Rebuilding New Orleans

I'm back from New Orleans and have had some time to digest what we did and what we saw. After trying to come up with a way to understand and to organize my thoughts about what I experienced there, I am left with no concrete summary. I have no overarching understanding of where the city is or what it might look like a year from now, five years from now or how long it will take for New Orleans to be 'rebuilt.' My feeling is that New Orleans remains deeply wounded, and a year from now, much of the city will still be a mess.

Our time there was short and our contribution to the many homes being built as part of the Musicians' Village was relatively small. Our view of the city was limited- all of us were lucky enough to get tours outside of just the French quarter where we stayed and the Upper Ninth Ward where we worked, but in one week you can only do and see so much.

But we saw so much and contributed a great deal- much more than I thought we would.

At first we worked on a row of houses that were near completion and helped prepare an area of the worksite where at least a dozen homes were starting to go up- where it seemed like a new floor was being started every other day.

Later in the week, we worked on two houses: one just springing from the earth, the other perhaps two-thirds done. We each jumped into specific projects: fixing the flooring, soffit and fascia installation, painting the trim, etc. Mostly we jumped into the middle of ongoing projects and left before they were complete. Five days is a short time in terms of home building. Regardless, each day hundreds of volunteers from all over the country and right down the street, showed up in the early morning sun and hooked up with team leaders to pick up where the work left off the day before. We worked hard and each left our mark.

Photo by Jenna Logue

Our work with Habitat was more or less what I thought it would be. I did not know the exact work we would do, but the experience was not surprising except the size of the overall project. The number of homes being built at once and how scale impacted the experience of being onsite was more intense and a little less organized than I thought it would be. What I really did not anticipate at all was how our team of eight would interact, our encounters with Berklee alumni, how raw the wounds sustained during the flood still are and the response to our journey by people we met.

It would have been tough to predict how the eight of us would interact as few of us knew each other well before we left. I was surprised by how quickly everyone opened up. I imagine some of us are generally slower to warm up to new people than any of us were on this journey. All of us are very grateful for this opportunity, and I do not know what factors exactly enabled us to connect, coordinate and keep our energy so high from the first moment to the last. Adrenaline, gratitude, good people, good luck, great organization (Roya rocks!)- there were a lot of elements that came together to make things work so well, and I want to add my voice to the chorus of thanks to each of the seven traveling builders I shared this time with and to Berklee and each of the individual advocates who initiated and funded this opportunity.

Photo by Jenna Logue

Shortly after we were selected for this experience, we were notified of an alumni dinner we were to attend, planned for Wednesday night. Not being a Berklee Alumnus and not working in Alumni Affairs, I was not sure what to expect. What happened was a wonderful group of Berklee students from decades ago to 'coming this fall' showed up. We talked about recent changes at Berklee and they shared their stories: Berklee stories, Katrina stories, New Orleans stories and musician stories all overlapping and interwoven.

The memories of the flood, told by alumni, the police officer who gave us a ride home from the work site, and other people we encountered each day, are so fresh that you almost forget that almost 2 years have passed. Driving around parts of the city and seeing entire neighborhoods standing ruined and vacant, it is hard to believe that almost 2 years have passed.

The local news reported that 60 percent of the pre-flood population has returned. They measure this by the number of addresses receiving mail. By this standard, people living at addresses with homes that are totally uninhabitable but have FEMA trailers hooked up to the property's sewage and electricity are being included in the totals of 'people who have returned.' They may be back in New Orleans, or maybe they never left, but they are not yet home. I saw hundreds of examples of this and only drove around a few streets.

As the week went on and we met new people, a distinct pattern emerged. People wanted to tell their stories. The grief was still front and center in the telling. Us listening and being there, caring and wanting to hear, was deeply appreciated and when folks heard what we were doing, they were genuinely grateful. You imagine that when people hear you are volunteering to build affordable low income housing that they will say something like 'That's great' or 'Thanks for doing that' but the response I heard time and time again was that what people heard us describing was not just building housing for people who need help affording it. They heard that we traveled a long way to help rebuild a city that needs help and is not getting enough. They heard that we worked at a place that understood that this mattered enough to make it happen. Many of the people who thanked us will not benefit personally from what we did. They did not personally know anyone who would benefit directly. Many will probably never even see the Musicians' Village or ever travel through that particular part of the Upper Ninth Ward. But every 'thank you' was conveyed from someone who felt personally grateful. I think this comes in part from the rawness of the memories of the flood and loss each survivor suffered.

I think this also comes from the clear disconnect between the promises made after the disaster- promises that New Orleans would not be abandoned to what remained of her own devices- and the reality, which is that streets still lack street signs. Buses still rest on their sides. Intersections do not have traffic lights. Flotsam and jetsam is still washed up in piles, in alleys, in yards. Housing plots still hold carcasses of houses or stand void of anything save a concrete slab and tall weeds. Law enforcement is exhausted and the residents are exhausted. Spray painted warnings on shells of former homes warn that looters will be killed. A bartender we met one night described how her boyfriend was walking home the night before and had been shot at. Several musicians described how the more time passes without residents being able to recover and return in a timely manner, the more non-natives are moving into the city and booking the gigs that locals used to claim. Then, when former residents are able to return, they can't find work.

Photo by Jenna Logue

It is my hope that more people will find or create opportunities like the one Berklee created and that fresh political energy will either see the need and act out of obligation or, at the very least, recognize that fulfilling the promise to not abandon New Orleans is work that will more than pay for itself once started in earnest.

Photo by Jenna Logue

Our hammering, painting, pouring concrete and our listening was fulfilling work that gave us as much as it gave the soon-to-be homeowners who worked in the hot sun beside us and the survivors we met as we walked awhile in the cracked but not abandoned streets of New Orleans and the Parishes.

-Christopher Jones
June 2007


Last day in New Orleans

Last Friday was our last day on the work site. At the end of our trip, Carol from Denver gave us a tour of the Lower 9th Ward. We saw a bus, still on its side. Whole streets were completely cleared out. Only overgrown weeds remained. Other parts were coming back, but many, many residents are still living in trailers next to their homes.

We also took a quick tour of the Alfred Lawless Senior High School. Back in the day, this school was bustling with activity. Today, it remains uninhabitable.

So here is the house I was working on for the second half of the week. Just under the roof you can see the f channel- the thin white strip that the soffit fits into.

Here is out group on the last day!


Day 3 with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans

Today (tonight) is day 3 of our 5 day effort. Yesterday, we were greeted in the morning by one of the residents, Riccardo Crespo of the Musicians' Village we are working on.

He also played for us on his front porch during our lunch break!

Yesterday we continued to rearrange the work site but most of us also found some building related work. I helped set fence posts and will try and track down a photo of that later.

Today we showed up and managed to hook up with a crew working on two houses with a lot of remaining work.

I paired up with a couple of Memphians and we worked on installing fascia and soffit all day.

First we nailed in a strip, the length of the house. Then we started measuring out how wide to cut the pieces that go under the overhang (photo by R. Hochschild).

Kris, Roya, and Matt were hammering away at the foundation of the house next door. Roya is in the front with the black hat. Kris and Matt are wearing the yellow hard hats. Kris is in a blue shirt, Matt to her left in a white shirt, leaning over.

This evening we met up with a group of Berklee alumni and a few soon to be first year students for some food and conversation, which was a blast! Then we headed over to Frenchman street with a couple of Alumni and heard some excellent music...


I made the local news!

My local paper ran a story about this trip! I am quoted as saying that ""I know what a big hot Southern city on the Mississippi is like." My family has lived in Memphis for a couple of decades, but as much as I might be familiar with heat like we worked in today, or southern cooking and living next to the Mississippi, I know very little about New Orleans or about a city as wounded as this one, as I learn more and more each day.

Here are a couple of 'houses' on the same streets as the homes we are building.

The same news article quotes: "A lot of neighborhoods are still devastated," said Habitat for Humanity spokesman Aleis Tusa.. "It's strange to think two years later we have people living in FEMA trailers."

Strange to think, but true.

Day one with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans

We got up early in the morning and took a cab over to the Musicians' Village site. The project managers gave a safety talk and then tried to figure out which way to send us. There were several hundred volunteers and it was turning into the hottest day of the year so far (they told us) and they had an event planned for later in the day so I'm not sure they were as coordinated as usual.

Truth is, there was plenty of work to do in both directions!

Some sites are just getting foundations:

Other houses are almost done:

We spent most of the day moving supplies from around the homes near completion to the site just breaking ground.

In the afternoon, the first wall was raised on the 41st home in the project!


We Made it!

We took off from Boston the morning and made it to New Orleans early afternoon. We walked around the city a bit after we checked in to our hotel. More than one building, even in the French Quarter is in rough shape, but signs of construction are evident as well. Here is the view up a debris chute:

Buskers were doing their thing:

And sometimes, the passers by joined in!

We walked down Bourbon street on our way to get groceries for lunch tomorrow:

I'm off to sleep as we are getting up early to head to the Musicians' Village and see what our work for the week will be!

The entire team is contributing to a blog and some of these posts will appear there as well.


Heading to New Orleans!

I mentioned before that I am am going to New Orleans for a week with a group of my colleagues from Berklee College of Music to work with Habitat for Humanity on the Brandford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. inspired project to build a Musician's Village in the Upper 9th Ward.

Well I'm packing today and off tomorrow morning.

It has been a busy week as I have been preparing so I have mostly ignored the rollercoaster ride the portfolios I have been tracking on this site have taken over the last few days. I intend to continue to ignore the markets for a while longer and focus on this amazing opportunity. Part of the reason, my investing strategy is to (hypothetically) invest in a diverse group of mutual funds and setup a system of for continuous investing, is so I can ignore it when I need or want to and this is one of those times! Following the progress of individual stocks or companies requires much more continuous attention to news about those holdings as things can change pretty fast. If I had the time, inclination, or hypothetical finances I think I would need to follow such a strategy, I might give it a try. But I don't.

I was interviewed about my upcoming trip to New Orleans by my local paper this week and will link to the story when they run it.

Also, the eight of us going will be contributing to a blog about our experience and I will add the link to that here when we are ready to roll it out.

More about the trip soon!


What the heck is Janus Contrarian?

When I noted the market was tanking today, I decided to make my hypothetical investment for June in the second fund of the "WylieMoney Slowly" portfolio. In this portfolio I am adding one of the 20 funds I researched each month, starting in May 2007.

The second fund I originally chose was a Global Equity fund: MDISX.

Well according to Etrade, this fund is closed to new investors:

But according to Morningstar, this fund is not closed and is available through Etrade:

Regardless of whether this is a mistake on Etrade's site or not, getting someone to help you is not worth the effort.

So I decided to pick my original runner up, Janus Contrarian JSVAX. This brings me to the title for this post.

Back in November of 2006, it was open to new investors and it was categorized as World Stock or Global Equity. But tonight, as I look it up, it is not. Morningstar lists it as Large Blend which means it invests primarily in Large Cap American companies.

Morningstar also shows that it is a Large Cap Growth fund. Note the red dot.

But more curious to me is the allocation of 37.8% in non-American companies!

Why does this matter? Well funds are compared to their peers. So if your peers are domestic funds and you have been gaining profits from surging international markets, you are going to look great compared to your peers:

But if your peers are World Funds which invest in stocks all over the world, you are not likely to look as stellar:

Well MDISX is 70% invested in international companies so it certainly has more of an international focus now than JSVAX but JSVAX has a 39% turnover ratio so who knows what it looked like last December, much less what it will look like in 6 months.

Regardless, I'm calling it a Global Equity fund and I added it to the WylieMoney slowly portfolio tonight as of today's closing price.

Ummm Etrade... anybody there?

I went in to Etrade's Boston branch with a customer service question on May 25th, 2007.

Mutual Funds allow different amounts for "Additional Minimum Investments" and "Additional AIP Minimum Investments." Morningstar.com lists these differences and lists Etrade as a provider for which these minimums apply.

I tried to set up an AIP for SSEMX through Etrade's website and was told the minimum I needed to invest in the AIP was $1000, not the $100 listed on Morningstar's site. I called Etrade and was told that as soon as I paid the additional $1000 on top of the $2500 I already invested when I first bought the fund, THEN I would be able to lower the AIP to $100.

I then did research and other funds I own did not charge me an additinonal "Initial AIP Minimum", if I already owned the fund so what I was told was not consistently true in the interface.

So like I said, I went to the Branch office on 5/25/07 and explained the issue to a representative who understood, agreed that the answer I got over the phone was not consistent with what we saw in the interface and forwarded the question to people people who would be able to figure out what is going on.

I have yet to get a follow up.

I called the Boston Branch phone number a couple of times but have yet to reach a person. Today I left a message. Then I called Etrade's main customer service line and got a customer service rep who looked up the extension of the person I spoke with at the downtown Boston branch and gave it to me and I called that number and left a message.

Please call me and let me know the answer to my question- Why can't I set up an AIP plan using my funds "Additional AIP Minimum" amount of $100?

FYI- the AIP page on Etrade's site says "Automatic investments require a minimum investment of $100 or the fund minimum, whichever is greater."

Lazy Portfolio continues to catch up

With today's nice sell off, the Lazy portfolio made up more ground, but the WylieMoney portfolio held on to its tenuous lead with a 1.98% increase since I invested on May 1st.

I have added a summary over on the right which I will update going forward.

Today is the day I am adding fund #2

Today is the day I am adding fund #2 to the WylieMoney Slowly portfolio. Sadly, fund number 2, MDISX has closed to new investors through Etrade. It does not appear to have closed to new investors in general and Morningstar shows it available through Etrade, but you can't buy into it through their interface so I am adding a different fund (JSVAX). I'll explain more later tonight.


A chart for Ian

Ian gave me grief about a lack of charts so here you go. So far, everything is tracking pretty close together so the chart is not terribly informative. I did try to make it pretty...


Managed Mutual Funds, Index funds and ETFs...

...are going every which way these days. Since I first invested, the WylieMoney portfolio wins. Year to date, the Vanguard portfolio is ahead. And today, ETFs did the best. I will invest in fund #2 sometime this month when the time is right.

I am still waiting on a response from Etrade and will try and follow up tomorrow at lunch.

I'm also switching my employer sponsored retirement plan from one of our two options to the other. I'll explain why soon.

Finally, I leave for New Orleans this weekend and plan to write about the trip here!


Golden Gate National Recreational Area

A reader known as Sir Ack wrote in and asked about my Bunker picture and pointed out that it did not look like something you would find in Golden Gate Park. He was right and right to guess that I meant Golden Gate National Recreational Area! Thanks for pointing out my mistake!

I think this is where the bunker is, but if anybody has more info, please let me know:

map loading...


Yodlee hooks up with Zillow!

I have talked about Yodlee before. Let me re-iterate that this totally free service is amazing. I use it to keep track of over 20 accounts!

Now you are probably thinking that 20 accounts is a few too many, and I can understand that. But when you start to count each account you have, checking, savings, visa, discover card, Roth IRA, 401(k)/403(b), and then double that if you are married, you get up there pretty quick. When I bought my hybrid, I opened several credit cards with 0% balance transfers to get 0% financing over an extended period of time. So on and so forth. With a tool as nice as yodlee.com, why bother closing accounts?

So I have my mortgage set up in yodlee, and pay my bill each month there. But I had to create a custom entry and enter the estimated value of my home as a manual account to get a realistic picture of my finances overall. Until this week that is.

I was browsing around one night and saw a link called "Real Estate Center." I clicked it and there was an option to set up my address in a tool that automatically goes to zillow.com and grabs the estimate. If you own a home or are shopping for a home and have not checked out Zillow, you should. It complies local sales information and tabulates home values and contains tons of tons of great information on top of a really neat interface that uses google maps and microsoft's visual earth.

And like yodlee, zillow is free.

So now Yodlee goes out and grabs my account values as well as my home's estimated value and pulls all the info together and provides charts and graphs of changes in value, spending, and now equity in my home = zillow estimate - mortgage!

WylieMoney Portfolio continues to slide

Close call, but the Vanguard funds beat my picks by .02% today. My funds are still ahead since my 'purchase,' but year to date they are tied. ETFs continue to fall behind.