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March links: Carol M White PEP is out, Unmarried Moms, Emulate Carmelo Anthony, BTOP Money Wasted, Screwed UP FHA Rules and More

* An old grant friend returns: The Carol M. White Physical Education Proposal has been released, with 95 grants available up to $750,000.

* Carmelo Anthony Is a Hero of Philanthropy More Athletes Should Emulate.

* “The New Unmarried Moms: We’ve reduced teen pregnancy, but now childbearing outside wedlock is exploding among 20-somethings,” which is interesting but ignores some of the really powerful social factors at work.

* Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) money wasted in West Virginia; Cisco conspires to steal money, succeeds. The Hacker News discussion is also worth reading, especially the top comment.

* “How short-sighted FHA rules enforced housing segregation and inequality: How Good Principles Can Make Bad Rules.”

* “Michigan is going to take over Detroit.” Oddly enough, we’ve never had a client in Detroit. Who wants to be the first? We’ll provide a 25% Detroit-Economic-Collapse Discount to the first Detroit nonprofit that calls, assuming there are any left.

* “Nurses dodge bullets to provide care.” (Maybe.)

* Here’s a hilariously bad sentence from the Department of Transportation’s Small Business Transportation Resource Center Program RFP:

OSDBU will enter into Cooperative Agreements with these organizations to provide outreach to the small business community in their designated region and provide financial and technical assistance, business training programs, business assessment, management training, counseling, marketing and outreach, and the dissemination of information, to encourage and assist small businesses to become better prepared to compete for, obtain, and manage DOT funded transportation-related contracts and subcontracts at the federal, state and local levels.

I’m exhausted by reading all the clauses; it’s like trying to read 19th Century German philosophy. I tried to increase the sentence’s resemblance to native English for newsletter subscribers: “Grants to provide outreach to small business community, along with financial / technical assistance, business training programs, business assessment, management training, counseling, marketing, and outreach, so small businesses are prepared for DOT-funded, transportation-related contracts.” Those of you who do not think I was somewhat successful are welcome to undertake this exercise on your own.

* From the Department of Confusion Department, or, rather, the Strategies Targeting Characteristics Common to Female Ex-Offenders program: “Services to be funded will be targeted to female ex-offenders, but must also be open to eligible male ex-offenders.” This contradicts the title of the program and the purpose of the project and is fairly par for the RFP course.

* Don’t subsidize parking. This should be obvious.

* Has L.A. fallen behind? (Hat tip Marginal Revolution). To me, the car-centric culture and traffic are the worst parts, and I don’t see those improving without some combination of removing or raising urban height limits.

* The ten-year hoodie on Kickstarter; I “backed” the Flint and Tinder underwear project and though the outcome was okay, it was not exceptional.

* The case for a true Mac Pro successor. We were dedicated tower users until alternatives became fast and the Mac Pro became a terrible value.

* How New York Could [and should] Get More Affordable Housing. The way to affordable housing is simple, direct, obvious, and widely ignored, chiefly by people who do not appear to understand supply and demand or basic economics.

* “One in three counties are dying,” because their original reason for existing—chiefly farming—has gone away.

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A WSJ Article Illustrates the Program Officer Problem

I just posted “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” in which I speculated that the lateness of federal RFPs this fiscal year is probably due to the fact that overworked program officers are still chewing through last year’s proposals. Imagine my surprise when I read “Staffing Woes Hinder Job-Boosting Program” by Michael Aneiro in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. He discovered a HUD program that is way behind in reviewing applications because of a lack of staff to do the reviews.

Even better, while HUD has more money than usual for this Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, an appropriation for additional staff was not made, so the same number of program officers, fiscal officers and lawyers have to do vastly more work. Since federal employees do not work by the piece, the same number of reviewers have to review more applications, which means they get stuck in the system. All of this will eventually be digested, even as hundreds of new FY ’10 RFPs are published in the coming months.

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‘Tis the Season for Government Folly, Fa La La La La La La La L.A.!

Christmas comes but once a year, but there is no end to misguided federal efforts to solve the crisis of the day. Leaving aside the collapsing financial sector, doomed US car industry, etc., the crisis de jure is the housing meltdown.* Lost in the current hysteria is the $4 billion Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) passed by Congress in July to address the boatloads of vacant and abandoned housing caused by the subprime lending mess.** “Housing-Crisis Grants Force Cities to Make Tough Choices,” a December 5, 2008 Wall Street Journal article by Michael M. Phillips and Bobby White, highlights some of the problems with NSP while also illustrating the folderol that always emerges when the feds try to solve a problem quickly.

NSP funds are awarded on a “formula” basis, which means that HUD used some sort of alchemy to divvy up the $4 billion, probably to CDBG-eligible cities and counties. Of course, when tons of jurisdictions dip their cup in into the same punch bowl, it’s not surprising that some only get a sip. And, unlike competitive programs in which applicants actually have to demonstrate real need and workable solutions, the cities and counties just have to prepare a so called “action plan” for the NSP. As Hamlet so eloquently said, “ay, there’s the rub“.

The WSJ article tells the tale of Avondale, AZ, which “got” $2.5 million in NSP funds. So far, so good. The city is thinking about using 25% of these funds to rehab two vacant townhouses, fill in an abandoned pool and build two units on the site. That only leaves about 2,600 other vacant, foreclosed or nearly foreclosed housing units in the city to take care of. If I’ve done my math right, at this rate Avondale only needs $1.625 billion to solve their problem. Better still, despite the obvious crisis, no jurisdictions have been able to spend their NSP money because they have to have an approved action plan to get the funds, and HUD recently announced that all the submitted action plans required “substantial amendments,” which were due December 1. Who knows when the action plans, which are sounding more like inaction plans, will be approved, since even HUD drones have to take time off for a little shopping and egg nog this time of year.

Avondale’s start and stop efforts are playing out all across America. I was talking to one of our clients in South Central Los Angeles on Friday about the WSJ article and the slow motion Danse Macabre going on with public and private efforts to address the housing problems in L.A. Our client has been going to endless meetings to discuss the NSP program and is still waiting around for the amended action plans to be approved. When the plans are finally approved, the City and County will have to run RFP processes to select nonprofits like his to spend the money and do the work. In the meantime, this agency, which is an experienced YouthBuild provider that has built and rehabilitated hundreds of houses over the years, is doing nothing.

One irony of the housing crisis is that HUD has a perfectly good program, Section 203(k), to recycle vacant HUD houses by letting nonprofits, like our South Central client, buy them for a nominal amount, rehab them, and resell them to low-income buyers. Since there are thousands of vacant and foreclosed houses in LA, one would think the 203(k) program would be booming. Not so according to our client, who told me that virtually no 203(k) houses are available in LA. To use the 203(k) program, HUD must own the vacant house, meaning that the house must have been originally financed through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Due to the huge housing price increases in L.A. during the boom years, as a practical matter FHA financing could not be used because its loan limits were too low. So subprime private sector loans, sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were used to finance the transactions, with the vacant foreclosed houses ending up owned by a gaggle of private lenders and investors, not HUD. Despite the established infrastructure for the 203(k) program, it is not being used to recycle the tsunami of vacant houses in L.A. and other cities, leaving our client and thousands of other similar nonprofit housing rehab organizations sitting on the sidelines.

This sad tale of woe does not make me optimistic about the really big stimulus programs that will emerge from Congress shortly. While it will be Fat City for grant writers and lots of grants will be available for frisky nonprofit and public agencies, don’t expect the funds to fix many problems.

Now that I’ve depressed you sufficiently, how about joining me in a Mai Tai or three, as I’ve recently reacquired a taste for aged rum. A fine Mai Tai helps pass the time waiting for action plans to be approved.

* For an earlier post on the current housing fiasco, see Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them.

**After the financial industry $700 billion October bailout and up to $35 billion possible for the auto industry, doesn’t $4 billion seem like a trifle only six months later?