TIME Airlines

How a Proposed ‘Transparent’ Law Would Blatantly Mislead Consumers

The new bill is strongly supported by the airline industry. That alone gives a pretty good indication it’s a bad deal for travelers.

Last month, the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 was introduced in the House, with the stated goal to “restore transparency to the advertising of U.S. airline ticket prices, and ensure that airfare advertisements are not forced to hide the costs of government from consumers.” The bill was proposed in response to federal regulations passed two years ago that required taxes and fees to be included in the prices featured in airline advertising.

“These regulations actually hide the cost of government from consumers,” Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the sponsors of the bill and leading members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a press release this past week. The release also announced that the committee had approved the bill, bringing it one step closer to becoming law. “This common sense bill will allow flyers to see the full breakdown of their ticket costs,” said Shuster and DeFazio, “so they’ll know what they’re paying for the service, and what they’re paying in government imposed taxes and fees.”

Consumers are fans of common sense. Transparency too. So what’s not to like about the Transparent Airfares Act? Well, consumer advocates start their arguments by pointing out that the rule changes in the bill makes no sense for travelers, and that they are seriously lacking in transparency.

“We’re all for transparency, but this bill doesn’t provide it,” National Consumers League executive director Sally Greenberg explained in a column by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott. “The airlines want to advertise deceptively low prices.”

(MORE: Here’s the Most Depressing Thing About the Airlines Right Now)

How could a set of regulations encourage transparency while simultaneously raising the opportunity for deception? It can’t.

Proponents of the bill say that consumers want transparency in terms of full disclosure of the fees and taxes included in the total price of a flight. Airlines for America (A4A), an airline association that strongly backs the new bill, claims that current regulations—which, again, call for advertised prices to be listed after mandatory taxes and fees are factored in—hide the amount paid to the government with each flight purchase. For the typical $300 flight within the U.S., federal taxes account for $61, or 20% of the total ticket price.

In effect, supporters of the bill would like airlines to be able to advertise that flight—which costs $300, remember—at a price of $239. Who would want that? You would, say the airlines and the bill’s sponsors.

Sure, in a way there’s a little more transparency because travelers would be more aware of how much they’re paying in taxes and fees, spelled out in fine print somewhere. But far more importantly, there’s a greater likelihood of consumers being misled and deceived if airlines are yet again allowed to advertise unrealistic low-ball fares that don’t come close to representing the total price of a flight.

That’s why consumer advocates think the Transparent Airfares Act is anything but transparent. They’ve redubbed it the “Air Transportation Cost Concealment and Deception Bill” (Paul Hudson, of Flyersrights.org), and the “Obfuscated Airfares Act of 2014″ (Ed Perkins, of Smarter Travel). Perkins attacks the idea promulgated by the airlines, Shuster, and his cohorts that consumers are somehow clamoring for line-by-line explanations of the taxes and fees included in the price of a flight, when nothing could be further from the truth. “What they want to know is how much a trip will really cost, not some phony figure designed to make them think an airline is almost giving away tickets,” Perkins writes. “If they really want to know the details about taxes and fees, they can easily look at the ‘terms and conditions’ pull-down display.”

(MORE: Airline Travelers, Your Future Will Look a Lot Like … Cleveland)

People such as A4A CEO Nicholas E. Calio play up to the masses by saying the new bill is about “promoting government transparency” and “protecting customers,” but it’s a major stretch to believe the proposed changes would actually help travelers. Another line in the statement released by Calio shows that one of the purposes of getting the bill passed, or at least noticed, has nothing to do with transparency, but with simply keeping government fees in check. “Air travel remains one of the best bargains for consumers, but that affordability is imperiled by rising government taxes and fees,” said Calio.

That may very well be true. But it’s no reason to install new rules that would increase the chances travelers will be confused and duped by airlines.

TIME North Korea

Kim Jong Un Re-Elected Chairman of Defense Body

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as he greets commanding officers of the combined units of the Korean People's Army in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, April 2, 2014.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as he greets commanding officers of the combined units of the Korean People's Army in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, April 2, 2014. KCNA/Reuters

The young North Korean leader is kept in power as the head of the National Defense Commission, the country's top governing body, allowing him to keep his consolidated power following the execution months ago of his powerful uncle and other elites

The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, was re-elected on Wednesday as head of the country’s top governing organization, consolidating his power after the recent execution of his powerful uncle and various other elites.

The parliament in Pyongyang met to re-confirm Kim’s position as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the New York Times reports. The move is expected to demonstrate his continuing power over the North, despite increased U.N. sanctions.

The meeting was also thought to be a formality allowing Kim Jong Un to put younger, more unquestioning supporters in key government posts left vacant by the leader’s purges. Since gaining power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in late 2011, Kim has sidelined and executed various elite members of the ruling Workers’ Party. Among them were his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who was executed supposedly because of his position as the second most influential man in North Korea’s capital.

The North’s government-run news agency, the Korean Central News Agency, claimed Kim Jong Un’s re-election to the post was a sign of “the unchanged will of the military and the people to uphold and follow the respected marshal as the only center of solidarity and leadership.”

[NYT]

TIME Autos

Your City Could Pay for Car Damage Caused by Potholes. But It Probably Won’t

It’s common to hear that if your car is damaged due to a pothole, you should file a claim to get the locality responsible for the road to cover the expenses. Good luck with that.

Flat tires, bent rims: This winter has been full of them, thanks to months of hellacious weather and an epically bad environment for potholes. Hand-in-hand with this year’s plague of potholes is a surge in pothole-related damage claims filed around the country.

For instance, the Sun Times reported this week that more than 1,100 pothole-related claims were recently submitted in Chicago. Not only did the figure represent a record high, it was nearly quadruple the number of claims introduced at a city council meeting in February (305), which at the time was the highest monthly total seen in four years.

In Chicago, and throughout the country, a driver has the right to file a claim when a car is damaged as a result of a pothole, or any other unsafe road condition that is supposed to be addressed by local public works crews. But for a wide range of reasons, most claims are rejected, and even when cities do pay up, they rarely cover the full costs of repair. Some towns, counties, and entire states are notorious for being ruthless when it comes to rejecting claims, paying off drivers under only the most egregious of circumstances.

(MORE: End of the Road for Speed Traps?)

In theory, Chicago can cover damage claims up to $2,000—above that, you have to take the city to court—but it maintains a general rule of paying no more than one-half of a pothole-related repair, “on the theory that motorists are at least partially responsible for hitting potholes instead of driving around them,” the Sun Times noted, understandably. According to Chicago Magazine, last year the city paid off 754 claims, at an average of $240 per claim.

Chicago appears generous compared to some other cities, such as Colorado Springs. Here, as in other municipalities, the city will refuse to pay if it hasn’t received complaints about the existence of the pothole that’s caused the damage, and also if road crews haven’t been given ample time to patch up the hole. A Colorado TV station recently looked into how Colorado Springs was rejecting pothole-related claims at a rate higher than 98%. In addition to other tactics—such as directing drivers to take up claims with private contractors if they’re doing construction work in the area—the city says that it considers one or two weeks as a reasonable amount of time to address a pothole after drivers start complaining. In other words, if you alert the city of a pothole one day, and then a week or 10 days later your son hits that same pothole and blows a tire, the city probably wouldn’t cover the repair costs.

Drivers in Virginia face an uphill battle as well. A spokesperson for Arlington Country, in Virginia, told a local newspaper that pothole claims were considered on a “case-by-case basis,” but that they were almost universally rejected. “Only in unusual circumstances would the county pay damages, because the county has sovereign immunity and, therefore, under the law, generally has no legal liability,” she said. “It would be a very unusual circumstance that would lead us to accepting a claim.”

The vast majority of drivers will be out of luck in Toronto as well, which was found to have a 96% denial rate according to a recent report. What’s more, in a sample of claims, more than half were rejected “automatically without an investigation.”

Drivers seem to have much better odds, relatively speaking, of getting some cash in Grand Rapids, Mich., where nine out of 55 pothole damage claims were approved for payment last year, for a total of $4,185 in compensation.

(MORE: Why 2014 Will Be an Epically Bad Year for Potholes)

Because claims can and are rejected for every reason under the sun—if cities paid everybody, it would lead to fraud, and they’d go broke, after all—drivers are advised to keep meticulous track of the incident, repair estimates, and expenses incurred. It’s a good idea to take photos of the offending pothole, as well as the damage it caused, and to fill out the local filing claim forms with close attention to detail, in a timely manner. Just don’t expect to hear back from the city in an equally timely fashion. The Chicago Magazine story says that reimbursement can take as long as 18 months.

It’s also advisable to not get your hopes up in general.

TIME Retail

Gun Super Center Decides It’s Smart to Sell More Than Just Guns

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Man's hand holding pistol Getty Images

Maybe it’s unwise to take a store the size of a typical Best Buy and stock it almost exclusively with guns and ammunition.

Last spring, Minnesota-based outdoor gear retailer Gander Mountain launched a large expansion of a new store concept: the firearms super center. The stores—a half-dozen or so, opened in the Midwest—stood out because they were big (30,000 square feet) but more importantly because they sold guns, ammo, a range of gun accessories and gun-related gear, and little else.

At the time, the nation was still reeling in the aftermath of the Newton shootings, when gun sales were surging due to fear that tougher firearm regulations were inevitable, or just because of the simple urge to protect oneself. So the concept of a retail megacenter focused almost exclusively on firearms seemed like it would stand a reasonable chance of success.

“Taking a whole store and devoting it to guns is fairly radical but, from a business standpoint, it makes sense,” one retail analyst told the Columbus Dispatch in early 2013, around the time two Gander Mountain firearm super centers were opening in Ohio.

Lately, however, gun sales have been tanking. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the further quarter of 2013 sales declined by 10% at Cabela’s, a direct Gander Mountain rival, largely due to a falloff in demand for guns and bullets. Cabela’s CEO referred to the previously soaring gun sales as a “bubble” triggered by the 2012 reelection of President Obama and a series of high-profile shootings, it was a bubble that had apparently burst. Sales were down 50% during the first month and a half of 2014 compared to the same period a year prior, which was just after Newtown, and Cabela’s has forecast subpar sales going forward. Likewise, background checks have fallen sharply in recent months, indicating that the once-frenzied pace of gun sales had subsided significantly.

Lately, Gander Mountain has been undergoing major remodeling initiative, and the result is that its firearms super centers now sell a lot more than firearms and directly related gear. A grand reopening of a super center in Grandville, Mich., takes place this weekend to introduce a new “flex” retail concept, in which there’s still a focus on firearms, but in which many aisles will also offer camping, fishing, boating, and other seasonal gear, as well as outdoor and active fashion apparel. A similar remodel, with a influx of new non-gun products, took place a month ago in a Gander Mountain near Toledo, Ohio. A company representative told the Toledo Blade that both the “flex” and firearm super center models were doing well, but that it made more sense to broaden the range of products at several stores.

It’s unclear to what extent, if at all, the larger nationwide gun sale slump played a role in Gander Mountain’s decisions to play down its focus on firearms. By some account, the remodel initiative has been in the works at least since last fall, before the most dramatic falloff in gun sales had become glaringly apparent.

Surely, the move is an effort by Gander Mountain to expand its customer base, in particular to reach younger consumers, including women and those who are fit and fashion conscious. In a recent tour of a new Gander Mountain store opened in the St. Louis area—the first in Missouri, and one of 23 new locations planned for 2014—company president and CEO Mike Owens explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the rows of brightly colored running shorts and T-shirts and apparel from Under Armour and other popular brands should make it apparent the store isn’t just for hunters and gun enthusiasts. “In a typical outdoor store, you’ll see a lot of black and gray,” Owens said. “We’re trying to attract men and women and, really, any active person.”

TIME Internet

So Far, Online Gambling Revenues Have Been Pathetic

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Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

State budget makers and gaming interests have drastically, laughably overestimated the amount of money that would be generated with the advent of legalized online gambling, especially in New Jersey.

In March 2013, New Jersey officials forecast that online gambling would yield somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million in tax revenues for the state during the first fiscal year Internet gaming was legal. But the estimates have been falling ever since—to $160 million when Christ Christie signed the state budget last summer, and down to just $34 million earlier this year, after a few months of legalized online gambling had passed. More recently, the state treasurer said that no more estimates on online gambling revenues would be made public, which seems wise considering how previous predictions have fared.

From the end of November, when legalized online gambling in New Jersey, through February 2014, a mere $4.2 million in tax revenues has been collected by the state, leading one legislative budget officer to now project an estimate of $12 million in revenues for the year, the Associated Press reported. The revised estimate for next year’s revenues was listed at $48 million. At that pace, it would take four or five years for the state to take in revenues equal to the amount it was supposed to collect in tax revenues during the first year of legal online gambling.

It’s not just state officials who seem mystified by the lackluster returns. Caesars Entertainment recently informed the New Jersey Star-Ledger that its online gaming operation was experiencing decent success in a few parts of the state—Jersey City, Toms River, Cherry Hill—but that it couldn’t explain why interest was strong in some areas and almost nonexistent in others.

New Jersey isn’t the only state that seems to have drastically overestimated online gambling’s potential as a budgetary savior. When Delaware’s gambling sites launched, there were often only a couple dozen players online at any moment, and almost immediately it became apparent that revenues wouldn’t come anywhere near to the first-year estimates. Toward the end of March, Morgan Stanley issued a note regarding longer term prospects for online gambling in the U.S. “We are lowering our estimates to better reflect the insights we have gained following the first few months of operations in New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware,” the note stated, lowering the anticipated gross online gambling spending for 2017 from $5 billion to $3.5 billion, and for 2020 from $9.3 billion to $8 billion.

Toward the end of 2011, mind you, Morgan Stanley was estimating an online gambling market of $14 billion annually, though that was based on broader legalization.

Casino companies give plenty of reasons why online gambling hasn’t taken off in New Jersey and other states, including the continued existence of unregulated (illegal) gambling site competitors, the fact that some banks aren’t allowing their credit cards to be used for placing bets online, and basic lack of awareness among consumers. Surely, some if not all of the factors holding online gambling back can be addressed in time.

That’s assuming legalized online gambling will be around for a while. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., who obviously has no problem with people gambling in person because he runs casinos, has been waging a war against online gambling for months, at one point penning an op-ed calling Internet gaming “a societal train wreck waiting to happen.” With the backing of Adelson, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently sponsored a bill that would effectively outlaw online gambling throughout the country.

A group supported by Adelson, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, has released a series of online ads warning about the risks posed to children and their families in a world where gambling is available on screens 24/7, and it’s not always possible to tell who is using an online account. As the National Journal pointed out, one of the ads shows how a kid with a smartphone can be playing Angry Birds one minute, then be addicted to blackjack the next:

“I was playing Angry Birds and then, you know, I just found it,” the teen narrates, as images of online blackjack and poker tables flash on screen. “It’s a lot cooler knowing that I’m playing a real game, not just, like, Candy Crush or Fruit Ninja.”

TIME

Teen Has a Plan to Save the Government $400 Million

Fourteen-year-old Suvir Mirchandani figured that by changing the standard typeface on government documents, the federal and state governments could save hundred of millions of dollars in ink costs

Remembering to pack lunch and catch the school bus on time? Sure, got it. Solving the federal deficit? Um, yeah, maybe.

That’s kind of what a day in the life of 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani looks like. Mirchandani has figured out that by changing the standard typeface on government documents from Times New Roman to Garamond, the federal and state governments could save up to $400 million in ink costs.

That’s because Garamond uses far less ink than government-recommended fonts like Times New Roman and Century Gothic, according to Mirchandani. He published his findings in the peer-reviewed Journal for Emerging Investigators earlier in March.

With a federal government printing expenditure of $1.8 billion, and state government costs estimated at $1.3 billion, even a slight reduction in ink usage could save hundred of millions of dollars, says Mirchandani.

Other teens, meanwhile, are still changing the font size on periods throughout their papers to hit assignment page-length requirements.

TIME Google

Google: Government Requests for User Data Up 120%

2008 Google Winter Marketing Forum In Xian
China Photos—Getty Images

They've increased by 120% since 2009

Google announced Thursday that government requests for user information has increased by 120% since 2009. Though the number of Google users has also increased over the same time period, the company says it is “seeing more and more governments start to exercise their authority to make requests.”

Google’s announcement comes by way of its bi-annual transparency report, which details government requests for user data where the company is legally able to do so. The report comes just one week after news that Google is working on enhancements to its Gmail service that would make it more difficult to conduct mass surveillance of users’ messages.

[Google: Official Blog]

TIME Saving & Spending

Spring Is Here! Too Bad You’re Still Paying for a Bitterly Cold, Costly Winter

Snow shovelers in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2014.
Snow shovelers in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

This year's brutal winter wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. Here’s a look at a few of the groups that got hammered by the harsh weather, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time

The brutal winter of 2013-2014 wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. It’s been a horrendously awful winter for many businesses as well.

There was reason for some to welcome the stormy, bitterly cold weather that descended on much of the nation in early 2014. Supermarkets thrived during the peak (nadir?) days of polar vortex frigidity as shoppers stocked up on staples in anticipation of waiting out the storms, and businesses selling plows and snowblowers understandably made a killing as the snow and ice piled up week after week.

Then there’s the rest of us, who will remember the winter that’s just passed as one chock full of tire-busting potholes, frozen pipes, roof collapses, and monster heating bills. Restaurants, retailers, car dealerships, delivery services, and other businesses have also suffered. Even some businesses that normally cash in when cold and snow arrive fared poorly because this winter brought just too much, well, winter. Travel Michigan noted that the ski and snowmobile business dipped in recent months because the weather has caused tourists cancel trips. Yes, people have been deciding it’s too cold and snowy to go … snowmobiling.

(MORE: Springtime Is Finally Here as the Vernal Equinox Arrives)

Here’s a look at a few of the groups that have gotten hammered by the winter of 2013-2014, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time:

Drivers
By late January, it was clear that the winter was shaping up as an epically bad season for potholes. The mix of heavy precipitation with rapid freeze-thaw cycles has resulted in an inordinately large number of potholes on roads, and dangerous, tire-wrecking conditions have arrived much earlier than usual in the season. Drivers shouldn’t expect the pothole plague to disappear anytime soon, as local public works crews have been overwhelmed by requests to fix damaged roads. Cities like Des Moines, Iowa, have received more than 600 calls since December from citizens reporting potholes, for instance, while greater Indianapolis has fielded more than 10,000 pothole service requests this season.

Every day, it seems, there are more reports of potholes causing chaos for drivers—for instance, a huge pothole on I-75 in Detroit this week, which caused traffic to slow to a crawl as two lanes were closed so that crews could do a quick patch job. “It’s the worst we’ve seen it in decades,” a West Virginia DOT spokesman, speaking of this winter’s potholes and road conditions, told the MetroNews recently. “It’s unbelievable.”

Last fall, a transportation research group known as TRIP released a report on bumpy roads, indicating that during a normal year, drivers fork over the equivalent of $277 per year due to vehicle repairs, tire wear, and depreciation thanks to potholes and generally poor road conditions. This year, drivers should anticipating paying a lot more than that.

Homeowners
Unusually cold temperatures make for unusually high heating bills. This is especially the case for homes heated by propane, thanks in part to a propane shortage that hit several states early this year. Citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, USA Today reported last week that the average homeowner will pay 54% more this year for heating a home with propane. Homes in the Midwest heated by propane will see their bills soar the highest, from an average of $1,333 last year to $2,212 for this season. Homes heated with electricity, natural gas, or coal, meanwhile, are projected to face bills that are 5% to 10% higher than last year.

(MORE: Meet the Low-Key, Low-Cost Grocery Chain Being Called ‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’)

Beyond budget-busting heating bills, homeowners around the country have been hit with plenty of other costs related to the brutally cold winter. The list of headaches—and hefty expenses—includes a heaping share of frozen pipes, roof collapses, and ice dams. Oh, and soon, flooded basements are probably inevitable. As one insurance agent told the Detroit News, as spring arrives, “The warmer temperatures will exaggerate and accelerate the melt, and then we’re going to have basement issues.”

State and Local Governments
Around the nation, many towns have already exhausted the budgets they allocated to clearing and salting roads and fixing potholes. In many cases, local authorities have been forced to use emergency funds to keep roads open and safe. West Virginia, for instance, just announced it was increasing the spring pothole-patching budget to $30 million, up from $18 million.

In recent weeks, states have been scrambling to round up precious road salt to cope with storm after storm. Things were so bad in New Jersey that the transportation department warned the state might be forced to close down major roads—even interstates—because crews didn’t have enough salt. Inevitably, the combination of high demand and insufficient supply of salt led to soaring prices; in some cases, the cost of road salt rose by a factor of four. The Washington Times noted that some salt supply companies have seen shippings triple in recent months and net four-quarter earnings rise by as much as 94%.

Businesses
Abnormally cold weather has caused people to stay inside rather than go out and spend money. That’s the basic explanation used by car dealerships, fast food, and other business categories for months of underwhelming sales tallies. The list of businesses blaming Mother Nature for subpar earnings and sales reports also extends to the likes of Federal Express, which said all the storms resulted in it losing $125 million in profits last quarter, and Walmart, which pointed to snow and cold weather as a reason for slumping sales in January and early February.

(MORE: The Government Is a Hitman, and Uber, Tesla, and Airbnb Are in Its Crosshairs)

Speaking of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart just announced a huge lawn and garden sale that plays off homeowner desires to shake off winter. “Given the extreme winter many of our customers experienced, we know they are preparing to restore their gardens and outdoor living spaces,” Michelle Gloeckler, senior vice president of home, Walmart U.S., said via press release.

Of course, Walmart also helps the sale, featuring $1.97 bags of mulch, discounts on grills, mowers, and the like, will help the company recover from the brutal winter and kick off a big spring.

The bad news for consumer, homeowner, driver, and retailer alike may be that, despite what the calendar says, winter—meaning cold and snow—hasn’t necessarily disappeared. The latest extended forecasts from the National Weather Service, appropriately published in angry CAPS, offers the following predictions for the days and weeks ahead:

THE FCST REMAINS FAIRLY CONSISTENT FOR AN UNUSUALLY WINTRY PATTERN OVER THE CNTRL-ERN STATES DURING MOST OF THE PERIOD WITH A BROAD AREA OF TEMPERATURE ANOMALIES REACHING 10-25F BELOW NORMAL BEFORE MODERATING BY DAY 7 THU. AT SOME LOCATIONS EXPECTED TEMPS WOULD BE CLOSER TO MID-JANUARY NORMALS… THIS COLD AIR WILL SUPPORT A PERIOD OF WINTRY PCPN POTENTIAL FROM THE NRN/N-CNTRL PLAINS INTO THE MID ATLC/NORTHEAST.

TIME Government

Wrecking Balls Needed! Cities Can’t Tear Down Blighted Homes Fast Enough

Detroit Struggles To Re-Build A Bankrupt City Amidst Poverty And Blight
Lawrence Payne walks past two abandoned houses on September 4, 2013 in the Six Mile Gratiot neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Around the country, insufficient funding and epic amounts of red tape are among the hurdles holding American cities back in the quest to demolish tens of thousands of vacant buildings.

Over the weekend, a Philadelphia Inquirer story explored a tough situation in Philly: Authorities have labeled nearly 600 homes as “imminently dangerous” and in need of being torn down, and yet the city does not have enough money in the budget to handle the job. Normally, the cost of razing a dangerous building is the responsibility of the property owner, but in many cases these dilapidated, usually vacant homes have no owners.

By comparison to Detroit, however, Philadelphia’s problems seem minor. The Detroit Free Press recently rehashed some of the monumental challenges facing the city, which has established a goal of tearing down some 80,000 blighted homes over the course of six years. Among the hurdles that must be surmounted to reach the goal is the presence of squatters in a sizable percentage of these homes, as well as the difficulty of finding and transporting the staggering amount of dirt that will be necessary to fill the holes left once the homes and their basements are removed.

Then there’s arguably the most difficult, aggravating challenge of all: paperwork. “Titles must be cleared, utilities shut off, notifications sent, asbestos removed,” the Free Press explained. “Often it can take months to certify that a structure is ready for demolition before the city can issue a permit to a demolition contractor.”

The headaches being encountered by Detroit’s enormous initiative will only seem to grow as the city picks up the pace of demolition. Crews are currently working at a rate of roughly 100 tear-downs per week. By next year, the plan calls for 400 to 500 homes in the city to be razed and removed each and every week.

(MORE: Guess Where the Middle Class Can’t Afford to Live Now? Yep, Detroit)

A New York Times story published last fall explored the idea that cities such as Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, and St. Louis are deciding in favor of demolition not simply because buildings are dangerous and uninhabitable, but sometimes because after seeing the local population decrease year after year, the buildings now have little use. Here’s how one expert quoted by the Times explained the transformation in urban planners’ decision making:

“In the past, cities would look at buildings individually, determine there was a problem, tear them down and then quickly find another use for the land,” said Justin B. Hollander, an urban planning professor at Tufts University. “Now they’re looking at the whole DNA of the city and saying, ‘There are just too many structures for the population we have.’”

The Times reported that Cleveland had spent $50 million over the previous six years on the demolition of houses. Yet it seems as if the work has barely begun. A Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial recently referenced an estimate indicating that 12,000 to 15,000 “eyesores (and potential crime scenes)” in the area should be razed. Because studies have shown that “strategic demolition of blighted structures stabilized and increased real estate values, decreased foreclosure rates and lessened tax delinquencies,” the editorial calls for tens of millions of more dollars to be used to knock down homes as soon as possible.

TIME Travel

The Poor Writer’s Life, Now With Free Travel … and Free Houses

Colorado Scenics
Robert Alexander—Getty Images

Yes, free travel and free housing are possible for writers thanks to with two new residency programs. This isn’t a open-ended free-for-all, however: Note that the free travel comes via Amtrak, and the free houses being given away are in Detroit.

A couple dozen writers’ dreams may come true, courtesy of … Amtrak? America’s national rail service recently introduced the #AmtrakResidency program, in which up to 24 writers will be granted a free round trip on one of Amtrak’s long-distance routes. “Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration,” the application form explains. In exchange for a rail journey valued at up to $900, the writer is expected to, well, write while on board, in long form (blog posts, poetry, maybe a few chapters in a novel) and short form (Twitter) alike. Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis through the end of March.

As a post on The Wire summed up in late February, the writer-in-residency idea is one that popped up and evolved over the course of several months. In an interview in December, the author Alexander Chee mentioned his love of writing on trains, and that he wished “Amtrak had residencies for writers.” The comment kicked off tons of discussion—and similar yearnings—by writers on Twitter, and eventually Amtrak reached out to one of these writers, Jessica Gross, to see if she’d be interested in a train writer-in-residency test run. Of course, she was “on board,” and the results can be seen partially in a piece published by The Paris Review, in which Gross ruminates on (of course) train travel, among other things. A brief excerpt:

Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.

(MORE: College Offers to Pay Students to Take a Year Off)

Apparently the test run was considered a success, because Amtrak opened the residency program up to the masses last week. Understandably, Chee, the program’s unintentional visionary, was overjoyed. “It’s one thing to dream about these things. It’s another thing to try to create them,” Chee said in an NPR interview. “And usually when people try to create residencies for artists and writers, you have to go through so much red tape.”

Amtrak haters, on the other hand, are using the residency program as an excuse for criticizing the rail operation, which has a very long history of losing money. In a letter sent to Amtrak’s president (and the media), U.S. Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), wrote of the residency program, “Given Amtrak’s prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags.”

In Detroit, meanwhile, a program offers writers a lot more than just a train trip. Various artist colonies welcome writers-in-residences to free lodging for a year or some other specified period of time. But the non-profit Write a House project stands out because if a participating writer fulfills the program’s requirements—including living in a rehabbed Detroit home and writing about the experience for two years—the house is his or hers to keep. Three houses are up for grabs, and project organizers are in the process of raising money and renovating them.

“People who move here will have to be prepared for some boarded-up houses on their blocks,” Sarah Cox, co-founder of Write a House, explained to the New Yorker. “But you’ll get the opportunity to be part of a community, own a house, and see real change happening.”

Applications will start being accepted this spring.

(MORE: Airline Travelers, Your Future Will Look a Lot Like … Cleveland)

Other kinds of artists aren’t entirely left out of such freebie-barter arrangements. As frommers.com pointed out recently while highlighting Amtrak’s new residency program, Canada’s Via Rail service grants free food and long-haul trips to singers and musicians in exchange for performances in the economy-class lounge car.

“It’s such a charming place to play music, and it’s a captive audience to say the least,” one musician said to the Globe and Mail of his experience playing on the train. “There’s not that much space for an audience, in the tens of people for sure. So it is really intimate.”

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