(SOUNDBITE OF AUGUSTANA SONG, "SHOT IN THE DARK")
PATRICK NEWPORT: Prices are still dropping, and they're dropping in nearly every city. Nineteen of the 20 cities that I'm looking at in this chart show falling prices. And about half of them hit all-time, cyclical lows.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOT IN THE DARK")
AUGUSTANA: (Singing) I had a vision for the life that was ahead of me. I had a reason, had a right and had a destiny. I thought I knew where I was heading.
ADAM DAVIDSON, HOST:
Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Adam Davidson.
CAITLIN KENNEY, HOST:
And I'm Caitlin Kenney. Today is Tuesday, April 26. That was economist Patrick Newport you heard at the top. He's a housing expert at Global Insight. On the show today, we have an update for you from Haiti. We're going to tell you what's happening at the school that many of you donated money to. They spent that money. And, well, as you heard, they don't have much to show for it. But we have an update, and it's good news. But first, of course, we have a very special PLANET MONEY Indicator for you today from both Jacob Goldstein and David Kestenbaum.
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Kestenbaum, you want to do the honors?
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Oh, really? Wow. Today's PLANET MONEY Indicator is...
TIMOTHY MCDEVITT: (Vocalizing).
KENNEY: What was that?
KESTENBAUM: That is the world premiere of a little opera we like to call the Case-Shiller 20-city composite index of home values.
KENNEY: Oh, of course.
GOLDSTEIN: So it is indeed. So picture in your mind the Case-Shiller, right? This is the home price index. I talk about it basically every month when it comes out. And sometimes in the Indicator, I am even reduced to saying so - OK, the chart looks like this. You see that it goes up in the housing boom, and then it comes down and blah, blah, blah - which is a ridiculous way to talk about a graph, right? We have this fundamental problem, right? Graphs are a great way to look at things, but we're in an audio medium.
KESTENBAUM: So we wanted to hear what the graph sounded like. So Jess Jiang, our producer, she took the numbers from the Case-Shiller index in a spreadsheet. She converted them to musical notes, and then she laid them up on a musical staff, made actual sheet music. And then we gave the sheet music to this guy.
GOLDSTEIN: That's just him warming up, by the way.
Hello, I'm Timothy McDevitt. I am a second-year master's student at the Juilliard School, and I am a baritone.
KESTENBAUM: And Tim is very nice. He came in and he sang, basically, all these graphs for us.
GOLDSTEIN: So - OK, so to go back, the Indicator, that melody we heard at the beginning, that is the Case-Shiller home price index for the country - the 20-city composite - starting ten years ago. It starts in 2001 before the boom, and it runs through February of this year - the latest numbers just out today. Let's hear that again.
GOLDSTEIN: So that's the national number. And you can definitely, you know, hear the boom and bust. But, like, we want it to go big, right? So we got him to sing Miami, the city with the biggest housing boom in America. Here's that one.
KESTENBAUM: You're kind of rooting for it on the way up, and then you're like, no, no, no.
GOLDSTEIN: That's how it was to live in Miami.
DAVIDSON: So the last note, there - the last note - play the last note.
DAVIDSON: That, today - that was the news.
GOLDSTEIN: In other words, what that last note is telling us is Miami home prices fell again in February. They hit actually a new post-bubble low, and they're now down more than 50 percent from the peak.
KESTENBAUM: So we played the opera for the two toughest critics we could find, the economists who made the Case-Shiller index that inspired the opera - Robert Shiller.
GOLDSTEIN: Have you heard - Professor Shiller, have you heard your index set to opera before?
ROBERT SHILLER: No, never.
KESTENBAUM: ...And economist Karl Case.
KARL CASE: I absolutely love it.
KESTENBAUM: Robert Shiller was surprised at how nice it sounded.
SHILLER: Well, to me, this is actually instructive because it sounded more like music than a bubble popping. Can you do a bubble popping for us?
SHILLER: It has this nice progression up and then this nice - what do you call that?
SHILLER: Descent, yeah. And the descent took three years, you know? Can you do that again...
SHILLER: ...Going down for three - you can't stretch it out three years. Then you really...
GOLDSTEIN: You think it sounds too pretty? You think the real world is...
SHILLER: Yeah, it sounds too pretty. You're right. Maybe that's - but, you know, let's not forget, we're laughing, but it is a real tragedy. There's currently about 2.5 million households in the U.S. that are on the verge of being evicted, so we should have a moment of silence. I'm serious. It's a big problem.
GOLDSTEIN: A big problem, actually, unless you live in Dallas. Here's a decade of home prices in Dallas.
KENNEY: (Laughter) No boom and no bust.
GOLDSTEIN: Very good. You're like a real estate analyst, Caitlin.
KESTENBAUM: Here's Karl Case.
CASE: It really depends on where you were. It's incredibly different for people who live in Texas than it is for people who live in Florida and for people who live in, say, Boston.
KESTENBAUM: There's one other subtle thing you notice if you listen to these graphs carefully. Let's go back to the national numbers. Here is the first note where housing prices were 10 years ago.
KESTENBAUM: And here is the last note where prices are now.
GOLDSTEIN: So you can hear that that last note, it's actually a little bit higher than the first note. In other words, on average, home prices have actually gone up over the past decade. You know, that sort of washes out the boom and the bust. And home prices have basically kept up with inflation.
KESTENBAUM: I asked Karl Case how he thought the song's going to continue from here.
CASE: Well, I think it's going to be (vocalizing), you know?
GOLDSTEIN: It's kind of bouncing along.
CASE: I'd sing you a John Prine song. I think it's bouncing along a rocky bottom.
KENNEY: And that's where we're going to leave it with you guys today, bouncing along a rocky bottom.
GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) I don't know if I should say thank you to that, Caitlin.
KESTENBAUM: A special thanks to Jess Jiang for taking all those numbers and turning them into sheet music, and to Tim McDevitt for his lovely singing. At the very end of the podcast, you can - get to hear a couple of versions - special versions of the Case-Shiller index sung with librettos that we wrote for him.
KENNEY: All right, thank you so much, guys.
DAVIDSON: So many of you, I hope, remember that we've now done a few stories about a small school for very poor children in the l'Artibonite region of Haiti. It's the center of rice farming there.
KENNEY: Adam, when you and I first visited l'Artibonite, the people there were struggling because there was all this free rice coming into the country from the aid groups. And we met this woman, Madame Claude (ph), who is facing an unimaginable choice. She and her kids could eat the rice she had, but then she wouldn't have any to sell. Without any to sell, she couldn't pay for her kids' school fees. So she had to choose between the kids' future - getting an education, going to school - and the kids' present troubles - getting enough to eat.
DAVIDSON: She told us that she's barely literate. She only had a few years of schooling. But she's like all farmers in Haiti. The No. 1 thing she wants is for her kids to get an education. That's the only way her kids could have a life better than the very tough life she has. And she said that if we want to understand life for a poor farmer in Haiti, we need to visit a school. So she offered, and we took her up on it, and we went to visit her kids' school.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).
KENNEY: The conditions at the school were not good. Classes were taking place in this small, one-room church, where you had blackboards just sort of leaning against the walls, and the kids were sitting in pews. They had no desks or anything to write on, so they had notebooks in their laps that they were awkwardly trying to take notes in. And there was so little room inside that the smaller kids were just out back under a tarp, where it was really, really hot.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, it was - I just always remember, it was, like, so hot we couldn't breathe, and these kids are just doing their lessons. The principal, Enselm Simpliste, pointed out that only some of the kids have notebooks because a lot of them can't afford notebooks. The school can't afford to give them notebooks, or pens or textbooks. They can't even afford to pay the teachers every month.
KENNEY: And after that story aired on the podcast and on Morning Edition, we got a lot of emails from people who wanted to help. A lot of you, our listeners, wrote to us and said, what can I do to help these kids?
DAVIDSON: And this actually put us in a sort of strange position. I mean, we really liked these kids in the school, and we want good things to happen to them, but we're not a charity, and it's an ethic of journalism that you don't get involved financially with the subjects of your stories. But we decided, after a lot of consultation, that it would be OK for us to help set up an account at Fonkoze, which is a Haitian, microfinance institution that a lot of people respect. We set one up for the principal in his name. And we told listeners how to donate to him. And a lot of you did in, you know, $20, $50, a hundred dollars. Eventually, it totaled up to $3,000. And that was so much money, more money than the principal had ever seen in his life. And he said oh, my goodness, this isn't just enough to buy a few books and notebooks. I'm going to build an entire new school - which was so exciting for us. Wow, 3,000 bucks, they get a whole new school. So he told us he started work on it. And a few months later, you went back last fall to Haiti, and you wanted to see how it was going.
KENNEY: So we're standing across the street from where the old school was in this foundation. There's a bunch of concrete blocks in the middle. So tell me how this is going to be set up.
ENSELM SIMPLISTE: (Through interpreter) With this big classroom, we're going to have the fifth and sixth grade here.
KENNEY: Four months after the money came in, it's all been spent. All $3,000 is gone. And all the school has to show for it is this foundation and a stack of concrete blocks. There's a hole in the back of it for the bathrooms, and it's starting to fill up with trash. And there's chickens and goats roaming all around.
DAVIDSON: So Caitlin, I remember when you came back from that trip. We were both really, really sad about this.
DAVIDSON: I mean, the 3,000 bucks is just now a foundation that may not even work for a school that likely will never be built. And we spent a lot of time trying to figure out, was the principal corrupt? Was the contractor corrupt? What happened here? How did this project go so badly?
KENNEY: And it was really hard for us to make sense of what happened. But eventually, we just realized that it was just such a big thing to take on. Principals and police had never dealt with this much money before. Three thousand dollars is something close to what a typical Haitian can earn in 10 years. It was just such a huge amount of money and such a huge project, he just didn't know how to manage it.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. I kept imagining someone writing me a check for $25 million and saying, go build a skyscraper, and you can't call any architects or engineers or specialists because there aren't any in your region. And, you know, I wouldn't know what to do. So we aired the story about the $3,000 going to waste. We did on the radio and on the podcast. And afterwards, we did not get as many emails. And very understandably, people were not as eager to help out on a project that was failing. And that was sort of the end of it. And we were sad, and that was that.
And then a little while later, I got this email. It was from a guy named Tim Myers in Colorado - I just listened to your podcast on PLANET MONEY about the $3,000 you received for the new school in Haiti. I would like to help finish the school in Haiti. I have a proposal for you. I would like to help construct and supervise the school construction. I'm a semi-retired male, 65 years old, in great shape. I have over 30 years' experience in all phases in the construction business. I believe I am especially qualified at budgeting and scheduling a project to complete it on time and on budget. So what do you think?
So PLANET MONEY listeners, meet Tim Myers. Tim has a lot of experience building things that are quite different from the school in l'Artibonite.
TIM MYERS: Built large second, third family, you know, homes here in the Aspen area for over 20 years.
DAVIDSON: Big homes for rich people.
MYERS: Big homes for people that don't need them, basically. You would recognize their names. Let me put it that way.
MYERS: So, you know, very large - 10,000 square feet, 13,000 square feet - very opulent, fancy, one of a kind.
DAVIDSON: So after I got Tim's email, and then he and I had a really nice phone conversation a little bit later, and I thought, oh, he seems like a great guy. But who knows? You know, people write an email, and they're all excited, and then the reality sets in, and nothing's going to happen.
KENNEY: Right. We didn't know if he'd ever been to Haiti before, what he knew about the country. And, you know, from going there, there's just immense challenges to getting things like this done. So even if he had the best intentions, we just didn't know what would happen.
DAVIDSON: So I have to say, I've now gotten to know Tim fairly well. And I'm certainly prepared to vouch for this guy. As far as I could tell, when he gets his mind around something, he's going to make sure it happens. And one of the things that convinced me of that is - I was in Haiti a couple of months ago on a reporting trip. And Tim emailed me that he happened to be going to Haiti exactly when I was there. So we met for the first time in Port-au-Prince. He was in Haiti not to start construction on the school. He was there on a scouting trip to learn about construction techniques in Haiti. You know, he's perfectly qualified to build a school in Aspen, Colo. But Haiti things are very, very different. So what he did was he volunteered for this organization called handson.org (ph), where he was part of a team clearing rubble in Leogane. That's, like, 25 miles outside of Port-au-Prince, a place severely damaged by the earthquake. And later on, when we were both back in the U.S., I caught up with him, and I asked him, what did you learn about Haitian construction?
MYERS: They have the skills to build technical, stable buildings, obviously. The Digicel building, which is the tallest building in Port-au-Prince, wasn't affected by the earthquake. But the less-fortunate people, who were build their homes themselves, don't use enough cement. And that was something that was really apparent when I was clearing the building sites. You would have some cement block that were filled with basically dirt and hardly any cement. In other places, it was nice and gray, and you could see this cement, and it was very difficult to break apart. So quality control is a real issue in...
DAVIDSON: This is something you explained to me when I was down there, which I didn't know. So when you're making a cement structure, you buy the cement, which is expensive, and then you mix it with sand and gravel that's relatively...
MYERS: And water.
DAVIDSON: And water, which are relatively cheap.
DAVIDSON: And so in Haiti and other poor countries, they'll use as little cement as possible to cut down on expenses. How much more is the cement than the gravel?
MYERS: I think down there, it's about $6 a bag, which isn't too much more than it is here. But there, again, when you only have $300 a year - what is their average income - they don't have the extra money to do it properly.
KENNEY: And Adam, Tim was telling you that when he was there, he saw people building things in exactly the same way they did before the earthquake, which means - and Tim puts it bluntly - that these buildings are going to fall down again.
DAVIDSON: Eventually, Tim didn't want to just clear rubble. He wanted to actually build something in Haiti. And I was in Haiti doing a project with "Frontline" - a PLANET MONEY-"Frontline" co-production - a profile of the man who's trying to bring tourism back to Haiti. And when I was meeting Tim, we happened to run into the tourism guy, and it turns out he also has a construction company, and he was building an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. And Tim, on the spot, was recruited to help build this orphanage in Port-au-Prince. It was a much smaller project. He worked on it for a couple weeks, but he got some real insights. Remember, clearing the rubble, he was mostly working with Americans and Europeans who were volunteering. But during this orphanage project, he actually saw what it's like to be a Haitian construction worker.
MYERS: That was an eye-opening experience, too, because I found out how slow things move in Haiti. I thought we could just bang it out real quick. But you do everything by hand. So you dig trenches by hand. You dig a septic system by hand. And that's just the way you do it. And...
DAVIDSON: How would you do it - with a backhoe, normally?
MYERS: Well, yeah.
MYERS: Bring in some machines. But on the other hand, you know, doing it that way employs people. It gives them a job. I worked alongside four local men who would come in and - first, we had to clear the ground. And it was overgrown, so we were hacking away with machetes and hoes. Ain't no work shoes, you know? They work in flip-flops.
DAVIDSON: And it was - I know it was very hot when we were in Haiti.
MYERS: Very hot. First 15 minutes, you're sweating. You're soaked. You're soaked. And they come to work in the morning with no water and no food and work eight hours like that. So I started buying them water - you know, the bags of water - the little blue bags of water that they all drink out of. So we started doing that, but...
DAVIDSON: And they're doing this for, like, two bucks 50 a day.
MYERS: Yup. Very hard work.
DAVIDSON: So Tim went all over Haiti pricing construction materials, talking to people about how much it costs to build things there. And then Sebastien Narcisse - he's our driver, and translator and good friend in Haiti. He's been on the podcast many times. Sebastien offered to drive Tim up to the school. And Tim went and spent a day there, spent time with principal Simpliste, spent time with the kids, and most importantly, spent time sketching, and drawing and taking measurements so he knew exactly what would be involved. And what he learned is the principal was indeed very, very naive, that this was not a $3,000 project, this was more like a 70, 80, maybe even $90,000 project.
KENNEY: Many, many times bigger than the principal had originally estimated.
DAVIDSON: Twenty, 30 times bigger than the principal estimated. But that's because Tim wants to build this school so it will last generations, so that it will survive an earthquake, and multiple hurricanes, and there will be proper drainage and a decent bathroom. Do you remember the bathroom at the school?
KENNEY: Yes. Unfortunately, I do.
DAVIDSON: So Tim took all these measurements, went back home to Colorado. And he's right now working with a friend of his who's an architect and another friend who's an engineer, and they have volunteered to sketch the plans. And in the next couple of weeks, those plans should be finished. They should have a construction plan ready to go. But Tim is not in a position to pay $90,000 for this, and so he's going to want to find funding from folks.
KENNEY: And this is where another PLANET MONEY listener comes in - Fred Ireland. Now, Fred doesn't have the 80 or $90,000 it's going to take to build this school. But he heard the stories, and he really wanted to do something to help. He wasn't sure what he could do because he doesn't have any construction experience, but he just wanted to do something.
DAVIDSON: And I didn't know what to do. You know, again, we're not in charge of this project. We're just the journalists watching it happen. So I just forwarded Fred's email to Tim, and I said, all right, the two of you talk to each other, see if there's something you can do to help each other. And without me realizing it, the two guys - one on the East Coast, the other in the mountains of Colorado - have developed this really strong working relationship even though the two of them have never met in person. Here's how Tim explains the relationship that's developed.
MYERS: Fred's very adamant - let's get this project done, you know? I'm dreaming about projects after this, too, which I hope we might be able to happen. But, you know, Fred's on task. Let's do this one. And I like that. So it's a big help.
FRED IRELAND: It's a project that needs to get done. And it's - you feel badly for those schoolkids. I mean, they saw a school started. And then, you know, now it's going on a year since you guys first went down there, and there's no school. I mean, that - I think about them, and I think, you know, if Haiti's going to pull itself up by the bootstraps, it's got to come through education. You know, you got to educate the kids so that they grow up to be productive parts of society. So I think that it's what Haiti needs. And if I can be a little bit of a part of that, then that's good.
DAVIDSON: So Fred's a physical therapist. That's his day job. But this particular project doesn't require a lot of physical therapy. And what he realized is the missing ingredient here is just figuring out a funding solution. How can Tim and Fred set things up so that they could go out in the world and say - hey, people, please give us money? - and have those people feel good about it? Here's Fred.
IRELAND: We didn't want to just give money to some big NGO for them to maybe think about doing this project. So we wanted to take it on ourselves to make sure that it got done.
KENNEY: And this turns out to be one of the hardest parts to this project - figuring out a way to collect all the money in a reasonable way to fund the construction - because if Fred just wanted to raise the money - I mean, first of all, he's just a guy. So if someone wanted to write a check to him, it wouldn't be tax-deductible. And then people who write him checks don't necessarily know him. Maybe they're worried he's not trustworthy. So it's a hard position to be in.
DAVIDSON: And of course, in the last week, there's been this big story about Greg Mortenson and the "Three Cups Of Tea" guy and possible misuse of funds at his nonprofit, which we're not going to get into here. We don't know any of the details. But, you know, certainly, having a nonprofit is not a guarantee of ethical behavior, but it seems to increase the likelihood dramatically. Also, having a nonprofit allows you to take tax-deductible contributions. You'd have a board of directors there to make sure you're spending the money reasonably. But Fred quickly learned that setting up their own NGO would take about a year. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. It just seemed ridiculous. That's not - and that would just be such a delay and an expense, it didn't make any sense for Fred and Tim.
KENNEY: So Fred kept talking to people and trying to figure out, how can we do this? And then someone told him that if they could find another nonprofit to sponsor the project, that way, they could funnel the money through the nonprofit. It would be tax-deductible and have the oversight they were looking for, and then the nonprofit would just give them that portion of the money to use for the project.
DAVIDSON: And if you choose the right nonprofit, you know you have real accountability; you have, you know, tax-deductibility; you have a lot of support there. And I didn't realize this, but there's all these nonprofit sponsoring agencies. They're sort of like - I mean, I almost think about them as, like, charitable banking intermediaries where they can take money from donors and provide all that oversight, et cetera. So that's where the project is right now at this moment. The hope is they'll actually begin construction fairly soon. Fred has been talking to a whole bunch of nonprofit sponsoring agencies. In fact, if any listeners there work for one or know of one that's good, please let us know at email@example.com. He's also certainly open to other ideas, if people have ways of helping them accept money in a way that's tax-deductible and responsible and accountable.
In the meantime, Tim is working with the architect and the engineer to draw up those construction plans, and he plans to use an almost entirely Haitian crew. He wants to hire local people in the community and teach them proper building techniques. And their hope is that a school will start being constructed sometime soon, although, I will say, Tim and Fred have told me many times and have told Principal Simpliste many times, we don't know how long this is going to take; we're not promising a miracle, but we are promising a school. And both Tim and Fred say, we're going to get that school built.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOT IN THE DARK")
AUGUSTANA: (Singing) But I'm a fighter. I know I still got a shot in the dark. Baby, we still got a shot in the dark.
KENNEY: We'll, of course, keep following this story and let you know what happens with Tim and Fred's plans. And in the meantime, be sure to check out the blog, npr.org/money. We'll have links there to all the stories we did on the radio and on the podcast about the school in l'Artibonite.
DAVIDSON: Oh, and I almost forgot, they do have a website. It's pretty simple at this point - haitischoolproject.org. So they will keep updating things there - haitischoolproject.org. Please send us your notes, your comments, your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Adam Davidson.
KENNEY: And I'm Caitlin Kenney. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOT IN THE DARK")
AUGUSTANA: (Singing) Well, nothing's holding me back. But I'm rising up slowly and getting higher. I've been living...
MCDEVITT: (Singing) The subprime lending industry combined with mortgage-backed securities to create a massive housing bubble in the United States. When the bubble popped, home prices fell 30 percent. There really wasn't much of a housing bubble in Dallas. Beachfront condos - buy them. Flip them - condo, condo, condo, condo, condo, condo, oh, no condo, no condo, no condo.
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