Tuesday, February 17, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #328] Brum, Broke and Home

This past weekend I made the latest stop on my Tour of Britain - Birmingham, or as it's (to some, un)affectionately known, Brum. Birmingham is Britain's second city and was one of the centres of the industrial revolution. Like the rest of those cities, it fell into decline once the world decided it didn't need so many wool knickers. And it has made its way back from the dark days farther than some other blighted urban oases - farther than Middlesbrough, for sure - but not as far as Manchester or the other Northern gems.

The word that appropriately comes to mind to describe Birmingham is middling*. It reminded me a lot of Boston. It's not a very interesting city - nice enough, if you've a reason to be there, such as for school or you want a comfortable, sedate, middle class life. But there's nothing striking or compelling, either in a good or bad way. I toured the bars, rifely as average as the city. You can tell the 70s had their way with the city though - lots of concrete, much of it designed by Polish architects from the look of it, which I love. It was fine, but no reason to rush back.


In local news, the credit crunch has hit home. I was lucky enough not to lose my job, but my flatmate was not. Today is his last day and there is absolutely nothing out there right now. But I really enjoy living with him, so in the interest of the longer-term living environment, I am going to make some rent concessions to him while he gets on his feet again. So, I will be poorer for a little while - TV nights, pasta and (a) bottle(s) wine anyone?

-- Special advertising section --

And speaking of TV nights, that's always easier when you live near - so why don't you come live nearer me?!

My development came to market just as the housing market crested and the credit market began to wane. They've not sold all the units, even with shared ownership and, as a result, are offering places on a unique scheme called rent-to-buy. With this programme, you get to rent a flat at a subsidised rate for up to three years.

The idea is, with cheaper rent, you can make the savings to buy. Then, at any time you decide in that three years, you can buy your flat (either outright or in shared ownership). So, it's a good, inexpensive way to get in a flat, wait out the decline in the market, and then jump in when you're ready. A friend of mine has just accepted a two-bed flat in the programme and it's a really good deal.

So, if you're keen, just drop a note to wbonazza@onehousinggroup.co.uk, CCing sales@onehousinggroup.co.uk and let them know you're interested. I think there's even an open house coming up.

Hope to have some of you as neighbours soon. :-)

Cheers,
Shaun

*For those not familiar with Britain's geography, Birmingham is the major city of a region called the West Midlands.



1) DSC00003 - Me reading the timely Christmas menu at a balti house


2) DSC00004 - Mary Keany crossing a footbridge in the city centre


3) DSC00008 - Mary and I at some basin someone told us about where the industrial canals come together. It's one of those urban-renewal centre points, but I can't for the life of me remember what it's called


4) DSC00009 - And we're ready for our close-up!

5) DSC00011 - Brum has some exquisite architecture

6) DSC00012 - Some even with trees on it


7) DSC00014 - Numbering as only the British could do

8) DSC00017 - The heart of 21st century Brum, Selfridges, at night

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://shaunism.blogspot.com


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Friday, February 13, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #327] Brum

I'm off to spend Valentine's Day weekend with balti, canals and controversial accents in romantic Birmingham.  I am sure it will pale in comparison to Middlesbrough, but I hope to come across an adventure or two.

We shall see...

Cheers,
Shaun

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://shaunism.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #326] It's just a jump to the left...

...to try and avoid the axe.  And it seems that, for the time being at least, I have.  Of course, the last "time being" was two months, so I am not exactly doing a little gay dance around East London.  But very relieved that I have somewhere to be at 08.00 in the morning - "for the time being".

The rumours of MS having layoffs today were true.  There was some thought that they'd only be for the finance (read: accounting) division, but they were all over.  Our overall larger team lost five people, but just one went from my more immediate team, though another person will now only be with us half time and elsewhere half time.

My year of exploring Britain - and a few other places on the side - will get ton continue for a little while longer - hooray!

Cheers,
Shaun


PS - Cerebral masturbation material for my urbanophile and coastal friends below.  As my friend, Russ, who sent it, says: "Finally, somebody revealed how expensive it is to live in NYC as opposed to SF.  Everybody always said how similar they are in terms of cost of living – unless you actually have lived in both cities...".



NyDailyNews.com 

N.Y.C. so costly you need to earn six figures to make middle class

BY Elizabeth Hays
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Friday, February 6th 2009, 1:04 PM

More than $2,000 a month for day care. Some of the highest phone bills in the country. Jam-packed, 50-plus-minute commutes to work.

You knew it was tough to live in New York City — but this tough?

A new report shows just how ugly — and expensive — New York City can be, especially for the middle class, squeezed by skyrocketing living costs and stagnant wages.

The study, released Thursday by the Center for an Urban Future, shows that New York City is hands-down the most expensive place to live in the country.

Among the findings:

  • A New Yorker would have to make $123,322 a year to have the same standard of living as someone making $50,000 in Houston.
  • In Manhattan, a $60,000 salary is equivalent to someone making $26,092 in Atlanta.
  • You knew it was expensive to live in Manhattan, but Queens? The report tagged Queens the fifth most expensive urban area in the country.
  • The average monthly rent in New York is $2,801, 53% higher than San Francisco, the second most expensive city in the country.

"Income levels that would enable a very comfortable lifestyle in other locales barely suffice to provide the basics in New York City," the report concludes.

Other belt-tightening details include:

  • New Yorkers paid about $34 a month for phone service in 2006. In San Francisco, similar service cost $17 a month.
  • Home heating costs have jumped 125% in the past five years and are up 243% since 1998.
  • Full-time day care costs can run up to $25,000 a year for one child, depending on the neighborhood, or about as much as some college tuitions.
  • Meanwhile, wages in the city have remained mostly flat in all boroughs but Manhattan — even during the boom years from 2003 to 2007.

It's not only money that makes life here hard, researchers said — which might not be news to most New Yorkers.

Take commutes, for example. The report found that many New Yorkers put up with commutes double the national average of 25.5 minutes.

Commuting to Manhattan from St. Albans, Queens, can take 51.7 minutes, while getting there from Canarsie, Brooklyn, can run 50.8 minutes.

Researchers said the combination of skyrocketing costs, stagnant wages and a deteriorating quality of life forced hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to flee the city for cheaper areas during the boom years from 2002 to 2006.

The report found that more New Yorkers left each year during the boom than left during the dark days of the early 1990s.

Center for Urban Future Director Jonathan Bowles noted that the number of people fleeing the city has slowed since 2007 as the rest of the country has sunk into recession, jobs have dried up nationwide and home values here started to sink.

Mayor Bloomberg downplayed the report but said he is concerned about the constant drumbeat of job losses in the city.

"There is turnover all the time. That's very healthy," Bloomberg said. "We're doing fine, but it is very worrisome, the number of people who are losing their jobs."

ehays@nydailynews.com

With Adam Lisberg



Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://shaunism.blogspot.com


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Friday, February 06, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #325] Snow

It's snowing again.  HUGE fluffy white flakes!  Like Midwestern snow!  I wonder if the city will shut down again...

Well, off I go to give TfL a shot!

Shaun

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://shaunism.blogspot.com

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #324] Student loans

This is off-topic, but something tells me those of us with student loans aren't going to be getting a phone call from our lenders any time soon letting us know about this option, so I thought I should get the knowledge out there.

Shaun



Help for Paying Off Your Student Loans

By Kim Clark Kim Clark Mon Feb 2, 4:27 pm ET

A new federal program starting this fall promises relief and hope for millions of students and recent graduates burdened with big federal educational debts. Starting July 1, those with federal student loans can ask the government to limit their monthly payments on their federal student loans to less than 15 percent of their income. Many of those who qualify for the new Income-Based Repayment (IBR) program will pay much less than that.

Those who earn less than a base budget allowance of one and a half times the poverty level for their household (which was $10,400 a year in 2008 for a single person) won't have to pay a penny on their federal student loans. Everybody else who qualifies for IBR will have to pay 15 percent of the difference between their income and the base budget allowance.

Best of all, those earning a low income because they are in public-service jobs can have their remaining federal student debts forgiven after 10 years of income-based payments. Those who maintain low incomes and stay current on their income-based payments for 25 years can also have their remaining debts forgiven, no matter what job they have.

"It will be an enormous help to many thousands of borrowers," says Edie Irons, spokeswoman for the Project on Student Debt

To take advantage of the new repayment program, current students should make sure to limit their borrowing to the federal student loans--primarily Stafford, Perkins, or Grad PLUS loans. By shopping around, students can still save a few hundred dollars on even federal loans. Those who've left school and are now faced with bills can simply apply to their lender for the new Income-Based Repayment option. Be careful not to mistakenly apply for older and less attractive but similar-sounding plans offered by the government and some lenders such as "Income Contingent Repayment" and "Income-Sensitive Repayment," Irons advises.

Anyone hoping for public-service loan forgiveness should first consolidate their loans directly with the federal government, because private lenders won't offer that goodie. Once that's done, they can apply for IBR. Then, they'll need to keep excellent records because the burden will be on the students to apply for forgiveness after 10 years of payments. They'll have to prove that they made all the payments on time and didn't violate any other rules of the forgiveness offer.

There are plenty of other catches in the new program, warns Deanne Loonin, a student loan expert for the National Consumer Law Center:

--Those who qualify for payments that don't even cover their interest will see their total debt actually rise year after year until they qualify for forgiveness.

--While those who earn debt cancellation through public service probably won't have to pay taxes on the amount forgiven, those who have any debts cancelled because of low income after 25 years might very well have to pay income taxes on the debts from which they are released.

In addition, she notes, the new program won't reduce payments on defaulted student loans. Those who have already fallen so far behind on payments that they are in default will be rejected for the program. The program also won't cover:

--Private, alternative, or "signature" educational loans.

--Parent loans such as federal Parent PLUS loans or any kind of alternative or private loans

--Other pressing debts. If you earn enough so that your federal education debt makes up less than 15 percent of your income above the base budget--even if most of your earnings go to medical bills or private educational debt, you won't qualify for Income-Based Repayment. The current rules will also likely disqualify, for example, debtors whose spouses are comparatively high earners--even if those spouses are also burdened with big education debts.

Those who worry they might be affected by some of the fine print can take heart, however. The Project on Student Debt, National Consumer Law Center, and other groups are lobbying for improvements to the law. Congressional staffers say their bosses and the new administration are considering some tweaks.

Copyright © 2009 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.


Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://shaunism.blogspot.com


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Monday, February 02, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #323] *** BREAKING NEWS ***

The weather in London has deviated slightly off mildly cold and moist!
All tubes must be closed or delayed by several hours and buses cannot run!
Employees must be sent home at 1:00 pm and no one should go outdoors unless absolutely necessary!

So went the headlines today. Well, basically to that effect...

Today London had its worst snowfall in 18 years - 8" of snow fell overnight and into the morning. I freely admit it is a real snowfall, sticking to the ground and everything, but it's an amount that in New York would only get a word of caution, almost in passing. Here, in London, the city has quite literally shut down.

Every tube line was at least part suspended and delays were endemic; even the Waterloo & City line, which is entirely underground and has only two stations (Waterloo and Bank [formerly called, you guessed it, City]) was suspended. Most overland train routes were closed and don't even think about flying in or out of here today. From 03.00 this morning, long before any real accumulation, every bus route in London was halted - this despite London's unforgivable nightly closure of the tube. Late shift worker needing to get home? Too bad.

London sauntered along heroically as Hitler rained bombs over London, but eight inches of fluffy, chilly, white stuff proved too much to bear.

But it turned out well for me - I couldn't go in until 10.30 (and didn't have to go in at all, but now's not a good time for uncommitted impressions) and we were sent home a bit after 13.00 due to the "severe and worsening" weather conditions. Only three of us made it in today and only my manager and I, being the closest to Canary Wharf, are even trying tomorrow.

Attaching some photos from my journey into work on this apocalyptic day - and hope you are all warm and safe wherever you are.

Cheers,
Shaun


1) DSC00019 - Looking out from my balcony


2) DSC00020 - The City


3) DSC00021 - The DLR lines and, somewhere out there, Canary Wharf


4) DSC00027 - Shadwell station tormenting commuters: "C'mon give it a try. BWAHAHAHAHA!"


5) DSC00031 - Watney Market and my building behind. The Polish workers from the bakery felt right at home!


6) DSC00032 - Taxis ply Commercial Road, absent of its normal bevy of red buses


7) DSC00033 - The brave few who made it to Canary Wharf, keeping what's left of Britain's financial sector ticking


8) DSC00038 - And when I got home, the City had fallen behind the grey


And two pictures from my friend, Alexi, featuring a snowy taxi and deserted park.

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

http://shaunism.blogspot.com


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