Monday, January 26, 2015

01/26/2015 at 6:55am

Darker colors represent areas where manufactured housing is a greater percentage of the housing stock. The Southeast has a higher percentage than the rest of the nation. (Click map for an interactive version.)  

While the health of the U.S. housing market is still in flux, one particular segment appears to be improving -- at least on the surface. For the third consecutive year, the number of new manufactured homes sold in the United States grew. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of new manufactured homes “placed” (an equivalent to new sales) in 2014 will increase to an estimated[i] 58,000 homes -- up from 56,300 in 2013. 

The tepid rebound comes after a long and sustained downturn for the manufactured housing industry. Distress in the manufactured housing market actually predated the recent national housing crisis. After experiencing dramatic growth throughout much of the 1990s, sales and shipments of manufactured housing spiraled downward into a sustained slump for more than a decade. An overextension of credit and risky financing backfired after record-high foreclosure rates produced a glut of manufactured units, depressing the market. In the latter 2000s, placements of new manufactured housing units declined to their lowest levels in decades, and many large manufacturers and retailers exited the market or declared bankruptcy.[ii]

Manufactured housing sales (green line) started dropping before the drop in conventional housing sales (blue line). (The sales figures are charted on different scales to make them easier to compare.)

Manufactured homes – commonly referred to as mobile homes or trailers, are an often overlooked and maligned component of our nation’s housing stock.  But manufactured homes are an important source of housing for millions of Americans, especially those with low incomes and in rural areas. There are approximately 6.8 million occupied manufactured homes in the U.S., comprising about 6 percent of the nation’s housing stock. More than half of all manufactured homes are located in rural areas around the country. Also, roughly half of manufactured homes are located in Southeastern states.

An Affordable (Yet High Cost) Housing Option

Affordability and convenience make manufactured homes a popular housing option. The average sales price of a new manufactured home in 2013 was $64,000 (excluding land costs) compared to an average of $269,000 for a newly constructed single family home.[iii] [iv] While the purchase price of manufactured homes can be relatively affordable, financing them is not. The majority of manufactured homes are still financed with personal property, or “chattel,” loans.[v] With shorter terms and higher interest rates, personal property loans are generally less beneficial for the consumer than conventional mortgage financing. Roughly 60 percent of manufactured home loans in 2013 were classified as “high cost” (having a substantially high interest rate) which is more than eight times the level of high cost lending for newly constructed single family structures.[vi]  Manufactured homes are typically sold at retail sales centers where salespersons or “dealers” receive commissions, often exacerbating these finance issues. In some cases, dealers resort to high-pressure sales tactics, trapping consumers into unaffordable loans.[vii]

01/24/2015 at 1:31pm

Courtesy National Congress of American Indians National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby giving the State of Indian Nations address from the Newseum in Washington.

It’s time for State of the Unions. There is President Barack Obama's speech to Congress, of course. Then, a variety of state reports across the country. And, last Thursday, Indian country’s national version, the State of Indian Nations. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby spent about an hour talking about some of the challenges facing the more than 500 tribal governments.

“Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st century: We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs,” Cladoosby said. “Congress and the administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.”

President Cladoosby’s talk covered much ground — a lot of material critical to tribal governments, such as rethinking the federal-trust relationship, an invitation for leaders of Congress to visit Indian country, and for Washington’s NFL franchise to finally, finally, change its name.

I’d like to expand on two themes from the State of the Indian Nations speech — youth and technology.

The most common age in America today is 22 years old. This year, 2015, the Millennial Generation will pass the Baby Boomers as the largest-age group in the country. Indian country is even younger than the rest of the nation. The American Indian/Alaska Native population from birth through age 24 makes up 42 percent of the total Native American population (compared to about a third for country as a whole.)

We are at a moment in history where we really ought to be investing more resources in young people. Yet, instead, as President Obama said in his State of the Union, we’re loading up this generation with student debt — a total that now exceeds a trillion dollars. This is the logic behind the president’s call to make community college free. A proposal that will benefit Indian country, including tribal colleges and universities.

But this is also about technology. We need a structure to prepare people for jobs that don’t yet exist.

01/23/2015 at 7:37am

Source text here Swiss photographer Bruno Augsburger’s new book, Out There, documents the time he’s spent over the last decade-and-a-half trekking alone in Canada’s Yukon Territory.Around 1,200 barrels, or 37,800 gallons, of crude oil leaked into the Yellowstone River last weekend. The 42,000 barrels of oil per day operation, owned Bridger Pipeline LLC, was shut down after the breach. The spill happened nine miles upstream from Glendive, Montana (population about 5,000).

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Study Conducted for NFU Finds COOL Doesn't Hurt Canadian Meat Market in U.S.

A new study by an Auburn University agricultural economist refutes claims from Canadian cattlemen that county-of-origin-labeling has hurt Canadian meat producers in the U.S. market.

“The United States Mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) regime has not impaired cattle export market access to the United States,” writes C. Robert Taylor in a research report prepared for the National Farmers Union, which supports country-of-origin labeling for meat, or COOL, as it’s known in shorthand. Taylor is Alfa eminent scholar and professor at Auburn.

COOL was enacted in 2008 and requires meat packers who sell in the U.S. to include a label that tells consumers where the meat was produced.

Canada has contested the law with the World Trade Organization, saying it’s an unfair trade restriction that has impeded the sale of Canadian meat in the U.S. 

Taylor said his study refutes that claim.

“The study shows that the price basis actually narrowed somewhat after COOL was enacted, it did not widen,” Taylor said in a conference call Thursday sponsored by the National Farmers Union. “This indicates that Canadians are getting the same price in the U.S. for like animals as American producers.”

An earlier report by other U.S. researchers conducted for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said COOL had resulted in the loss of $1.4 billion in U.S. sales. Taylor said his research was based on publicly available data, while the report made to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association was not.

“This study uses more robust data sources to assess the impact of COOL on market access and found that COOL has not had a significant negative effect on the price paid for imported slaughter cattle relative to comparable domestic cattle,” Taylor wrote. The study reached the same conclusion for feeder cattle or cattle that were slaughtered immediately.

--Tim Marema

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Mississippi hunters who bag more deer than they can eat themselves would be allowed to donate venison to jails, under a bill being considered by the state Legislature.

The Venison Harvesting Program for Inmate Consumption bill “would allow prisons and jails to set up their own deer processing operations, where hunters could donate their kills,” reports the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “[The bill’s author] said liberal deer bag limits, aimed at reducing overpopulation, result in many hunters having more deer meat than they can store, so they can donate it to feed inmates.”

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The USDA has ordered Tyson Hog Markets Inc. to cease and desist from the falsifying scale tickets, giving buyers invoices that reflect these false weights, and issuing false accounting to livestock seller, reports MikeCallicrate.com.

“We take pride in being fair to livestock producers and our customers,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said in a statement emailed to Meatingplace. “We addressed these concerns three years ago when they were first brought to our attention and promptly and cooperatively resolved more recent follow-up questions from the agency.”

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Speaking of the USDA, the New York Times has a story about the agency’s U. S. Meat Animal Research Center, a mad-scientist-sounding program aimed at helping meat producers (read: corporate farms) make more money, doing some things that should repulse even the most unapologetic meat eaters (like me). I’m just going to give you a couple paragraphs from the story to set the scene.

At a remote research center on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise.

There are, however, some complications.

Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed.

Then there are the lambs. In an effort to develop “easy care” sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation.

Dude. Yuck.

01/22/2015 at 6:59am

Broadband Communities based on Census and National Broadband Map data Counties with lower levels of broadband access (plotted on the horizontal axis) tend to have lower or negative population growth (vertical axis), according to a study by Broadband Communities. Each dot represents one of the nation’s 3,144 counties. The blue line shows the general trend that is revealed by regression analysis: more broadband population correlates with higher population growth. (Click graphic for a larger version.)  

Counties with better broadband access are adding population at 10 times the rate of counties that lack good broadband connections, according to a study by an industry magazine.

The study by Broadband Communities found that counties in the bottom half of their states’ broadband-access rankings had a population growth rate of only 0.27% from 2010 to 2013. Counties in the top half of broadband-access rankings increased their population by an average of 2.79% during the same period.

The trend was even more pronounced for counties at the top and bottom of the broadband rankings. Counties in the bottom 10% lost population -- a decline of 0.55% -- while the top 10% of connected counties gained 3.18%.

“Good broadband is even more closely related to economic opportunity than has been realized,” said the study, which was released last month.

The study has special implications for rural areas. From 2010 to 2012, rural counties (defined as counties outside a metropolitan statistical area) lost population for the first time. Rural counties also have lower broadband access rates than metropolitan counties.

“The Broadband Communities study confirms a strong association between these two phenomena,” wrote the study’s author, Steven S. Ross.

The study used data from the Census and the National Broadband Map for all 3,144 U.S. counties plus the District of Columbia. It ranked counties by broadband access on a percentile basis within each state and then calculated population changes for counties grouped into those rankings.

The chart at the top of the story shows the result. Each dot charts a county on two coordinates: 1) the percentage of the population in the county that has access to broadband of 25 megabits per second or more (the horizontal axis) and 2) the percentage change in population size from 2010 to 2013 (vertical access).

The individual counties are scattered like grains of sand around the plot. But using regression analysis, the study found a general trend. That’s the blue line. As access to high-speed Internet increases, so does growth in a county’s population.

The analysis showed that about 10% of population change was attributable to the availability of broadband.

There’s always a “chicken or egg” question with studies like this. Are counties losing population because they lack broadband? Or are the counties that are losing population less likely to get good broadband in the first place?

01/21/2015 at 6:07am

 Click the map for an interactive version.

The cities now have more people working than when the recession began in December 2007 — 1.8 million more, to be precise.

Rural America, however, has yet to recover. There are 556,000 fewer jobs in rural counties in November 2014 than in the same month seven years ago, just before the recession officially started.

The map above shows rural and urban counties and whether a county has more (or fewer) people employed now than in November 2007. Rural counties are those that lie outside of a metropolitan area. Urban counties are those that are included within metro regions.

Urban counties that have more jobs now than in 2007 are blue. Those that have fewer jobs are orange.

Rural counties that have gained jobs since November 2007 are green. Rural counties that have fewer jobs now than seven years ago are red.

Click on the map to make it interactive. You can scroll over the country. Click on any county and you’ll get the basic information: employment and unemployment totals for November 2007 and 2014 and unemployment rates for the two years.

The recession officially ended in June 2009, according to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Let us know in the comments section what’s happening in your piece of Yonder.

01/19/2015 at 8:55pm

Charlie Neibergall/APPresident Obama speaks at Cedar Falls Utilities in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Wednesday. He encouraged the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws that keep local government from getting directly involved in providing broadband.

Supporters of municipal broadband networks are looking for a boost Tuesday night from the president’s State of the Union Address.

The president says he’ll push federal regulators to overturn laws that restrict public involvement in providing Internet service. Such laws are on the books in 21 states, according to a new report.

The president has no direct voice in the proceedings of the Federal Communications Commission, which will consider a request next month to undo such laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. But the president’s announcement is important because it shines a national spotlight on community-based networks, said one consultant who helps communities design public networks.

“What the president brings to this issue is serious weight and a ton of public relations,” said Craig Settles, who also writes about broadband issues. “There’s no way broadband advocates could have generated this level of interest and news coverage of the issue without the president’s involvement.”

Last week, during a series of speeches and visits highlighting elements of Tuesday's address to Congress, the president touted community broadband networks as one way to get high-speed service to hard-to-reach communities, including rural areas.

Such community networks can take various forms. A city government or a public utility can build and run the network. In other cases, public entities create partnerships with private Internet providers to improve Internet access and capacity. There’s also another familiar rural model – the cooperative – where customers own and govern the business. Other communities have nonprofit organizations at the center of their public networks.

The important element is to have some local ownership, Settles said, because it ensures that local needs – not just the profits of an absentee corporation – are part of the equation.

In Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the president expressed his support for community broadband, a public utility owns and manages the community broadband network.

With a population of 40,000, Cedar Falls may have some relevance for other small cities and rural communities. The city, which is a couple of hours northeast of Des Moines, is in a metropolitan area, but a small one– just three counties with a combined population of about 170,000. The largest city, Waterloo, has about 69,000 residents – barely above the 50,000 residents required to qualify as metro.

Despite these modest population figures, Cedar Falls boasts a broadband network that can deliver 1 gigabit per second – ranking it among the fastest in the nation.

“In 1994, no provider offered high speed internet service in Cedar Falls, and the phone and cable companies then serving the town had no plans to upgrade their networks any time soon,” wrote the general manager of Cedar Falls Utilities. “Unwilling to wait, citizens led the charge to pass a referendum that founded our community broadband service and tasked CFU with designing, building and running it.”

But communities that would like to follow Cedar Falls’ lead and build their own networks will have a tougher time if they are located in 21 states that have restricted the ability of public entities to own broadband networks.

Restrictions can be especially tough on rural communities, because publicly owned broadband could be the best option for some rural places, Settles said.

01/16/2015 at 12:29pm

Photo by Corey Rich/Aurora Photos Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently completed the first ever free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. This means they climbed, for a total of 19 days, using ropes only to stop a fall, not to aid the climb. Here, Caldwell climbs at night. Hands are less sweaty and climbing shoes less stretchy at night, which helps. The Dawn Wall is "considered the longest, hardest free climb in the world," according to the story in Outside Magazine.

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The tidy maps in the “State of Rural Minnesota” report – delivered to a state House committee January 15 –  give a glimpse of the diversity and complexity of rural, small city, and urban counties in the North Star State.

Minnesota is complicated. But then again, so are most -- make that all -- states in the Union. Multiply the Minnesota report by 50, and you start to get a sense of just how big and complex rural America is as a set of geographic regions and an intellectual concept.

One map of note in the Minnesota report is the change in distribution of people of color. Rural areas have smaller populations, of course, so small changes in population that might not register for a city are statistically more pronounced in rural areas.

 This map shows the percent of change in people of color. The north central portion of the state had less change, but generally more diversity, because of Native America populations. Although some of the highest growth in people-of-color population was in the suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities in the south, “numerous western and southern counties saw dramatic growth with the in-migration of Latinos, Laations, Somalis, Sudanese, Hmong and other groups,” the report says.

Don Davis at the Forum News Service has more discussion around the report, which was presented to the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

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Farm Aid will hold a Texas drought summit on Thursday, January 29, in San Antonio, just before the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The summit will discuss long-term responses to chronic drought that plagues sectors of American agriculture.

“Persistent drought is becoming the new normal for many farmers and ranchers across the country — especially those in the South and the West,” said Joel Morton, Farm Aid’s farm advocate, in a press release. “Farm Aid has a long history of delivering immediate help to farmers in need, but as weather extremes become more common, the solution lies in increasing the resilience of family farms.”

Farm Aid will provide travel support and scholarships for farmer and rancher attendees. Find out more here.

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Frontier Communications, a cable company that serves primarily small cities and rural communities across the nation, has launched a $10 million competition to find “America’s Best Communities.” Just to make sure they have your attention, Frontier and its partners have also added country musician Vince Gill as an ambassador to help get out word on the competition.

Gill was part of a presentation Thursday held at the Country Music Hall of Fame announcing his involvement in the contest. He shared the stage with the heads of Frontier Communications and two other backers of the contest, DISH Network and CoBank.

The competition will award prizes of $1 million to $3 million to the top three winners. Semifinalists and finalists for the big prizes will also receive awards to help them create applications for the contest.

The competition is open to communities from 9,500 to 80,000 that are in the Frontier service area, which covers parts of 27 states.

What about smaller communities? The contest rules encourage them to join other municipalities in making a joint proposal.

The deadline for initial applications is March 25.

More information on the contest is here.