail (from Disney Blog)

header_2by John Frost

When the Obama administration announced there was $8 billion in the stimulus package for funding High Speed Rail projects, there was good reason to hope that Central Florida would be receive part of that funding. Now that hope has been given a shot in the arm by the addition of support from the regions 800 lb Gorilla – Walt Disney World.

Disney World was against the previous effort to bring high speed rail to the region because it included a stop near Universal Studios at the Orange County Convention Center; although the reason they gave today for their previous opposition was that they didn’t want a project that would detract, rather than complement, a commuter rail project. Now that there is a good chance the commuter rail project will be approved, Disney no longer opposes the convention center stop. That stop should also put Universal Studios and SeaWorld in the ‘yes’ column for High Speed Rail as well.

The second big sign that Disney World is on board is their willingness to give up to 50 acres of the Walt Disney World property to host a station for the resort area stop. There was no announcement as to where the station would be, but since the train will run down the middle of I-4 for most of the route, it’s likely Disney would want to donate a part of the property they own on the other side of Hwy-192 next to Celebration.

Now I have to wonder if WDW will light a fire under its committee that has been studying the concept of adding a PRT system to the resort. This would be similar to what Disney has called a ‘Peoplemover’ system in the past. I also think that a light rail system running from Disney’s Animal Kingdom to Downtown Disney would be a great addition.

More on the High Speed Rail project and what it means for Central Florida in the Orlando Sentinel.

http://thedisneyblog.com/2009/10/02/disney-world-signs-on-to-high-speed-rail/

(Green thing) – Best of BlogHer: Food Bloggers, Netflix For Clothes, Where Babies Come From

blogher-baby-thredupPhoto credit: hammer51012

The most inspirational panel at last week’s BlogHer Food conference was about food bloggers who are changing the world! Get inspired by some amazing social action, and find out how you can get involved.

It’s like Netflix, but for clothes! This green clothing-swap company figured how to let you go shopping–in other people’s closets.

If you haven’t seen the awesome Change Starts at Home site, check it out: It’s supporting some of the most kick-ass change makers we’ve ever met.

Can buying conventional cotton support an eco-cause? Find out what this design company means by “pre-organic.”

“Babies come from WHERE?” How I prepared my daughter for her brother’s natural, at-home birth.

Hunger is a big, complex issue. It’s a feminist, political, economic issue. It’s a moral issue. So now that my awareness is raised, what do I do next?

BlogHer is the leading participatory news, entertainment and information
network for women online. Follow us on Twitter (@Blogher), on Facebook, and at BlogHer.com.

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/09/blogher-food-clothes-babies.php

Who Owns Your Mortgage? “Produce The Note” Movement Helps Stall Foreclosures

s-FORECLOSURE-largeModern-day home mortgages have been so sliced and diced by rapacious financiers that some homeowners are successfully delaying — or even blocking — foreclosures through the simple tactic of demanding that banks produce the original mortgage note, which amazingly enough is often not so easy for them to do.

As the foreclosure rate continues to set new highs, a little-noticed legal provision that requires bankers, if challenged, to prove they hold the original mortgage documents before getting possession has spawned a minor homeowner rebellion, alternately called “produce the note” or “show me the note“. For homeowners trying desperately to keep their homes, the tactic is one way to buy some time — and maybe even get the upper hand on the lender.

“You wouldn’t imagine that the lenders would be that slovenly that they would not be able to produce adequate documentation of the debt,” said House Financial Services Committee member Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). “But apparently a lot of times they really have been unable to.”

Since North Carolina has begun to provide legal assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, Miller said, roughly one of every three mortgages has been found to have some substantial legal discrepancy.

The fouled-up paperwork or other lack of legal compliance “has resulted in a much higher rate of negotiated [mortgage] modifications” in North Carolina, said Miller. “It gave the homeowner additional defenses and counterclaims that strengthened their hands substantially.”

The chaos is a sign of how far the mortgage business has come since people commonly took out a mortgage from their neighborhood banker, who kept the relevant documents locked away until the house was sold or paid off. During the securitization boom, millions of mortgages were sold and packaged into bonds — often many times over, metastasizing into esoteric financial instruments — for sale to investors. Each time, the paperwork should have been changing hands and the homeowner should have been notified that someone new held the note. But just as deciphering the true holder of the mortgage has become more and more difficult for homeowners — Is it the servicer? Investor? Trustee? Original lender? — the paperwork has also become difficult to track.

In Florida, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid attorney April Charney has been using the missing-note argument since she first identified the lenders’ weakness in 2004. She began arguing that those initiating foreclosure proceedings on behalf of securitized pools of mortgage loans had no right to do so, because they couldn’t prove they actually owned the debt.

Five years later, some of those homeowners are still in their homes, she says. Because of the missing ownership documentation, Charney is now starting to file quiet title actions, hoping to get her homeowner clients full title to their homes (a quiet title action “quiets” all other claims).

Charney says she’s helped thousands of homeowners delay or prevent foreclosure, and trained thousands of lawyers across the country on how to protect homeowners and battle in court.

When lenders wish to foreclose, the law typically requires them to produce original, signed documents including the mortgage and loan note. While the mortgage documentation is on file at the local courthouse, the note is often lost or misplaced, particularly if the mortgage has been sold and securitized.

In dismissing 14 foreclosure cases in 2007 based on a lack of proper documentation, a federal judge in Ohio admonished the lenders, stating their argument that “‘Judge, you just don’t understand how things work’…reveals a condescending mindset and quasi-monopolistic system where financial institutions have traditionally controlled, and still control, the foreclosure process.”

A recent study of foreclosures in bankruptcy by Katherine M. Porter, a visiting professor at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, found that in 40 percent of cases creditors foreclosing on borrowers did not show the note. It’s what consumer rights advocates and strict judges are seizing on.

It’s still an uphill battle for homeowners, however, Charney says. There are few states where foreclosure proceedings have to go through a judge, notably Florida and New York, which gives homeowners their best shot. In other states, homeowners have to go to court on their own in order to see a judge, running up expensive legal bills in hopes of stopping foreclosure.

Some in Congress are trying to make it easier for homeowners. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, introduced a bill in February with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would actually prohibit foreclosures unless lenders produced necessary documentation in court, including the note and evidence that the homeowner was, in fact, notified each time the note was transferred.

“I am encouraging [homeowners] to stay in their homes [and] go through the court proceedings until the institution in question can produce [the] note, because chances are, they can’t,” Kaptur said in an interview Monday. “Somehow the playing field has to be leveled here, and [the bill] provides a very strong means of doing that.”

The bill is languishing in the House Financial Services Committee, headed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), she said.

“I think that they need to hasten their attention to matters like this, which actually give the American people some leverage with these really big institutions,” she said. “I would hope that the Financial Services Committee would see this as part of their mission.”

Kaptur said she’s going to push to have her bill included as part of the impending financial regulatory overhaul.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/22/whos-got-the-mortgage-pro_n_294169.html

Houseplants Cut Indoor Ozone

090908103634-largeExperimental chambers in a Penn State University greenhouse were equipped with a charcoal filtration air supply system to measure ozone depletion rates.

Ozone, the main component of air pollution, or smog, is a highly reactive, colorless gas formed when oxygen reacts with other chemicals. Although ozone pollution is most often associated with outdoor air, the gas also infiltrates indoor environments like homes and offices. Ozone can be released by ordinary copy machines, laser printers, ultraviolet lights, and some electrostatic air purification systems, all of which contribute to increased indoor ozone levels.

Topping the extensive list of toxic effects of ozone on humans are pulmonary edema, hemorrhage, inflammation, and reduction of lung function.

Because people in industrialized countries spend as much of 80% to 90% of their time indoors, indoor air pollution has been ranked as one of the world’s greatest public health risks. The United Nations Development Program estimated (1998) that more than two million people die each year due to the presence of toxic indoor air, while other studies estimate that 14 times as many deaths occur globally from poor indoor air quality compared with outdoor air pollution. The economic consequences of polluted indoor air can’t be ignored either; one Australian study estimated that the cost of unhealthy indoor air in that country exceeds $12 billion annually, measured in losses of worker productivity, higher medical costs, and increased absenteeism.

As indoor air pollution poses new concerns worldwide, cost effective and easy-to-implement methods are needed to eliminate or reduce ozone concentrations. Activated charcoal filters reduce air pollutants, but installation and maintenance costs can be high. Now, researchers are investigating alternatives—including the use of common houseplants—to improve indoor air quality and health.

A research team from the Pennsylvania State University published the results of a new study of the effects of three common houseplants on indoor ozone levels in a recent issue of the American Society of Horticultural Science’s journal HortTechnology. The scientists chose snake plant, spider plant, and golden pothos for the experiment because of the plants’ popularity (primarily due to their low cost, low maintenance, and rich foliage) and their reported ability to reduce other indoor air pollutants. The plants were studied to determine their effectiveness in reducing ozone concentrations in a simulated indoor environment.

To simulate an indoor environment, the researchers set up chambers in a greenhouse equipped with a charcoal filtration air supply system in which ozone concentrations could be measured and regulated. Ozone was then injected into the chambers, and the chambers were checked every 5 to 6 minutes. The data revealed that ozone depletion rates were higher in the chambers that contained plants than in the control chambers without plants, but there were no differences in effectiveness among the three plants.

“Because indoor air pollution extensively affects developing countries, using plants as a mitigation method could serve as a cost-effective tool in the developing world where expensive pollution mitigation technology may not be economically feasible”, concluded the authors.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090908103634.htm

5-Year-Old Girl Feeds Nearly 18,000 Hungry San Franciscans

s-PHOEBE-largeLittle Phoebe, from San Francisco, California has a big heart. That’s an understatement. Actually, her kindness and compassion is bigger than most grown ups I’ve crossed paths with while reporting TV news for nearly a decade.

It started off with a simple question by Phoebe, an adorable little girl with long brown locks, peach-colored cheeks and big doe eyes, like a character straight out of a Disney after-school special. After seeing a person holding a cardboard sign begging for food, Phoebe wondered, “Why does that man look so sad, and why is he holding a sign in the street?”

That question to her parents, during her daily ride to daycare, sparked an idea that has helped feed nearly 18,000 hungry San Franciscans.

A grown up conversation ensued. “What can we do to help?” asked Phoebe. Her parents told her about one possible place the hungry could go for help; The food bank.

Phoebe also asked Kathleen Albert, her teacher at “With Care Day Care,” about the hunger problem. Albert explained that some people fall on hard times and don’t have the basics like food and clothes. Phoebe replied, “I want to raise money for the San Francisco Food Bank to feed hungry people then,” she said. Her ambitious goal was to raise $1,000, in two months. Why $1,000? No one knows; Phoebe couldn’t even count denominations of money before the project.

“Phoebe focused on the smaller picture, and what she could do,” her teacher explained. She decided to collect cans as a project to complete her mission. Phoebe knew that she could raise money by recycling cans, because her dad would bring her and her sister to trade cans for cash on the weekends.

Albert, a spunky, grey-haired woman, with big Coke-bottle round, purple rimmed glasses, who resembles a jovial, energetic, Sunday strip comic book caricature, admits, “Although, I immediately supported Phoebe’s lofty goal, I thought, ‘Caaaaans?’ I didn’t think a 5-year-old could possibly raise that much money in just two months time.” And as adults sometimes are…She was wrong.

With a little bit of guidance from Albert and a whole lot of support from classmates, Phoebe wrote letters to 150 family, friends, alumni and neighbors. She received 50 responses. Word got around about the 5-year-old girl who wrote, “Dear Family and Friends… My charity project is to raise lots of money for the S.F. Food Bank. They need money. I am collecting soda cans. Would you please give me your soda cans and bring them to With Care… “Donations started pouring in… Friends, family and even anonymous donors dropped off cans, checks and cash at the colorful storybook-looking Victorian in a San Francisco neighborhood which houses Phoebe’s day care. Phoebe’s project, which had started with small donations of $5, $10, then $20 bills, grew exponentially. As, word spread, people started matching donations dollar for dollar. “I was getting cash in the mail, and I thought this is great, I’m getting money in my mailbox,” Albert recalls. Albert’s loud, one-two-three eyes-on-me classroom voice softens as she admits, “Does she understand it [the hunger problem] like you and I, no, but she understood something needed to be done. I learned something from her. And when you learn something from children, it’s great!”

Phoebe responded personally to every donation, no matter how large or small. She would skip recess, instead counting money and writing thank-you notes to all who gave. “Little Phoebe was determined and never once complained,” says Albert, “They looked at it as, ‘it doesn’t have to be big.’ We talked about it in terms of Barack Obama…and how it was the little money and the little donations. So when people came to the door with one or two cans, people we didn’t even know, she would say, oh, that’s five cents, that’s ten cents, that’s fifteen cents. She understood, that you start off small, and you can make it bigger, bigger, bigger.”

Fast forward two months.

Last June, all of the students at With Care, got dressed to the nines for a big celebration, complete with a ceiling full of colorful balloons, decorations and cake. Phoebe handed over the money and checks she collected in a handmade and hand-colored pencil box with flowers and stickers and colorful stars, to Paul Ash, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Food Bank. Phoebe’s grand total: $3,736.30. How many hungry people will that amount feed? Just ask Phoebe, she’ll tell you “Seventeen-thousand something.” The exact amount, according to Ash, 17,800 hungry people will be fed, thanks to Phoebe’s kindness, compassion and determination.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/toan-lam/5-year-old-girl-feeds-nea_b_244854.html

The Green Home Guide From Popular Science

green-home-guide-coverIts Free

Did you know you can cut your water use by 10 gallons a day by switching toilets? That a new washer and dryer could save you almost $150 a year? These are just two of the dozens of tips, tricks, facts and projects packed into the free Green Home Guide, the second in our series of digital special issues called Genius Guides, designed to make you an expert on one of the core PopSci topics. You can click through our animated home to see the worst spots for wasting power, air and water. Or explore our interactive map to get energy cost and CO2 stats for each of the 50 states. We’ve also got stories of three ambitious homeowners who have taken energy savings to extremes, heating their house with a room full of sand or powering it with a waterfall.

Our goal is to use this experiment in digital publishing—with Zinio in our case—to both learn something about creating content for an emerging medium and give you far more information than we could in a print issue, in an easy-to-navigate and entertaining manner. As a magazine maker, I love that this format has all the depth and interactivity of a Web page, yet with the immersive quality of a print publication. And I think our design is pushing the envelope for what can be done on a digital page. I’d love to hear your feedback on the Green Home Guide—from the experience of opening it to the navigation inside to the content itself. Help us figure out where this is headed and how we can keep producing both the content and the medium you want to use.

http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2009-07/presenting-green-home-guide-popular-science