Tuesday PM March 23rd, 2010

Existing home sales fall for third straight month…Report factors transportation costs into housing affordability for "drive 'til you qualify" zones…Local officials push for more stringent maritime fuel standards at London meeting…


To embed this piece of audio in your site, please use this code:

<iframe src="" style="height: 115px; width: 100%;"></iframe>

Sales of existing homes fell for a third straight month in February, pushing sales down to the lowest level since last July. There is concern that the fragile housing rebound could falter, making it harder for the overall economy to recover. The National Association of Realtors said that sales of previously occupied homes dropped 0.6 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.02 million. The weakness in sales depressed prices with the median home price dropping by 1.8 percent from a year ago to $165,100.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Rockefeller Foundation have released their Housing + Affordability Index which factors transportation costs into housing affordability. The center’s president, Scott Bernstein, says we’ve been taught to keep housing costs at 30 per cent of income or less, but transportation costs can double the cost of a location.

“With this new index, we’re able to show that as people move further and further out seeking allegedly cheaper housing, the cost of transportation grows to equal–or even in some cases, even exceed–the cost of housing. And it works the other way around. It’s possible to pay more for housing if your cost of transportation drops faster than the cost of housing increases.”

Bernstein says the study shows that for many families in “drive ’til you qualify” zones, savings realized from lower cost housing are eliminated by unexpectedly high transportation costs. Families could be susceptible to foreclosure as gas prices rise. His group calls for universal consumer information disclosure that factors in transportation costs with real estate costs.

Local officials are petitioning the International Maritime Organization, meeting in London this week, to accept the EPA’s application to establish more stringent fuel and engine standards for large ships. The Port of Houston Authority and the City of Houston have submitted letters of support, and Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia pleads the case in a Web video.

“This initiative, I think, is important because there’s only so much that local governments and local government officials like myself can do in controlling and enforcing pollution laws in our area. There’s only so much that states can do that, quite frankly, it comes to the point where it’s important that countries work together, because it is about the air quality that everyone breathes, and it is about the impact it has on all of us, and the people’s quality of lives.”

The EPA says standards sought by the U.S. will cut sulfur in fuel by 98 percent, particulate matter by 85 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent from current global requirements. The Port of Houston is the largest port in the U.S. in foreign tonnage.

More than one million Texas consumers can now check online to find out how much electricity they’re using. The Public Utility Commission announced a new Web site that allows customers to manage residential and business bills by figuring out how much energy they used in 15-minute periods. The Web site is available to more than a million customers of Oncor Electric Delivery and Centerpoint Energy. Once American Electric Power begins installing smart meters later this year, the PUC says more than 6.3 million Texas customers will be able to manage electricity use through The Web site is designed for customers in competitive retail electric markets.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released its list of metropolitan areas with the largest number of energy-efficient buildings that earn EPA’s Energy Star last year. Houston placed sixth on the list, which is topped by Los Angeles. Nearly 3,900 commercial buildings earned the Energy Star in 2009, representing annual savings of more than $900 million in utility bills and more than 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Energy use for commercial buildings accounts for 17 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The Federal Reserve has issued new rules to protect Americans from getting stung by unexpected fees or restrictions on gift cards. Under the new rules, consumers must have at least five years to use the gift cards before they expire. The Fed also says service or inactivity fees can be imposed only under certain conditions. Such fees can be charged if the consumer hasn’t used the card for at least a year, if the consumer is given clear disclosures about them and no more than one fee is charged a month. The rules take effect August 22nd. Congress ordered the Fed to issue the new provisions under a law enacted last year.

A Federal Reserve official says record-low interest rates are still needed to energize the economic recovery. Janet Yellen, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and President Barack Obama’s top pick to be vice chair of the central bank, says the sluggish recovery she anticipates means unemployment will stay high for years. The jobless rate–now at 9.7 percent–will dip only to 9.25 percent by the end of this year and then to eight percent by the end of 2011, she predicts. Despite encouraging signs late last year, the housing market now “seems to have stalled,” she says. Yellen says the Fed was right last week to keep a pledge to hold rates at record lows for an “extended period.” The decision drew one dissent.

A trade unionist says two Nigerian oil workers have been found dead in the oil-rich Niger Delta region after being kidnapped ten days ago. A Nigerian oil workers union official says the bodies were found in the bush off the road to Sapele Town, about 420 kilometers (261 miles) southwest of the capital, Abuja. Peter Esele says the men worked for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and were kidnapped March 13th. He does not know if ransom was demanded. Kidnappings of oil workers are common in the Niger Delta. Militants also attack pipelines and have fought government troops since January 2006. The militants want the federal government to spend more oil-industry funds on their region, which remains poor despite five decades of oil production.

Anadarko Petroleum says its partly owned well in the Gulf of Mexico struck oil, while its windjammer well in Mozambique hit additional natural gas resources. The Shell-operated Vito appraisal well in the Gulf met more than 600 net feet of high-quality pay, or the thickness of rock that can deliver oil or gas to the well, in subsalt miocene sands. The Vito oil well is located in Mississippi Canyon Block 940. Anadarko holds a 20 percent stake in the block. In deepwater Mozambique, the Anadarko-operated Windjammer discovery well encountered an additional 76 net feet of natural-gas-producing rock, bringing the well’s total gas pay to more than 555 feet. Anadarko holds a 43 percent stake in windjammer.

Attorneys for an elderly Fort Worth-area couple who won a $58 million judgment against a politically powerful homebuilder from Houston say mediation efforts have proved unsuccessful. Attorneys Van Shaw and Dan Hagood said that they failed to reach agreement with attorneys for Perry Homes owner Bob Perry. A Fort Worth judge ordered the mediation to avoid appeals after the $58 million verdict earlier this month. Robert and Jane Cull of Mansfield sued Perry Homes in 2000 over problems with their home’s foundation. They had won an $800,000 arbitration award, but the Texas Supreme Court overturned that award in 2008. Justices each received political contributions from Perry and his family totaling more than $260,000. In an e-mailed statement, Perry Homes spokesman Anthony Holm said, “today Perry Homes attended mediation in good faith, and it takes two parties to settle a dispute.”

A new report says American Indian tribes can help combat climate change by creating jobs and revenue through renewable energy development. The National Wildlife Federation released the report. Tribal lands make up almost five percent of the United States and hold around ten percent of the country’s renewable energy resources. According to the report, solar energy on tribal lands alone could generate 4.5 times the total national energy consumption in 2004–17,600 billion kilowatt-hours. The report notes some challenges tribes face in renewable energy development. For example, they do not benefit from renewable energy tax credits or loan guarantees that would attract investors.

Calorie counts will be impossible for many restaurants to hide and harder for consumers to ignore under a provision tucked into the health care overhaul. The new law will require more than 200,000 chain restaurants to put calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-throughs. It will apply to any restaurant with 20 or more locations, superseding a growing number of state and city laws. The idea is to make sure customers see calorie information as they are ordering. Many restaurants may currently post nutritional information in a hallway, on a hamburger wrapper or online. The law will require them to list calorie counts next to each menu item.

Many older Americans are staying put in traditional big cities to hold onto jobs, creating slowdowns in population growth at once-popular retirement destinations in the south and west. Census estimates for 2009 capture the impact of the housing downturn and economic recession on the nation’s counties and metropolitan areas. Annual growth of retirement-destination counties has declined substantially, despite the large cohort of baby boomers who are reaching retirement age. In all, 126 of the 440 retirement counties lost population during the recession, many of them in Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer says it has received several offers to acquire it or keep it operating as a standalone company and that it will take several weeks to evaluate them. The offers were due Friday, but the company extended the process until Monday. Six companies made nonbinding proposals to MGM in January, but fewer than that remain in the running. It’s not clear which companies submitted offers, but likely bidders included Time Warner, Lions Gate, Access Industries, News Corp. and Qualia Capital. MGM also says it is seeking the approval of lenders to put off debt and interest payments due this month and next as it works on a recovery plan.

Lions Gate Entertainment is rejecting as inadequate the latest bid for control of the film studio by activist investor Carl Icahn. The company says its board has voted unanimously against Icahn’s offer to buy all of its outstanding shares for $6 each, or about $575 million total. In a statement, Lions Gate says Icahn’s offer is too low. The company also says Icahn has little relevant experience in the film industry or concrete plans for leading the company. Lions Gate had already rebuffed an offer by Icahn that would have raised his stake in the company to 30 percent from 19 percent. It also rewrote its bylaws to make such a takeover attempt more difficult in the future.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required