A Warming World Means Less Water, With Economic Consequences

Villagers throw containers into a well to collect their daily supply of potable water after a tanker made its daily delivery in Shahapur, India on May 13, 2016. India is in the midst of a drought.

Villagers throw containers into a well to collect their daily supply of potable water after a tanker made its daily delivery in Shahapur, India on May 13, 2016. India is in the midst of a drought. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

We often associate climate change with too much water — the melting ice caps triggering a rise in sea levels. But a new World Bank report says that it’s too little water — the potable sort — that we also need to think about.

High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy examines the future effects of diminishing water supplies on the world. “Water-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban, and environmental systems,” researchers write. “Growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will converge upon a world where the demand for water rises exponentially, while supply becomes more erratic and uncertain.”

The World Bank says that in areas where water is readily available, like Central Africa and East Asia, it could become harder to find. And in areas like the Middle East, already facing water problems, “scarcity will greatly worsen.”

The authors also note the spikes in food prices a water shortage would cause, which in turn would likely lead to conflict.

These are all fairly evident consequences of global warming. The report treads new ground, however, in evaluating the economic impacts of this water scarcity. Researchers say water shortages could cause certain areas to lose as much as 6 percent of their gross domestic product “as a result of water-related losses in agriculture, health, income, and property.”

The report emphasizes three ways to help mitigate the problems. The first is “better planning and incentives.” This involves things like using water prices and permits wisely to ensure water is used for “higher-value” purposes. The authors say that paradoxically, in societies where water is considered free, the poor end up paying more for it.

Second, they advise expanding “water supply and availability,” through more dams, water recycling and even sometimes desalination.

They finally advise ” ‘water proofing’ economies” to economic shocks. They advocate crop insurance for farmers and building walls and levees to protect cities from floods.

Richard Damania led the team that wrote the report. He joined NPR’s Michel Martin from Colombo in Sri Lanka, a country which has recently experienced water problems of its own, in the form of torrential rain and flooding. He talked more about what the report shows, why economies need water, and why pricing water may be better for the world’s poor.

Interview highlights contain some extended web-only answers.

Interview Highlights

On what the report shows

I think there are two important things that this report highlights. The first is that … the major impacts of climate change are felt through water — through the hydrological cycle. Through things like more intense rainfall, droughts, cyclones. Indeed, I’m here in Colombo and it’s pouring with rain and there’s a threat of floods. There’s intense bouts of rainfall which are unseasonal and unexpected. That’s one impact of climate change and that’s one of the things that the report highlights.

It also highlights that if you happen to have in some senses the misfortune of living in an area that’s dry, most likely you’re going to get even drier because of climate change.

Another important point: We all know that we need water to live. But seldom do we recognize that the economy also needs water. So when you have insufficient water, this also acts as a drag on economic performance and therefore a drag on growth as well.

On how they determined that climate change could cost some regions up to 6 percent of GDP

We combined a model of climate change with a hydrological cycle and fed the results of that model into a very standard economic model — the sorts of economic models that are used routinely by economists. And we had water in that economic model. In most economic models water is actually ignored — we introduced water into it.

And then we fed through what would be the likely consequences of climate change shrinking, shriveling supplies of water on economic growth. If you don’t have the water and your business needs water, of course this is going to increase your costs. Costs go up, therefore growth tends to be affected by it. So it’s quite logical.

On why many researchers haven’t studied water access economics before

I think that’s partly because we tend to take water for granted, because we assume that it’s so abundant. Once upon a time water was very abundant. Today the world in which we live in, water is no longer terribly abundant.

So all over the world, you have growing populations, growing demand for water. Combine that with more heat, more evaporation of the water, climate change changing the cycle, and we really are set for a somewhat different world to what we’ve been experiencing in the past and today.

On transferring water from places that have too much to places with too little

What the report tries to emphasize is the following: That, if you have a shortage of water, there’s really only three things that you can do. You can try to increase the supply of water, but that’s dreadfully expensive, because all of the easy locations for water storage have been used up.

Or you could go to really expensive solutions like desalination or water reuse.

But a lot more effort needs to be spent on managing demand. And we need to manage the demand for water in two ways. One, to be more efficient in how we use water — in other words, not to waste water. And secondly and related to that, we need to find ways of trying to allocate water from low-value-added wasteful uses to more higher-value-added uses that generate more growth and generate more employment.

To put this into context, let me try to give you a list, there’s a couple of examples. Today in a lot of countries that are water-scarce, more water is lost through leaking pipes than is actually delivered to people in their taps and in their faucets. I mean, it’s quite obvious we need to fix those leaks, though they’re quite expensive to fix, but it clearly pays for itself in the long run.

We also observe that in a lot of countries that are awfully dry, we provide them with, say, irrigation, and they tend to grow rice and water-thirsty crops — where really in deserts and arid regions one really shouldn’t be growing those water-thirsty crops. And one reason why that happens is because of the allocation of water. So rather than, say, allocating that water to a higher-value crop or a higher-valued industrial use or the city, it goes to something of lower value with lower yields.

So these are the kinds of shifts that need to actually happen. Some are easier to make than others, but they are long-term shifts and we need to start preparing and making them.

On the report’s finding that “free water” actually costs the poor money

Let’s step back a little. Water is a human right and there’s a United Nations resolution about it which declares water is a human right, and requires that water is provided at an affordable price for everyone.

But in a lot of countries where water is provided free, when water is free it tends to be served to those that have the political clout. And as a consequence … usually the people that have the political clout are the ones that are rich. So the poor are unserved, and they have to go to water vendors. And they typically pay three to four times the price per drop of water than would the person who’s either getting the water free or getting the water subsidized.

So we get these perverse effects that occur when no price is attached — at least to water that’s delivered to rich homes or to industrial users. It’s quite reasonable I think to suggest that as you pay for all inputs when you produce something and make a profit, it’s reasonable to also pay for water if you use that as an input into production and make a profit out of it.

On the other hand, we need to be extremely cautious and ensure that everyone gets adequate supplies of water, and there’s adequate flows for the environment as well.

What are some examples of countries where this happens?

You can literally pick your country on the map where we have informal settlements — for example, where we have slums. And typically, there are no pipes to the slums — in most cases, nine times out of 10 I don’t have to name any country. And you will find that those people in the poor quarters of the city don’t have pipes and are unserved or underserved. Even if they have pipes, there’s no water being delivered into those pipes. What do they have to do? They have to go to vendors and they have to buy the water.

In some countries, in addition, actually selling water is illegal. So this is all done on the black market which could raise the price even further. So it’s not an uncommon phenomenon, it’s very very widely observed.

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Afghan Government Says U.S. Drone Strike Killed Taliban Leader

Volunteers stand Saturday near the wreckage of the destroyed vehicle, in which Mullah Akhtar Mansour was allegedly traveling in the Ahmed Wal area in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near Afghanistan border.

Volunteers stand Saturday near the wreckage of the destroyed vehicle, in which Mullah Akhtar Mansour was allegedly traveling in the Ahmed Wal area in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near Afghanistan border. Abdul Malik/AP hide caption

toggle caption Abdul Malik/AP

The Pentagon says it targeted the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, with multiple drone strikes.

Now, as NPR’s Tom Bowman reports from Afghanistan, there are conflicting reports of whether the attack killed Mansour: “The Taliban has not confirmed the death. The Afghan intelligence agency says he is dead. And the Americans, for their part, are saying they’re still assessing the results of this attack.”

You can listen to Tom’s full report here:

Photos released from the scene of the apparent attack show smoke rising from a smoldering vehicle and what appear to be bodies wrapped in brown cloth.

Both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah hailed the news of Mansour’s apparent death, The Associated Press reports. Mansour was “the main figure preventing the Taliban joining the peace process,” Abdullah said, according to the wire service.

#Taliban leader #AkhtarMansoor was killed in a drone strike in Quetta, #Pakistan at 04:30 pm yesterday. His car was attacked in Dahl Bandin.

— Dr. Abdullah (@afgexecutive) May 22, 2016

As Tom reports on Weekend Edition Sunday, the Pentagon says “there were multiple drones involved in this mission by the American special operations forces, and it was authorized by President Obama.” He says it happened in Pakistan, near the city of Quetta. That’s not far from Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has expressed frustration at the attack in its territory.

Taliban leader Mullah Mansour.

Taliban leader Mullah Mansour. Rahmat Gul/AP hide caption

toggle caption Rahmat Gul/AP

“While further investigations are being carried out, drone attack was a violation of its sovereignty, an issue which has been raised with the United States in the past as well,” Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters in Myanmar, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to welcome the news of Mansour’s alleged death.

“Mansour posed a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, to Afghan civilians, Afghan security forces, and Resolute Support Coalition members across the country,” Kerry said. He called Mansour a threat to “bringing an end to the violence and the suffering that the people of Afghanistan have endured for so many years now.”

Kerry did not confirm that Mansour is dead, but as The New York Times notes, he “repeatedly referred to Mr. Mansour in the past tense.”

Analyst Haroun Mir tells Tom that Mansour’s demise could be a “game-changer.” Tom explains:

“That’s because you have no clear successor to Mansour, and the Taliban has fractured into rival groups. So you could have on the one hand, no leader and multiple rival groups with no clear direction. He also said there could be more Taliban attacks, more suicide attacks, to show the Taliban is still out there seeking revenge for this.”

Mansour has been leading the group for three years, after the death of Mullah Omar, who “sheltered Osama bin Laden and that of course led to the American intervention.” He was Omar’s deputy and officially named leader after the Taliban admitted last summer that Omar had died two years previously.

And his leadership has proven divisive within the group. As the Associated Press reports, “Mansour’s subsequent formal coronation as Taliban leader prompted open revolt inside the group for several months, with members of Mullah Omar’s family rebelling and Taliban ground forces splitting into factional warfare.”

In fact, as a result of tensions, there were rumors of Mansour’s demise last year. As Tom reports, “Back in December, Mullah Mansour was involved in a gunfight with rival Taliban leaders over in Pakistan and there were reports he was wounded and later died.”

As we reported, the Pentagon has accused Mansour of presiding over “many attacks that have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and Afghan security forces as well as numerous US and coalition personnel.”

This drone strike marks a shift in U.S. strategy. By “actually going after the top Taliban leadership,” it appears the U.S. is adopting a new, more aggressive stance against the group, Tom reports.

Likewise, as we reported, the Afghan government seems to be hardening its stance toward the Taliban. Earlier this month, President Ashraf Ghani approved the executions of six Taliban fighters.

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Study: China's Government Fabricates About 488 Million Social Media Posts Every Year

People play at an internet cafe bar in Zhengzhou, China in 2013.

People play at an internet cafe bar in Zhengzhou, China in 2013. VCG/VCG via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption VCG/VCG via Getty Images

For years, the Chinese government has been widely suspected of hiring thousands of paid commenters using fabricated accounts to argue in favor of the government on social media sites.

This presumed army of trolls is dubbed the “50 Cent Party,” because of the rumored rate of pay per post – 50 cents in Chinese Yuan, or about $0.08.

But new research finds that those presumptions are inaccurate. Actually, the Chinese government’s use of fabricated posts is “way more sophisticated than anybody realized,” Harvard professor Gary King tells The Two-Way.

King and two other researchers, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts, analyzed a set of leaked emails from an Internet Propaganda Office in Zhanggong, which is in southern China.

First, the commenters are actually government employees “who basically have one extra job to do,” rather than ordinary people working for a bit of extra cash, King says. In fact, the researchers say, “no evidence exists that the authors of [50 Cent] posts are even paid extra for their work.”

They estimate that the Chinese government fabricates about 488 million social media posts each year.

Second, the commentators aren’t actually trying to argue with government critics. They’re trying to distract them, in highly focused bursts, at times of controversy or planned collective action. As King says:

“Arguments don’t end because somebody has a better argument. So if the Chinese government’s point is to stop discussion about a collective action event, whatever it is, or critical events of the government, arguing with people is an extremely ineffective way of doing it.”

He adds: “If you’re having an argument with somebody, and you want to end it, a much better approach than to argue with them is to say, ‘Let’s get ice cream.’ Or, ‘Look at that thing out the window.'”

The research paper provides a few examples of these “cheerleading” posts meant to distract. They praise China in general, rather than a specific political figure:

  • “Many revolutionary martyrs fought bravely to create the blessed life we have today! Respect to these heroes.”
  • “Respect to all the people who have greatly contributed to the prosperity and success of the Chinese civilization! The heroes of the people are immortal.”
  • “We all have to work harder, to rely on ourselves, to take the initiative to move forward.”
  • “[If] everyone can live good lives, then the China Dream has been realized!”

The researchers estimate that about one in every 178 comments on Chinese social media sites is fabricated by the government. But as King points out, it’s not just 1 in every 178 posts, which would be quite ineffective – like “shouting into the wind,” he says. “Instead, they focus the effort at specific bursts at specific times.” Outside the bursts, there’s very little activity, the researchers say.

For example, as deadly riots were unfolding in the western region of Xinjiang in 2013, the researchers say the leaked government emails report a burst of hundreds of fabricated post praising local economic development and the “Chinese Dream” – a concept that, as NPR reported, “encompasses national pride, an improvement of the standard of living and military modernization.”

They wanted to extend their findings from Zhanggong to the entire country. Examining the patterns from Zhanggong, the researchers developed an algorithm to predict which posts and users were from the so-called 50 Cent Party.

And then, as King says, they “did something a little outrageous” — they simply asked the people they predicted were 50 Cent Party whether they were, with this question:

“I saw your comment, it’s really inspiring, I want to ask, do you have any public opinion guidance management, or online commenting experience?”

They were able to compare the responses with those of people from Zhanggong they knew were from the 50 Cent Party because of the leaked email trove. The two groups said “Yes” at almost exactly the same rate — just under 60 percent.

More generally, China has an extensive system of internet controls, sometimes dubbed the “Great Firewall.” Its internet censorship was recently deemed a trade barrier by the U.S.

“Outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened over the past year, with eight of the top 25 most trafficked global sites now blocked in China,” the U.S. Trade Representative said in a report released in April, according to Reuters. “Over the past decade, China’s filtering of cross-border internet traffic has posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both internet sites themselves, and users who often depend on them for their business.”

As Reuters reports, Chinese officials say “web controls help maintain social stability and national security in the face of threats such as terrorism.”

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'Smoke' Author Dan Vyleta Keeps It Messy


The river Avon is crowded: swans, boaters, a swimming dog or two. On the bank, an excited old man waves at each boat like a castaway sighting rescue.

Stratford is all pubs and thatched roofs and sweet shops, with its daytrippers and slightly suffocating, kitschified Shakespearean pedigree (I say that: I still contemplated buying an “Out, damn spot” novelty eraser). The author Dan Vyleta teaches in nearby Birmingham, but lives here with his partner, a literary translator. We’re sitting on a bench on the opposite bank from the happy castaway, looking at the Avon.

Clean, green, and snug, Stratford feels far from the world of Vyleta’s new book, which imagines a world where vice is made visible, where people’s skin gives off clues to their character. The blacker the sin, the blacker the capital-S Smoke that curls out of nostrils and pores. London is the smoldering center of sin, where the lower classes live, breathing each other’s Smoke, while the aristocrats keep to the country, away from its taint.

It’s is an image good enough to build a book on — a world where sin, even the thought of sin, causes Smoke literally to seep out of human pores. Some metaphors are live; they catch light in the brain. Smoke is saturating, but intangible. It curls, it drifts, it threads. It leaves evidence — soot, ash, dark smears. It’s a promise. And a threat: fire.

Tall, a little stooped, with glasses and a newsboy cap, Dan Vyleta is excitable and kind. He wears a black leather jacket (“This was formerly white leather!” he says, gleefully) and speaks formal English with just a whiff of an accent. Vyleta’s parents were Czech, but fled to Germany in 1968. Vyleta was sent to boarding school in Connecticut and then did his undergrad and PhD at Cambridge, so although English wasn’t his first (or even second) language, he says his most important moments of self-understanding happened in it: “That moment when you say, [fiction] is more than entertainment, this is a way of exploring the world. That moment happened in English for me.”

Vyleta wrote three intricate historical novels before Smoke, all, like Smoke, disorderly and long. He says it was the novels of Dickens, with their chaos, length, intricate subplotting, and unabashed sentimentality, that gave him permission to write however he wanted.

Dan Vyleta’s new book Smoke imagines a world where vice is made visible, in the form of curling black Smoke. Michael Lionstar hide caption

toggle caption Michael Lionstar

He remembers reading the scene in Dickens’ Bleak House where a character suddenly spontaneously combusts — the horror of the soot hanging in the air, the “smouldering, suffocating vapour in the room and a dark, greasy coating on the walls.” “Okay,” he recalls saying to himself. “This means there are basically no rules to writing, because as a plot device, this is totally insane. A guy spontaneously combusts halfway through! I feel like Dickens is one of the places you go to go to school. You read it and you’re like, ‘None of this should work.’ But it somehow all works.” For Vyleta, not worrying about being tasteful or literary “lets you off the chain in a way.”

Smoke is uncategorizable: it does not fit neatly into a genre. Vyleta says he, personally, doesn’t like the idea of claiming any particular genre. “It’s just too mechanical for me. If I knew the plot fully, I wouldn’t want to write it. I think the sense of discovery, of the terrifying blankness of the page, the ability to surprise yourself, that the book wants to go somewhere else, would be gone.”

The book was sparked by a passage from Dombey and Son, in which Dickens imagines seeing sickness hovering like a visible cloud in the air above London:

…if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly to corrupt the better portion of a town. But if a moral pestilence that rises with them…could be made discernable, too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure.

It would be terrible revelation, but also a fantasy fulfilled: What if you could smell someone’s feelings on their breath? What if you could discern something about someone’s moral or inner life by inhaling it? What if you could breathe it in, share in it like a drug?

“A gentleman never smokes,” the children of the aristocracy are told in Smoke. Strict boarding schools discipline them into Smokelessness. But London, the belly of the working classes, smokes like a bonfire. Thus, the social order can’t be argued with: The worthiness of the aristocracy is proclaimed by their clean white sleeves, and the poor trail their vice behind them in a cloud.

I want to know about that Smoke: What causes it, exactly? Passion? Sin? Feeling? Is it good or bad? “Look,” Vyleta says. “It’s a book now, and its yours as well as mine, and my answers may not always be the right ones. You can configure the evidence, so to speak, somewhat differently than I configure it, because the truth is I’ve configured it in three or four different ways.”

Vyleta is cagey, a caginess that carries into his speech, which is littered with qualifying phrases: “in a sense,” “you might say.” His unwillingness to close off interpretations — his unwillingness, even, to claim to be the expert on his own book — points to a belief in fiction’s wildness. “There’s something humanistic in fiction, anti-totalitarian in its potential,” he says. “I think…the messiness of these long forms is one of their strongest points.”

Smoke proceeds from “strong instinctual drives,” he eventually allows. “Another way of thinking about Smoke is: It is that bit of us that is animal.” But Smoke itself is neither good nor bad; its precise qualities are less interesting to Vyleta than the way the people in his novel use it as a tool to enforce the social hierarchy. “It’s about the seduction of a logic where you’re told that your good fortune is your right.” Smoke allows the rich to think, “I have a big house and a good salary, landed property, etc, but here I sit in my white shirt sleeves — I deserve it. Because I objectively am righteous. And these people, yes they live in misery, but objectively, they’re dirty.”

Artist Emily Hogarth created this paper cut based on the world of Smoke.

Artist Emily Hogarth created this paper cut based on the world of Smoke. Courtesy of Doubleday hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Doubleday

Smoke is a mess of a book. It’s long and untidy, the dialogue is implausible, the action bottlenecks about halfway through, but it works. It works because it feels psychologically true: Imagine the relief of being in the right, of all your microdecisions and weaknesses and passing thoughts being judged and found pure, of not having to bear the guilt of success at someone else’s expense. Of deserving it.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said Joan Didion, in a phrase that has since taken on a cheery “Yay books!” flavor, but has always to me seemed to hint at a more sinister and alarming truth — that we spend our days in self-justification, that in order to get through them we come up with palatable stories about ourselves and cling on for dear life. “It’s very attractive, always in life to say: my stance has this total clarity,” says Vyleta. “It would be such a relief, to come to the island of the just.”

“I am grateful for the Smoke,” one character thinks. “Imagine a world in which we err and nobody notices. Not even ourselves.” Our world, in other words. But not quite; as Vyleta says, we read each other, we inhale each other. Our bodies give up our secrets. This, I think, is why Smoke feels like a true metaphor: Because we fear and desire discovery. Because we are always searching for some final, inarguable vindication. Because sometimes we’re burning inside, even if we don’t smoke.

Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.

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Egypt Deploys A Submarine To Search For EgyptAir Flight Data Recorders

Coptic Christians grieve during prayers for the departed, remembering the victims of EgyptAir flight 804 at Al-Boutrossiya Church in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday.

Coptic Christians grieve during prayers for the departed, remembering the victims of EgyptAir flight 804 at Al-Boutrossiya Church in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday. Amr Nabil/AP hide caption

toggle caption Amr Nabil/AP

Egypt’s president said he has deployed a submarine to the area where EgyptAir flight 804 crashed last Thursday, in an effort to locate the plane’s flight voice and data recorders.

At this point, there is scant information about what caused the Cairo-bound plane carrying 66 people to go down. “Until now, all of the scenarios are possible,” President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said in his first public remarks since the crash.


“It is very, very important to us that we know all the circumstances that caused this plane to go down,” he added.

And the flight voice and data recorders are important to that investigation, he said. Sissi said the submarine was deployed from the Ministry of Petroleum, and is able operate about 9,800 feet below sea level.

As Reuters reported, “Waters in the area of the Mediterranean under search could be [about 9,800 feet] deep, which would place the black box locator beacons on the edge of their detectable range from the surface.”

Sissi cautioned that clear answers could take “a lot of time” and urged people not to speculate about the causes of the crash. Egyptian officials have told the families of the crash victims that it may take weeks to conduct DNA analysis of the human remains recovered at the scene to identify their relatives, according to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

The Egyptian military said it found debris from the crash about 180 miles from the coastal city of Alexandria on Friday, including human remains, luggage, and plane seats. They released photos of the wreckage on Saturday.

As we reported, French investigators said the plane sent a signal that smoke was detected in the plane’s toilets minutes before it crashed. The Aviation Herald released the same data, which was apparently transmitted to ground stations during the flight.

Besides a fire, though, the signal could also be caused “by rapid decompression of the aircraft, which can produce condensation that the plane’s sensors could mistake for smoke,” industry analyst Robert W. Mann told The New York Times.

Egyptian officials have previously said terrorism is a more likely explanation for the crash than a technical issue.

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A Decade Out From The Mortgage Crisis, Former Homeowners Still Grasp For Stability

Former homeowner Brian Burns, who now rents an apartment in Henderson, Nev., says he "still sees a lot of empty houses" in Las Vegas, where about 20 percent of homeowners are still underwater in the wake of the housing crisis almost 10 years ago.

Former homeowner Brian Burns, who now rents an apartment in Henderson, Nev., says he “still sees a lot of empty houses” in Las Vegas, where about 20 percent of homeowners are still underwater in the wake of the housing crisis almost 10 years ago. Ethan Miller/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Before the mortgage crisis hit, real estate seemed like a sure bet. Pretty much anyone could buy a house: no money down, thousands of square feet, second and third vacation homes were not out of the question. Then the bubble burst.

Homeowners across the U.S. confronted the reality that their houses were worth a fraction of what they paid for them. Now, a decade later, even though the recession is over, more than six million homeowners are still upside down on their mortgages.

This week on For the Record, we hear the stories of two people who lost their homes in the mortgage crisis – and how they’re coping today.

Brian Burns, Las Vegas

For 26 years, Brian Burns watched Vegas grow. He saw the desert dirt roads transformed by construction projects. The land was available and cheap. By 2004, housing prices soared.

“The builders couldn’t keep up with the demand,” he says. “Land prices went thru the roof.”

Burns and his then wife had bought into the dream. They lived in a huge house he estimates was 3,500 square feet. “There were parts of the house you never even saw – that’s how big it was,” he says.

When a realtor friend convinced him to sell, he was blown away by the profit he turned.

“That house that I bought for $250,000, my friend sold for $645,000 three years later,” he says. “I had never had remotely that much money in my life. Probably never had more than $10,000 to $15,000 in the bank before. And I took $40 out one time and I showed my friend my ATM receipt and it said $228,000 balance. And we just looked at each other and laughed, it was ridiculous. I didn’t know what to do with it.”

He decided to keep it in the bank and buy another, smaller house in a brand-new development in the town of Henderson, Nev. Sure, the tan, stucco tract-style housing didn’t have a whole lot of charm, but Burns didn’t care. He convinced some of his friends to buy other houses in the neighborhood. He had cash in the bank, excellent credit, and he put no money down.

Before we return to the second half of Brian’s story, let’s bring in a second voice.

Guillermo Galindo, Medford, Mass.

In 2005, Guillermo Galindo and his wife bought their house in Revere, Mass., for $450,000. They put about 5 percent down and ended up with a manageable monthly mortgage payment of about $2,000.

He worked delivering medical supplies, and they got monthly payments from a family who rented the unit on the second floor. Galindo and his wife lived there for a few years with their baby daughter, and life felt pretty stable.

But that security began to crumble in 2008, when his employer started cutting his hours. The interest rate on his adjustable mortgage started creeping up. Then, he lost more income from his second floor tenants.

“The people upstairs, to top it off, this girl had a baby and then she had problems with her husband,” Galindo says.

Eventually, the young woman’s husband abandoned her and the baby.

“At the end she was just was left alone and she stopped paying rent,” he says.

He wouldn’t kick her out, but that meant Galindo was now really struggling to make his mortgage payments. Around the same time, he found out that his home had lost a huge amount of its value, about 50 percent, so he got in touch with his bank hoping to work out a deal.

“They asked for more papers, I send them all. It was back and forth, back and forth, until they said they couldn’t help me, that the price was that. And they couldn’t do anything,” he says.

Across the country, Brian Burns had also seen the value of his home plummet in Las Vegas.

“I think everybody’s dream, when you are a normal person — not super rich, not super poor — is that your home is kind of your biggest asset,” Burns says, “that you feel like, ‘I’m going to play by the rules, I’m going to pay my mortgage, it’s just going to continue to increase in value.’ Maybe not by leaps and bounds, but by no means should it be worth a third of what you paid for it. And it started to scare everybody.”

He found out that the house he bought for $320,000 was now worth only $140,000.

At the same time, his work as a graphic designer was drying up. Eventually, he chose to stop paying his mortgage. He didn’t feel good about it.

“I wasn’t raised that way to not honor your obligations, and do the right thing and pay your bills on time,” he says. “My credit score was perfect. In fact, when I bought that little house, the guy said, ‘We’re willing to give you no down because you have one of the best. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and your credit score is 850 points or something like that and I’ve never seen one that high.’ “

He could have used his savings to keep paying his mortgage payments, but he thought that was a bad idea.

“The analogy I use back then is, I’m not going to pay Mercedes prices for a Kia. Why would I pay $320,000 for a house that’s never going to be worth that?”

The decision destroyed Burns’ credit, he let the bank take his house and he moved to Oregon to start over again.

Meanwhile, Guillermo Galindo was in a different situation because he didn’t want to leave. His life savings were wrapped up in this house, and that’s where he wanted to raise his daughter.

“I thought I was going to pass [the house] on to my daughter,” he says. “I thought it was going to be something that would last for my remaining life.”

He kept talking with the bank, trying to figure out how to stay. Eventually they sent him a letter saying they were foreclosing. He fought it for another five months and finally said, fine, take it.

They gave him $3,000 and he handed over the keys.

“It was very depressing for me,” Galindo recalls. “I was trying to show my best face to my wife and my daughter. I remember we had a dog because that was one of the things that I promised my daughter if we had our own house … And it was really, really, really heartbreaking for me to find the words to tell my little one, was probably 3 years by then, that we were going to have to get rid of the dog. So, believe it or not, I wasn’t even thinking on anything else but that how we were going to tell her her dog was gonna have to go.”

Today, Brian Burns is back in Las Vegas, where he rents an apartment with his fiancée. They feel really gun-shy about buying anything, mainly because it doesn’t seem like the housing crisis is over in Vegas. Roughly 20 percent of homeowners are still underwater there, and it doesn’t look like a recovery.

“I drive up into suburbia, and there are streets still of empty houses. No curtains, no nothing, weeds in the yard,” Burns says. “There are still a lot of empty houses in this town.”

Over in Medford, Mass., Guillermo Galindo also rents an apartment. There are two main rooms — one where Guillermo and his wife sleep, the other they use as a daycare facility. When all the children leave at 6 p.m., Guillermo’s now 12-year-old daughter converts it into her bedroom.

“My daughter is still thinking about having a house, and the first thing she’s going to do is to get a dog,” he says. “I feel very proud of her. She’s getting high honors. She’s been adapting really good.”

Galindo’s credit rating is still in the tank because of the foreclosure. And they don’t have any money for a down payment, so buying another house is not an option right now, and might not be for a long time.

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Straight Out Of The Funny Papers, Here Are A Few Cartoon Conundrums

Sunday Puzzle.


On-air challenge: Every answer this week is the name of a newspaper comic strip or cartoon, past or present. Identify the funnies from their anagrams.

For example: GOO + P —> POGO.

Last week’s challenge from Mike Hinterberg of Loveland, Colo.: Name a creature in nine letters. The name contains a T. Drop the T, and the remaining letters can be rearranged to spell two related modes of transportation. What are they?

Answer: Butterfly —> Lyft, Uber.

Next week’s challenge: Name a common household item in 6 letters. Change the middle two letters to a P, and you’ll get the 5-letter last name of a famous person who professionally used that item. What’s the item, and who’s the person?

Submit Your Answer

If you know the answer to next week’s challenge, submit it here. Listeners who submit correct answers win a chance to play the on-air puzzle. Important: Include a phone number where we can reach you Thursday, May 26, at 3 p.m. ET.

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