All posts by Toni Tileva

A Solid Foundation: Why has the housing market weathered the economic downturn so well?

My article for the Kogod School of Business

A wave of pandemic-induced uncertainty has thrown a pall over America’s economic performance, yet one sector remains a defiant shade of rose against a generally dark background. Why are home sales rebounding so quickly, with some locations reporting a return to the days of bidding wars? Is this a meaningful and lasting trend or simply a function of limited data from which to draw conclusions? “I think everyone in the industry is asking themselves what the new normal will be after such a cataclysmic event,” says Professor Steven Teitelbaum, who teaches Kogod’s Real Estate Development class and works in transit-oriented development and smart growth.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, home sales fell by 8.5 percent as potential buyers lost their jobs, contended with economic uncertainty, or simply avoided moving due to health concerns. Existing home sales in April fell by almost 18 percent, but prices rose 7.4 percent compared to a year ago.

What could explain why basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply here? A huge drop in demand should put downward pressure on prices as the market sways in the buyers’ favor. But in this case, while demand dropped, so did supply. Sellers withdrew from the market for the same reasons that buyers did. New home listings fell dramatically after the stay-at-home orders, with estimates ranging from 29 percent to higher than 50 percent.

The drops in supply and demand were generally proportional to each other, but the lower number of transactions made it more difficult to analyze how prices moved in aggregate. “Data is so scarce that one blip sends things teetering toward one end or the other. It is hard to come by meaningful averages,” explains Teitelbaum.

Limited housing supply is likely to be a more prominent issue in certain areas. The pandemic has also affected new build construction. Professor Kim Luchtenberg, professor of finance and real estate, says, “The DC area will remain relatively sheltered from a real estate sector downturn because housing is in such limited supply. This will keep prices high, so buyers will not see much change.”

The number of homes listed for sale in the DC metro area dropped more than 37 percent compared to April 2019, resulting in the lowest inventory in the past 10 years.

A decrease in overall home sales has a number of effects. Home sales generate much spin-off economic activity. Local governments rely on revenue from deed transfer taxes to fund public services. Occupations like real estate agents, home inspectors, and other agents lose streams of income, as do support services like moving companies, furniture and appliance stores, landscapers, and maintenance technicians.

From a social perspective, people often buy homes when relocating for work, having children, getting married, or downsizing for retirement. An economic downtown that makes homeownership inaccessible may delay many of these milestones. For example, the Great Recession caused delayed household formation among young adults.

A much more grave concern is what will happen to the homeowners affected by the general economic downturn. “Foreclosures and mortgage defaults are sure to happen once the protection period ends,” says Luchtenberg. No one is sure how this will affect the real estate industry or the economy as a whole.

With so much turmoil in the stock markets and retail and hospitality real estate markets, plus general economic uncertainty, are investors attracted to the seemingly untouchable residential real estate sector? Luchtenberg and Teitelbaum concur that this trend is afoot, but in an unusual permutation—investment in single-family home rentals. This was the case immediately following the 2008 collapse, and currently, these kinds of rentals are one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles both for large corporations and individual investors. “The second-best option to owning a home is renting a single-family unit. Investors see that,” says Teitelbaum. Luchtenberg is currently writing a research paper on this phenomenon as well.

While understanding the “new normal” seems like an impossible proposition, in the DC area, at least, the old normal of a robust residential real estate market remains.

The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project Book Review

My review  for the Washington Independent Review of Books

An in-depth look at the export of conservative Islamic teachings from the Arabian Peninsula.

The term “soft power” is ubiquitous enough that it has long left the international relations arena behind and moved into public discourse. It seems intuitive that changing hearts and minds is a much less costly and subtle route to hegemony. But what sort of work is soft power and what sort of an export is ideology?

Krithika Varagur’s The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project is an incisive, salient, and comprehensive exploration of the sort of philanthropy that comes with a heaping side of religious proselytizing. Varagur brilliantly captures the complexities and contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s export (intentional or incidental) of Salafism and portrays soft power for what it really is — messy, highly unpredictable, and a far cry from the puppet-master-like characterization it has recently received.

The author offers three case studies on three continents: Indonesia (where she lived for several years); Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram; and Kosovo, which has the dubious honor of having “contributed more foreign fighters per capita to ISIS than any other country in Europe.”

It would be wrong to characterize this book as a “follow the money” exposé, all the more so because that trail has been cold for decades. Money is no longer flowing as it once did; Mohammed bin Salman, the new Saudi prince, seems especially uninterested in the grand dawa pursuits of his predecessors. Instead, Varagur’s journalistic acumen shines in her interviews with imams, government leaders, students, and the media, and in her own observations.

Dawa refers to the call or invitation to Islam, akin to mission work. The State Department estimates that as much as $10 billion has gone to charitable organizations as part of the Saudi dawa. Saudi Arabia’s Dawa Ministry has a staff of over 9,500 people, a $1.86 billion budget, and is responsible for dawa, as well as the maintenance of mosques inside the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s dawa project reached apotheosis following the 1973 oil embargo, which made the kingdom flush with petrol wealth. The Islamic University of Medina, built by King Faisal in the 1960s, brought its students into the Wahhabi fold. The oil money went toward such large projects in Indonesia as, for example, a university, a large Saudi embassy, and the presence of a “religious attaché.”

“Wahhabism is a movement within Sunni Islam named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century preacher who sought to purify his faith of the idolatrous and blasphemous practices that he thought corrupted the austere monotheism at the heart of Islam,” writes Varagur. Wahhabism lent the Saud family the religious legitimacy necessary to entrench the monarchy and shelter it from more global influences, like that of Pan-Arabism or socialism.

Varagur presents both the dim view of Salafism and its appeal (Wahhabism is a Saudi-specific term; its outside counterpart is called Salafism). Its obsession with minutiae — like how to pray, what music (if any) to listen to, and whether to take pictures with cats — speaks to its conservatism.

The flipside of what Varagur calls its small-mindedness is its austere simplicity and, she astutely points out, its accessibility: Doctrinal knowledge comes directly from texts, which are nowadays available online and simple enough to not require a mediator.

Although Saudi dawa has waned in influence and investment, The Call demonstrates how ideological ecosystems take on a life of their own. The influence of Salafism is much more apparent now, perhaps because the problematic link between charitable aid and religious indoctrination is equally so.

For example, Saudi dawa helped rebuild the Ache and other regions of Indonesia devastated by the 2004 tsunami, gaining a foothold for its puritanical brand of Islam. Indonesia, a modern and tolerant Islamic society, now has an anti-Shia league, and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been driven into refugee camps.

Perhaps one small shortcoming of The Call is Varagur’s failure to draw parallels between Christian development organizations and the rise of intolerant Christianity abroad (Nigeria comes to mind). She remains steadfastly focused on Salafism, when situating her argument into a larger context might have served it.

Ultimately, Varagur argues, the intersection between political Islam and the public sphere is complicated. But three consequences, in all of her case studies, are that an educated class of Salafi scholars, who then shape the local religious landscapes, emerged; there is rancorous intolerance against Shia and Sufi Muslims; and there is greater popular consumption of Salafi books and media worldwide. A turn toward fundamentalism breeds an environment of intolerance and strife.

“The Saudi project,” she writes, “can be chaotic and full of contradictions.” So has been the response of the rest of the world to it. In the past, the West was all too happy about the way in which conservative Islam served as a counterweight to leftism and communism and stabilized the monarchy’s control of the region. But the West has also mistakenly attributed myriad conflicts in the region to historical theological differences, which are actually fairly modern and political in their origin.

Krithika Varagur writes with the precision and nuance of a seasoned journalist. The Call is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the complicated history of the Saudi state and its religious missions. The book also raises questions about the uneasy and problematic connection between aid and proselytizing.

Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavich Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A breathtaking series of insights into people who are “becoming.”

Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short-story collection, Verge: Stories, is an incandescent testimonial about lives spent on the margins, on the cusp, on the edge, on the periphery, on the frontier, on the birthing place…of something.

Or everything. Or nothing at all.

Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. “Who amongst us can see a self,” she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.

“The Pull” is set on a capsizing raft of refugees in the Aegean Sea — the people “a wave of other leavers.” Those left behind “never swim another lap toward their futures.” Two children who had been on the swim team back home (and, as the author so pointedly writes, are from a reality that has neither a future nor a past) tie the raft to their feet and swim toward shore: “This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.”

This is exactly the kind of parsimony that marks Yuknavitch’s writing — the pathos is in the pith-os, I would like to think.

“The Organ Runner,” a story about an 8-year-old who literally runs organs between seemingly disparate yet intimately sewn-together bodies in dark streets, is equally relentless in its quiet condemnation of us:

“Whatever money — that thing more valuable than a body, or a people, or a nation — had changed hands was worth more than the life of one homeless creature in this newsless, powerless, invisible country.”

The author is neither political nor polemic, but her witness-bearing will disquiet readers. The simile “he held one arm against his body like a broken wing” is a trenchant commentary on dehumanizing others in a literal and figurative sense. And again, the author makes clear the damning, if not always apparent, connections tying the globalized world together: “Kiril would die but not by her hand. Or he would die by all of our hands.”

“Second Language” takes this tacit condemnation to a crescendo; the story will hold you hostage long after you finish it. The protagonist is a nameless, sex-trafficked child locked in a house near a freeway (anything but free to her) and “delivered like a card-board box from a UPS truck, sifted through by rummaging hands like recycling,” along with other “girl popsicles.”

To the outside world, she is a ghost, barely even noticed by the “disaffected latte pity” gaze. Her “bodyworth” is the only thing concrete about her — that, and a story in a foreign language. A fairytale, told in a grim and otherworldly tongue, which lulls the popsicle girls to sleep: “Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”

Speaking of language, the author is a masterful writer of towering genius. Her comparisons are so intricate, yet heavy, they often require a reread. A drug addiction is “four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.” “He builds the fire like a new faith for all the white (snow) against them.” “She aches to summer over into a different life.” “The streets are clean and cured and uncultured — no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant.”

Yuknavitch is also eloquent in her depiction of women. The female protagonists are on the run, gnashing and trashing and aching to tell their stories in their own language. She compares a “street walker” to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” But she is no saint, just an “ordinary woman eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” Another character is “on the edge like Ophelia, rewriting her ending.”

Verge is enthralling and should garner Yuknavitch much-deserved acclaim. It is the author’s answer to the question, “Does it hurt more to keep the secrets or to tell them?” While her characters may be on the edge of the storyline, in the dark corners of the nightly news, residing in a forgotten, misshapen geography, speaking in tongues, the book reminds you that you know these people; that you are bound to these people; that you are these people.

Pain Studies Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

If you think poets shouldn’t dabble in nonfiction, Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The book has moments so contrived that the reader might wryly observe the title as apropos.

Olstein, a poet, writes this book as a rumination on the nature of pain, riffing on her experience with migraines that she describes as “a headache that lasted three months acute-chronic, chronic-acute.”

When the author leans on her poetic skill, the outcome is beautiful, captivating prose that bleeds and thrums: “Left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your finger into.”

But when she waxes more philosophical, the reader is left baffled at best and groaning at worst. For example, there is an entire chapter on the color of pain. And navel-gazing moments like this one: “Drowning, live pain, has a way of flooding you with the present.”

When Olstein stops taking herself so seriously, she makes insightful (and incisive) observations about what we mean when we talk about pain. Her deadpan lines — “We’re notoriously bad at talking about it, even literally, as in, do you have it, how much, what kind” — will leave readers nodding enthusiastically.

Her accounts of dealing with various healers are equally wry and amusing. She uses an example of good medicine as someone who asks her whether she has found anything that increases the pain, rather than decreasing it. And we can all relate to the humor behind well-meaning advice that fails to deliver: “She’s visibly disappointed I report back miracleless.”

Some of the choices that Olstein makes, however, will confound more than cheer. She dedicates no less than two chapters to Joan of Arc. Why? Because “Joan’s refusal to translate her experience into acceptable terms” is apparently analogous to the trials of pain sufferers, and because “she was a woman surrounded by prying, know-it-all men who pelted her with questions.”

Readers may be willing to hang their coats on such flimsy pegs, but Olstein doesn’t stop there. Exploring the work of obscure philosophers like Antiphon the Sophist will, again, do no favors for those wanting to deny the characterization of poetry as affected and decadent.

Then, we have a whole chapter on the TV show “House.” While the program’s exploration of pain makes this rumination salient, in today’s rapidly moving pop-culture zeitgeist, it feels quite dated to discuss a show that ended in 2012.

Eyebrow-raising choices aside, however, the book is incredibly creative in its style, seamlessly suturing together poetry, journal entries, and discourse analysis. Olstein’s strength as a poet imbues her prose, too, even when it manifests in lists: “Opium poppy, ordeals, orthopedist, Ovid.”

The poems included in Pain Studies are vivid and enthralling. And Olstein’s portraits of how others respond to her pain are compelling and relatable. But could this unconventional meditation have benefited from ditching the obscure references and morose gravitas? A resounding yes.

The Hidden Cost of the Hustle–Faculty and Director of the Kogod Tax Policy Center Caroline Bruckner hones in on the tax consequences of gig work.

By Toni Tileva | 
In September 2019, California became the first state in the country to pass a labor law aimed primarily at Uber and Lyft drivers that extends wage and benefit protections to about a million gig workers. California Governor Gavin Newsom wrote an op-ed arguing that when workers are classified as independent contractors rather than as employees, they lose basic benefits such as minimum wage, paid sick days, and health insurance. And their employers do not contribute to safety net programs like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, leaving, as Gov. Newsom pointedly stated, “taxpayers holding the bag.”Going a step further to address Social Security shortfalls, on December 19, 2019, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (NM-01), vice chair of the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, introduced a groundbreaking bill called the Gig Is Up Act that would require companies that gross at least $100 million and employ at least 10,000 independent contractors to pay the full cost of both the employer contribution and the worker contribution to Social Security and Medicare.“My research shows that gig workers can be in a very precarious economic situation, with most of them working gigs as a supplemental source of income,” Bruckner says. “For many, their low incomes keep them from having other investment vehicles, and they rely solely on Social Security for their retirement. Not getting their just dessert, so to speak, is an unforeseen and not often discussed consequence of contractor and gig economy work.”

The gig economy is notoriously hard to quantify, with estimates stating non-traditional work arrangements account for anywhere between 0.1% of full-time employment to 34%. According to the Freelancing in America survey, there are a reported 57 million American freelancers (counting on-demand and independent contractors) contributing in excess of $1 trillion dollars to the economy each year. Yet, their hustle can perhaps best be characterized as a struggle rather than a success, with little worker rights protection, unpredictable compensation, and intermittent work. The “on demand” nature of the work makes it just that—reliant on the customers’ and employers’ demands rather than the workers’.

In her recent book Hustle and Gig, sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle argues that “for all its app-enabled modernity, the gig economy resembles the early industrial age…the sharing economy is truly a movement forward to the past.” While much research has been conducted on the size and growth trajectory of the freelancer industry, little scholarship examines the often unintended tax consequences affecting the workers and the economy writ large.

“Self-employed workers already have tax compliance and reporting issues, but the existing reporting rules further precipitate their failure to contribute to Social Security and Medicare through payment of the self-employment tax (SE tax),” explains Bruckner.

The tricky part is that companies that use contract workers aren’t required to send out a 1099-MISC unless they have paid that person $600 or more in a given tax year. On-demand workers who are paid by platforms usually get a 1099-K form, which companies use when a contractor has performed at least 200 transactions over the course of the year and has received at least $20,000 in payments. But, often, gig workers don’t receive any tax forms at all, leaving them on the hook to figure out how much they’ve earned over the past year and accurately report it to the IRS.

“Workers who don’t get tax forms from their employers need to figure out their earnings on their own. It is not as though they are intending to break tax laws, but many of them are simply not aware of what the self-employment tax covers and are short changing their Social Security earnings upon retirement in this way.”

Independent contractors and gig economy workers also do not make tax payments through withholding by their employers during the year and have to figure out estimated quarterly tax payments on their own. Not making those quarterly payments can translate to penalties and increases their audit exposure. “This isn’t just about gig workers underreporting their income tax, although this is a way to quantify the tax gap for the IRS and get their attention on the issue,” says Bruckner. “The consequences of the shortfall are twofold: it affects the funding and solvency of Social Security and translates to lower Social Security benefits for these workers upon retirement.”

In their recent “Failure to Contribute” research project, funded by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Professor Bruckner and economist Thomas L. Hungerford estimate that, in 2014, independent contractors didn’t pay $3.9 billion in Social Security contributions that they should have, and on-demand workers didn’t pay $2 billion.

Bruckner has actively raised this issue with the IRS and given testimony on Capitol Hill. The Failure to Contribute report suggests Congress could take steps to modernize information reporting, update quarterly estimated payment requirements, and require better taxpayer education. Ultimately, these strategies should focus on the independent contractor economy generally and the on-demand/gig workforce in particular. “We need strategies to encourage people to buy into the system,” says Bruckner. “This is why tax policy needs to be accessible.”

With a $50,000 grant from the Wharton School of Business and Pension Research Council, Bruckner plans to continue her research with a study examining how women are using the gig economy to make up for retirement shortfalls. “This next phase of research will be ground-breaking in that it focuses on women specifically, who tend to live longer and have higher healthcare costs,” explains Bruckner. “Because women have been subject to the pay gap or had to take time out of the paid work force,  considering their retirement needs and how gig economy work is a strategy for shoring up retirement savings shortfalls is the logical extension of my existing work looking at the gig economy and its implications for Social Security.”

Citizen K Movie Review

My review for On Tap magazine

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence.

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

My article for On Tap magazine

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

‘Tis the season for paying it forward, so we decided to put together a list of 15 ways to give back to the DC community year-round. Our handpicked list is chock-full of unique organizations eager to put new volunteers’ hands and minds to novel uses. Read on for a list of creative ways you can give more of yourself to those in need around the District.

Restore the Anacostia Watershed

Eco-minded folks can help restore wetlands, plant native plants, collect seeds and much more, all while learning about the watershed and its ecosystem.
www.anacostiaws.org/how-to-help/volunteer.html

Put Down Roots with Casey Trees

Channel your inner tree-hugger through a variety of opportunities, from tree planting and tree care to advocacy.
www.caseytrees.org

Get Your Hands Dirty with Columbia Heights Green

Put your green thumb to good use at Columbia Heights Green, one of many participating parks and gardens in the Community Harvest Program at Washington Parks & People.
www.columbiaheightsgreen.org

Show Compassion & Offer Advocacy through HIPS

Donate to and/or volunteer with HIPS (Harm Reduction Experts Improving Lives Since 1993), offering compassionate harm reduction services and advocacy to people who engage in sex work or drug use in the DC area.
www.hips.org

Expand Your Practice with Yoga Activist

Are you a yoga teacher who wants to take the practice outside of the confines of traditional studio spaces? Yoga Activist is the place to do it.
www.yogaactivist.org

Knit It Forward in the District

Do you stay calm and knit on? Join one of many knitting meetups held at DC Public Library locations and/or donate your handknitted items to a variety of charities.
www.dclibrary.org // www.lionbrand.com/blog/10-charities-for-knitters-and-crocheters

Feed the Hungry with So Others Might Eat

Help provide nourishing breakfasts for those in need. They use real eggs, too – none of that powder stuff.
www.some.org

Provide a Fitness Framework for Girls on the Run

Volunteer with the DC chapter of this national nonprofit dedicated to making a world where every girl is free to boldly pursue her dreams through running. Support students during a 10-week program to help them establish an appreciation for health and fitness.
www.gotrdc.org

Dress to Impress with Suited for Change

Help local women entering the job market dress to impress through a variety of volunteering and donating options, including leading a styling workshop.
www.suitedforchange.org

Support Senior Citizens at We Are Family

Help isolated senior citizens with groceries, cleaning, transportation or just a friendly visit. Make a new friend this season by joining We Are Family.
www.wearefamilydc.org

Save the Felines with Alley Cat Rescue

The trap-neuter-return program at Alley Cat can make life on the streets a little more bearable for our furry friends. Donate to the rescue or adopt one of their many cuddle bugs.
www.saveacat.org

Be a Classroom Volunteer at Carlos Rosario International

Volunteer in adult ESL, culinary, IT and health classes and programs at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, and/or join as a mentor through the Impact Mentorship Program.
www.carlosrosario.org/get-involved/volunteers-2

Mentor Families with Northstar Tutoring

Tutor, mentor and help support members of low-income families in DC through Northstar Tutoring.
www.northstartutoring.org

Help the Homeless at Friendship Place

Help people in need transition out of homelessness at Friendship Place through a variety of volunteer roles, from mentoring to cleaning.
www.friendshipplace.org

Go Pro Bono with the D.C. Bar

If you’re a DC lawyer, you can give back by providing a variety of pro bono legal services.
www.dcbar.org/pro-bono/volunteer

Coach Soccer with DC Scores

Score a winning goal by helping coach and referee soccer games.
www.dcscores.org/volunteer

Homewreckers Book Review

My review of Aaron Glantz’ book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream

Washington Independent Review of Books

December 5, 2019
This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”

What Are the Odds? A computational neuroscientist and Kogod adjunct scores a career as a data scientist with the NBA.

So much of our everyday life involves making predictions—from picking the best route for our morning commute to bringing an umbrella to choosing a partner. “We predict all the time, so the process is natural,” says Grant Fiddyment, adjunct professor of predictive analytics at Kogod and data scientist for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same way we interact with technology and the world. For instance, how can I phrase my web search so that the site will match what I’m looking for? How can I pronounce a word so that a virtual assistant will understand what I’m saying? Without knowing the technical details, we implicitly learn how these technologies work.”

What is predictive analytics, and how does it offer us a glimpse into the future?

At its most fundamental level, the discipline calculates the likelihood of future events by simply (although many would cry foul at this characterization) counting the possible outcomes. Its foundations were laid in a 1654 letter exchange between French mathematicians Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal discussing how the winnings of a coin-flipping gambling game should be split. And while we all know that the house always wins in Vegas, few would know to credit Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers from 1713 as the reason why.

Despite predictive analytics’ old roots, it is responsible for many facets of modern-day life we give little thought to—things like credit card fraud detection, virtual chess partners, and, of most interest to Fiddyment, creating professional sports super teams.

Grant Fiddyment's headshot.

As a data scientist on the research and development team for the 76ers, Fiddyment helps frame and analyze the predictive questions that arise in sports—for example, how will signing a new player impact a team’s title odds, or how well will a tall lineup play against a smaller, quicker one?

Predictive analytics has long been used in sports, going back to the analog days of yore. Baseball has historically led the movement. One of the most famous success stories is told in the movie Moneyball, which follows 2002 Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he uses predictive analytics to hire under-valued players and send his team on a crowd-wowing 20-game winning streak. But the methods developed in Oakland have application across all sports.

“Most teams were asking, ‘How often does a batter get a hit when they go to bat?’ Instead, the A’s asked, ‘How many bases does a player get when they go to bat?’ Looking at total bases turns out to be more predictive of how many runs a team will score,” explains Fiddyment. “Similarly, in the NBA, teams used to ask how often a player will make a shot. But this overlooks the fact that all shots are not equal. So now teams are asking, ‘How many points will a player get when they take a shot?’”

In the past decade the number of three-point shots in the NBA has increased. Is the rise just due to random luck or is it part of a well-crafted strategy? Fiddyment and other fellow data scientists employed full-time by sports teams work to answer new questions like these. He credits the invention of video tracking as the proverbial game changer. “Chip or camera-based systems will follow players as they actively play a sport, and the data we get is much more nuanced than a single-number summary,” says Fiddyment. “For example, we can answer how many pick-and-rolls the team ran last game or how open were the shots they generated. We can analyze the individual and team as a whole.”

At the moment, this kind of data collection is limited to professional teams, making it difficult to spot up-and-coming superstars. “College and international teams typically don’t have the same camera systems, so projecting which players will become successful remains a very challenging problem,” Fiddyment says.

Despite rapid advancements in technology, however, not all data is created equal—or, perhaps, equally useful. The limitations of data translate to limitations in predictive accuracy (as meteorologists can confirm). “We need to be aware of computers’ strengths and weaknesses,” Fiddyment advises. “Computers can process vast amounts of data much more quickly than humans ever could. But they are restricted to the data they have and operate very literally, so we should never expect them to behave exactly like a human, even if they can match our performance at a given task.”

From the glitz of Vegas to the life-saving powers of storm forecasts to the way opinion polls affect voters, predictive analytics is ever-present in our lives. Advances in machine learning and big data models are improving our ability to look into the future, but they are also raising some thorny issues, one of the most notable being the boundaries of data privacy. For now, however, Fiddyment has scored a slam dunk for the NBA.