Happy

Happy

“What is moral is what you feel good after.” Ernest Hemingway

What makes a happy city? The tallest building? A sports championship? A hometown President?

Chicago has had all of those, also a devastating tragedy and rebirth. Chicago is the city that works, “hog butcher to the world.” Chicago is a happy city. Try and restrain your exuberance on the first warm day in May.

In The Geography of Human Life, Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Mackiguchi notes that the place where we were born is a highly significant factor in our happiness. Not because one coordinate is superior to another. Our home town is where we learned to understand how the world works – nature, planets, tribes.

“Happy Cities” was the theme of the 69th FIABCI World Congress in Dubai. I arrived in the desert oasis somewhat skeptical. How could Happy Cities be more than just a feel good theme? The opening Key Note by Charles Montgomery author of Happy City helped Change my mind. Through extensive research including psychological research measuring people’s emotional states as they moved through cityscapes, he proved that green space, plazas, varied streetscapes (as opposed to long, blank, uniform facades) make people feel better, more likely to stop, even help a stranger.

Surveys by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that drivers such as openness, aesthetics and social offerings ranked higher on residential attachment than economic and educational opportunities and safety. While real estate professionals intuitively know what makes a great neighborhood, science is catching up to prove it’s way more than location. We must move away from the vogue of luxury and exclusion and work toward communities that are inclusive, walkable and filled with opportunities to interact with our neighbors.

Broccoli

“I think it’s great if you find a new flavor of ice cream and you are ready to eat your broccoli for it.” Aanchal Anand, Land Specialist and Blockchain Expert, World Bank

Blockchain was the flavor of the day at the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty. I spent a week mingling with African government officials and European service providers. Together with IHC Global, we presented a paper and Side Event on “Using Data to Support Women’s Rights: Property Markets and Housing Rights through a Gender Equity Lens” based on a pilot project in Uganda to help women claim their constitutionally protected property rights. The photo above is from my visit to Ambassador Hector Posset of the Republic of Benin. My new consulting partner Gedeon Dansou is from Benin and we are planning a visit to Cotonou to provide training programs using the International Property Markets Scorecard Methodology later this year as an entré into African francophone countries.

Another Side Event presented by New America, a DC Think Tank, titled “Blockchain & Title Registries: The End of the Beginning” changed my mindset. Prior to the event, I was skeptical of the frenzy around Bitcoin and blockchain as the latest deus ex machina to save the world’s poor. But Aanchal’s presentation and others from tech companies already working on solutions in Georgia, Dubai and Sweden made it clear that blockchain will disrupt the real estate industry just like Uber, AirBnB and Amazon have taxis, hotels and shopping malls. Shockingly even the Cook County Illinois Recorder of Deeds has a blockchain pilot program!

Without the enabling environment of clear laws, transparent and equitable policies, and a cadre of educated and progressive property professionals, then the private sector will direct their investment to other countries. Pink Floyd had it right. “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”

Chickens

“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.” Lyric from song by Louis Jordan

Each day at noon and 4 pm, Bambu Stage, a performance art collective from Cambodia performed “Angkor Roo” in the Exhibit Hall just across from the FIABCI Booth at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Roneat Aek (wooden xylophone) would fill the hall with music and the play about reducing plastic use would start. Each time Hen eats plastic waste and dies. Roo prays for her to be brought back to life. The Goddess promises to do so if the people will reduce their plastic use.

One afternoon the women of SDI (Shack Dwellers International) began to sing at 4 pm and the hall filled with competing rhythms and sounds – African and Indian women, a Cambodian Ensemble. Standing in the FIABCI booth promoting affordable housing solutions from the Netherlands, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brazil and Nigeria, I was truly a world citizen.

Outside the Exhibit Hall, I heard about Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs) where the government drafts their Master Plan for development, decides what they want to build, where they want it and then asks the private sector to come in and fund the projects. Too late. Involve the private sector more from the start and you’ll get more than a polite handshake and “we’ve got other priorities” from the developers.

I also heard about how a NGOs has developed a clever tool for mapping 25% of the slums in Bangladesh – right down to every single person, shack, toilet and unauthorized shop. They were eager to share this data with other NGOs, but not the people they exploited for their colorful maps. The maps reminded me of the Redlining Maps of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation of the 1930s that continue to define where the bullets fly in Chicago.

Alternately I heard about how women in Uganda were trained to collect and use their own data. IHC Global presented the initial findings of “Using Data to Support Women’s Rights: Property Markets and Housing Rights through a Gender Equity Lens”, a pilot project that we are working on together. “Women can’t be in real estate because it’s a man’s job and they don’t have access to the informal places where business transactions typically happen, such as bars or clubs,” was one opinion expressed in the field research.

Goal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030. To make this happen add another “P” to PPPs – People. Stop thinking of the poor and marginalized groups as the problem. They are the solution. Stop extracting the new gold of data from marginalized groups and draw fewer maps. Pay attention to the chickens.

Homesick

Sitting on a bar stool at BNA (Berry Field Nashville) on my way back to ORD (Orchard Field – Chicago), I chatted up the young man next to me. He was headed back to Milwaukee from Middle Tennessee on the same flight. After small talk, he said that he came back because he was homesick. Homesick. When he said the word, my heart exploded.

I had just spent the last three days traversing the backroads of my childhood. My niece took this photo of my New Year’s Declaration from the Berlin Pulpit Rock. Jacksonian U.S. President’s James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson made campaign speeches from this stone next to Big Cave Spring. Land a few hundred yards from the Spring still belongs to my uncle and was where my mother suffered with polio. I remember the scars on her legs. We also visited two other now abandoned family farms.

The Marshall County Historical Museum takes the place of the elementary school auditorium where I learned to say the Pledge and “Yes, Sir.” “No, Sir.” “Thank you, Ma’am.” I walked past my kindergarten and first grade classrooms now given over to other civic duty. With the curator, I corrected the false assumption that I was now an Asian art appraiser.

As we slip further and further into mediated reality, we lose more and more physical connections with each other and with the environment. We become homesick. Our current crises – opioid epidemic, obsessions with imaginary enemies, economic segregation – are clear symptoms of longing for a time that was. The limestone and cedar of my hometown were a great tonic. I’m proud of where I came from. There is no going back. Everyone is better served if we forge ahead.

Respect

“If you realize what the real problem is – losing yourself, giving yourself to some higher end, or to another – you realize that this itself is the ultimate trial. When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.” Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, The Hero’s Adventure Chapter

We live in a pluralistic society. We have become so diverse we are quite literally bursting at the seams. When Buddhists are committing genocide, then we have a much larger problem than one dysfunctional government or the ravings of one impotent leader. Technology has distributed power to the many and the few are desperate to hold on to their privilege.

When power – money, access, influence – is centralized, respect is demanded by the leaders and given enthusiastically by the toadies and reluctantly by the fringe. The privileged power party runs along with excess. Respect for laws, women, honor, the natural world and wisdom falls away as the core rots from the inside. Corruption soon becomes the norm and the truth must be distorted, suppressed or redefined to preserve perverted power.

Into this bacchanal a hero is born. The hero does not attack the old potentate or bang on the walls of the crumbling establishment. The heroine founds the new. With the power available to each of us today, whether through instant global communication, the sharing economy, or myriad opportunities to respect our disparate neighbors and lift them up; we all have the choice: to stay on the current vicious path and relate only to our coterie and concentrate on our own protection or to take up the hero’s path and open the way to better more respectful world through dialog and engagement.

Change

“Change is the only constant.” Heraclitus

During a fitful sleep on my recent Asia trip, this quote surfaced in my dream. I had delivered my lecture in Kuala Lumpur and was in Busan, Korea preparing for a presentation at the FIABCI Asia Pacific Real Estate Congress. I also had another lecture planned in Honolulu on the way stateside. Many real estate professionals remain remarkably resistant to change in spite of clear evidence that the world is leaving them behind.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Darwin

Developers glom on to the latest trend and brokers hustle to sell yet another luxury condo tower to foreign investors to sit empty while the affordable housing crisis continues apace. I look outside my window and see the eighth construction crane erected while a man shuffles to his shared living space under the highway bridge. Another man comes out and gets on his bike to make his way in the city. Periodically the state highway department arrives to clear out their debris.

“Dire things are happening. Plague? Funny weather? Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news? Only to enforce our fancy – probably a necessary lie – that these are crucial times, and we are in on them. Newly revealed, and I am in the know: crazy people, bunches of them! New diseases, sways in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?” Annie Dillard

We need to take a step back and realize that the fall of this dynasty is no more or less important, disgusting, savage, putrid or frightening than the ones that came before. We only feel it more because it’s ours.

Women

“And our sons must become men – such men as we hope our daughters born and unborn, will be pleased to live among. Our sons will not grow into women. Their way is more difficult than that of our daughters for they must move away from us, without us. Hopefully our sons have what they have learned from us, and a howness to forge it into their own image.” Audre Lourde, Sister Outsider p. 73

As we watch the malevolence currently precipitated by our fathers and our brothers groping for their manhood in paramilitary mobs, I was reminded of this book of essays by Audre Lourde, the black feminist poet. In one essay she describes catching herself teaching her son how to hate – how men aren’t supposed to feel – when he came home from school after being bullied. She realized her initial reaction to her son’s tears was to train him to be what our culture defines as a man – a person trapped in dependency and fear.

I am currently working on the Uganda Property Markets Scorecard – Conditions for Women and researching decades of denying women property rights. Systems still deny women access to property and power even decades after laws have been changed. Is the system really any better in the developed world? How can it be that straight white men continue to be threatened by the rise of everyone else? What role did women have in creating these men?

Women primarily shaped my vision of the world and taught me how to think and create. I am forever grateful for the women who continue to push me to be a better man. Yet somehow I am still afraid.

Ghana Seminar

Democracy

“Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

Recently I conducted a seminar on the International Property Markets Scorecard for Members of the Parliament of Ghana and the Ghana Real Estate Professionals Association. “Why is democratic representation included in the indicators for effective governance? someone asked. “While we are at it, we might as well ask if capitalism is the best economic system.” I parried.

With paragons of capitalism holding both the office of President of the United States and the Governor of the State of Illinois, I am forced to reexamine my proselytization of free private enterprise as the system to be emulated around the world.

Is the system of capital distribution in a country where 45% of the voting age population don’t or can’t vote for President better than a system where a Tribal Chief controls the land and thus the economic opportunity? What about countries that only emerged from colonization in the last century? Should they copy the economic systems of their colonizers?

Now is the time to return to Common Sense. Founding Father and pamphleteer Thomas Paine rallied the people during the overthrow of tyranny. Liberty and independence are fought for and won, not handed down from the oligarchy. Today with the oligarchy holding the reins of the media, politics, banking, education, health care, even food distribution; where can we look for rebels?

Equity

Ten years ago when I was last in Catalonia, Spain was in the midst of a housing bubble. In a media interview at the time, I objected to the term bubble. Burst bubbles don’t reinflate. Value cycles through expansion, contraction, recession and recovery. Both in Spain and the US, everyone generally ignored this basic economic principle and made decisions based on the fallacy that property value always goes up. Once the “bubble burst” housing markets in Spain and the US froze.

At the 68th FIABCI World Congress last month in Andorra, Juan Velayos the CEO of Neinor Homes gave an excellent report on how his company virtually restarted the Spanish housing market. And again the answer was simple – equity. Markets and household collapse when they are overleveraged. To use an overused phrase, “you need skin in the game”. Yet right now some guy on the radio is telling me I’d be a sucker to put 20% down. He will give me a mortgage for 5% down.

Aside from these basic economic truths however, Mr. Velayos provided keen insight into the structural problems of housing markets worldwide. Housing markets are not institutionalized, housing markets are not industrialized and housing developers ignore their customers. One of the most important drivers of both personal and national wealth remains largely a mom and pop shop.

Even in the developed world, housing markets lack formality and structure. Lessons learned from one developer to another, from one city to another, from one form of finance to another are not passed on and distributed and tested through a system. Neinor Homes was successful by applying the principles of institutionalization to housing markets including transparency, risk rating and strict adherence to policy.

With an acute worldwide housing shortage, home building continues to be more craft than industry. Tons and tons of debris are created tearing down old structures and creating new ones. With all the technical advances in most every other industry, the housing industry touts the ability to turn on your lights remotely as innovation while continuing to inefficiently build the same boxes that have been built for centuries.

Finally most builders don’t care what you want to buy. They build what is most profitable. Customers are so used to this lack of client focus that they are happy to spend their time comparing one indistinguishable box to another. Now is the time for equity in housing markets, both equity in capital and equity in opportunity.

Agency

“There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

Reading J.D. Vance’s book on a childhood like mine got me searching for this photo of the Berlin Methodist Church in Berlin, TN. US President James K. Polk spoke from a rock near the Berlin Spring. My mother was born only a few hundred yards away.

The book made me think about my journey from poor white trash to big city elite – a journey that started before I was born in a small southern town with plentiful factory jobs. How did I get my belief in my agency? What supportive systems were in place in the 1970’s when I was a pup that are now long gone?

Certainly there are times when we need an agent with more knowledge and access to help us achieve our goal. However today many people’s knowledge and access are restricted not by any external force, but by the choices they make.

The fellow in the photo with the basket of gladiolas has one foot on the ground and one foot in the air. He is supported by a strong community who told him that he has what it takes.