Rent-To-Own Homes Pros And Cons

How Does Rent-to-Own for Homes Work? house key

What are rent-to-own homes and agreements? In rent-to-own agreements, tenants typically rent the home for anywhere from two to five years, paying above market-rate rent to build rent credits. When the lease-to-own agreement expires, tenants can purchase the home for the listing price, minus any rent credits they’ve acquired. If the tenant decides not to purchase the home when the lease expires, the landlord can decide whether to keep the individual on as a month-to-month renter, or ask this person to leave so the landlord can sell the home.

What Are the Advantages of Rent-to-Own Homes?

Renters who want to buy a home yet wouldn’t qualify for a down payment appreciate lease-to-purchase agreements. They can rent the home for an agreed-upon timeframe (typically several years), then have the option to buy when the agreement expires. This provides extra time to save for a down payment.

Individuals with poor credit can work to build credit while renting the home, so they qualify for a better mortgage loan when it’s time to buy.

Property owners enjoy steady rental income for the duration of the lease-to-own agreement, then receive a payout if the renter purchases the home. Some landlords like turning over properties through rent-to-own, using the influx of cash to trade up from older housing stock to more desirable (and prosperous) homes.

Property owners in tight real estate markets appreciate having options. Homeowners who cannot find qualified tenants for yearly leases may prefer to get someone under a rent-to-own agreement than to let a home sit vacant while they cover mortgage payments.

What Are the Disadvantages of Rent-to-Own Homes?

For renters, rent-to-own means putting more money upfront to build rent credits that will go toward the eventual real estate purchase. If renters’ personal situations change (for instance, they need to relocate) or they decide the home isn’t right for them, they’ll lose the extra money they paid.

If the price of the home declines over the course of the lease-to-purchase agreement, renters wind up with less of a bargain. The converse is also true: When home values rise, renters get a great deal on a property that may have been outside their budget.

For property owners, rent-to-own agreements work well in tight markets and when prices are flat. If the local real estate market heats up, sellers with existing rent-to-own agreements earn less money than they would have.

Individuals considering, “should I rent to own a home?” should have a real estate lawyer review the terms of any agreement. Sellers may put in clauses that disadvantage renters — whether it’s an escape clause if the market improves or a clause prohibiting late payments from earning rent credits.

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Should downsizing baby boomers rent or buy?

We can unequivocally conclude: It depends.

for rent

Rent here in the big city! (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s one of the most difficult questions people face when they sell a house: is it better to rent or buy? Writing in the Washington Post, Michele Lerner looks at the issue and talks to a financial advisor:

“Many of our clients who are at or near retirement like the idea of downsizing and moving into the city or closer to the city, and they assume it will be less expensive than maintaining a large home,” says Laly Kassa, managing director of financial planning at Chevy Chase Trust in Bethesda. “The reality is that it’s just as expensive to move closer to the city to an area that’s walkable and close to transit. Some are opting to buy, and some are opting to rent, but the decision is unique to each client.”

Lerner is talking mostly to wealthier people (the first couple has a second home in Italy) but for others, the house may be their biggest asset, and selling it unlocks that equity. And while I do go on about getting out of the suburbs and into a walkable community, you don’t have to move to the big city to get a taste of this; there are lots of university towns, for example, that are walkable, fun and affordable. And when you rent, you get to check them out without as big a commitment.

Jane Hodges of the Wall Street Journal notes that people with oversized houses and inadequate savings can do much better by selling and then renting. She writes:

Renting has both advantages and disadvantages for older consumers. On the plus side, renters typically enjoy a wider range of housing options, flexibility (a one-year lease is a short-term commitment) and the fact that building managers handle repairs, landscaping and snow shoveling.

The money question

Party in mom's apartmentParty time at my mom’s apartment. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Certainly that’s how it worked out for my parents. After they sold their house, they moved into a popular building but found the apartment a bit small and moved after just a few years. Their next apartment was huge, and when my father died, mom called the landlord and moved to a smaller apartment a few floors down. It was a building from the ’60s and had a terrible kitchen and no air conditioning, but the staff all knew her and watched out for her as she aged in place. With additional help in later years, she was able to stay in that building for 30 years.

Was it better for her to have rented all those years instead of owning? Probably, as she would not have seen the gain in value in her lifetime, and meanwhile her invested money did quite nicely and she was able to live on the income. You can’t eat a condo, and as John Maynard Keynes noted, “In the long run we are all dead.”

On the other hand, you can’t “fritter away” a condo or house; the money is locked up and could appreciate a lot more. There may also be tax advantages. But as Americans know from the Great Recession, housing prices don’t always go up, and they certainly don’t go up evenly across the country. Some homeowners are still under water 10 years later.

Renting may make more sense than buying for boomers for a lot of reasons, but here are the best of them:

  • It’s more convenient: None of the usual homeowner worries about maintenance and roof repairs apply — the landlord does it.
  • It’s more flexible: A condo is a real commitment, whereas a lease is much less of a deal and can often be terminated with a penalty if you really want to get out of it.
  • It can be cheaper depending on where you’re moving. People also underestimate the costs and insecurities of condo living where there can be high operating costs, special assessments and changes in taxes.
  • It might be easier at the next stage of your life. Things change, and if something happens and you have to move, it’s easier to move out of a rental than to dump a condo in a hurry.
  • You have money! Why not enjoy a bit of it instead of tying it all up in real estate?

Sanibel IslandSanibel Island might be a nice alternative right now. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Renting also offers some real opportunity to try out different parts of the city, the country or even the world for a couple of years, but buying pretty much ties you down. Just put all your stuff in one of Matt’s storage lockers and hit the road. That might be the best investment of your time and money that you ever make.

Lloyd Alter (  @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Here’s What A Federal Shutdown Means For The IRS And Taxpayers

Millions of taxpayers expect to be ready on January 29 when tax season opens, but will the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) be ready? In anticipation of a federal government shutdown, the IRS released its contingency plan for the filing season because, yes, tax season will go on even during a shutdown.

The agency said it does not “anticipate utilizing the plan” but that may be optimistic. On Thursday, House Republicans approved a bill to keep the lights on until mid-February but a similar bill in the Senate failed to garner enough votes. While Republicans control the Senate, they only have 51 votes, but 60 votes are needed to pass an appropriations bill, which means they would have needed support from Democrats. It turns out they needed more than that: Five Republican Senators voted no and one abstained (it’s worth noting that House Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) cast a no vote as a procedural matter in order to raise the matter for reconsideration). You can see how your Senator voted here.

Without a deal, the government officially ran out of money for the fiscal year and shut down at midnight. Of course, shutdown is a loaded word since not every facet of government shuts down. For example, the IRS will maintain some functions, and those are outlined in their contingency plan. Specifically, the agency notes that “If the IRS is confronted by a lapse in appropriations during the 2018 Tax Filing Season (January 1 – April 30, 2018) the IRS will need to continue return processing activities to the extent necessary to protect Government property, which includes tax revenue, and maintain the integrity of the federal tax collection process, along with certain other activities authorized under the Anti-Deficiency Act.”

The Anti-Deficiency Act (text here) is a series of laws dating back more than 100 years. The Act is codified at Title 31 (Money and Finance) and is intended to stop federal agencies from spending federal dollars that aren’t authorized, as well barring them from accepting voluntary services (meaning that employees can’t work for free during a shutdown). The penalties for violating the Act are pretty severe, which is why federal agencies provide a written contingency plan.

During a shutdown, agencies are allowed to perform activities that are supported by funding that doesn’t expire at the end of the fiscal year, as well as other activities that are either expressly permitted under the law or are deemed necessary. Sometimes those activities cross over. For example, Social Security payments are funded outside of an annual appropriation, so those employees will continue to work, as well as those IRS employees who support them (even though IRS funding is not outside of annual appropriation).

How downsizing and decluttering are fueling the self-storage boom

A self-storage facility

A nation that buys together stores together: The self-storage industry has experienced remarkable growth over the past couple of years. (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr)

As my colleague Lloyd Alter has pointed out, getting rid of stuff can be hard during an “era of minimalism and mobility.” We can downsize, de-clutter, edit and un-hoard until a satisfactory level of homey minimalism is achieved. We can KonMari until the cows come home. But at the end of the day, our jettisoned possessions — many of which we aren’t fully ready to part ways with — need to go somewhere.

In an ideal world, castoffs are hauled off to a secondhand store or charity shop where someone who truly wants or needs an antiquated but still functional kitchen appliance or an objet d’art of questionable taste promptly swoops them up. Our rejects are re-homed and reused — and the cycle continues.

Even better, superfluous furniture and bric-a-brac with no place left to go is handed down to friends and loved ones with the hopes that these things will “stay in the family.” But as Lloyd points out, this is easier said than done as potential recipients increasingly don’t want or simply don’t have room for them. Whereas my parents furnished a vacation home with possessions passed down to them, the situation would be much different if I were to be bequeathed with two moving vans filled with heirlooms. I live in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City and am at max capacity (and not an entirely huge fan of antique oak and chinoiserie).

Our newfound willingness to purge unwanted possessions from our homes has certainly benefitted one industry: self-storage.

Storage unit padlocked doorSo much for crawlspace and basements: As real estate developers embrace self-storage, stuff-burdened consumers clamor for storage space that’s affordable and close to home. (Photo: KOMUNews/flickr)

A multibillion dollar industry

As we continue to shed — but in many cases, not completely get rid of — stuff, the businesses of self-storage is going gangbusters. As reported by Bloomberg, there are an estimated 54,000 self-storage facilities spread across the United States, which, not too surprisingly, is home to 90 percent of the global self-storage industry. In 2016, this once super-niche industry generated nearly $33 billion in revenue –—that’s nearly three times Hollywood’s box office gross that year.

A recent look at the self-storage boom published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Reviewnotes that the total square footage of rentable self-storage space in the U.S. in 2014 (a year or two ahead of the boom) could cover Pittsburgh more than one and a half times at a whopping 2.63 billion square feet. That same year, American developers invested $590 million in building new self-storage facilities. By August 2017, that number topped $2.2 billion.

“The demand has continued to grow. There’s so many factors coming together that have contributed to this boom,” Steve Mitnick, the owner of a Pittsburgh-area chain of self-storage facilities, tells the Tribune-Review. “From a developer’s perspective, it’s also become a more ‘sexy’ industry.”

Yes, nothing says sexy quite like a couple hundred corrugated metal cubes stuffed with dead grandmother knickknacks.

While Mitnick credits a confident economy for the self-storage industry’s exponential growth, Bloomberg points out that this trend has been building for decades. Over the past 50 years, Americans have simply become more likely to acquire new stuff with expenditures on durable goods increasing nearly 20-fold between June 1967 and June 2017. And as baby boomers start to downsize, all of these items accumulated over the years risk becoming orphaned. So, in many cases, they go into storage.

“The [self-storage] industry also thrives on disruption, serving as a temporary resting place for the stuff of the dead, the recently divorced, the downsizers and the dislocated,” writes Bloomberg.

stuff ready for storageMany Americans are downsizing and embracing a more minimalist lifestyle. But more often than not, accumulated possessions just get moved around and don’t truly disappear. (Photo: Beatrice Murch/flickr)

Meanwhile across the pond …

The self-storage situation in the United Kingdom pales in comparison to the decidedly more attached-to-stuff U.S. But self-storage has become markedly more lucrative to British developers. The number of renters in urban centers like London is rapidly climbing while the number of potential homeowners — defeated by astronomical home prices — continues to plummet.

According to a 2017 study, almost half of British pensioners are actively entertaining the idea of downsizing to a smaller, more manageable home. As this stuff-shedding segment of the population continues to age, the demand for self-storage units will only grow. Per Bloomberg, British real estate investors view this trend as a “Brexit-proof and recession-proof opportunity.”

The U.K. is home to 47 percent of European self-storage facilities, yet Bloomberg notes that the rest of Europe will likely catch up as “urbanization, smaller living spaces and rising property prices force homeowners to seek places to store their property.” Interestingly, teeny-tiny and tourist-overrun Iceland, which has the one of Europe’s highest urbanization rates, comes in third behind the U.K. and the Netherlands in per capita self-storage space.

A slowdown ahead?

While many industry insiders believe self-storage will continue on an upward trend, real estate research firm Green Street Advisors thinks the industry is poised for a slowdown in the near future. The reason?

According to Green Street, once-popular goods that tend to take up space are shrinking or disappearing altogether. Take photo albums, for example, a treasured but also space-hogging staple in many a self-storage unit now becoming obsolete as photo storage goes digital. Other items, consumer electronics in particular, that were once normally relegated to self-storage have also become so dainty in size that finding a place for them at home (or in the garage) is no longer as big of an issue.

What’s more, a growing number of consumers are opting, begrudgingly or not, to spend their money on services — health care, for example — instead of stuff.

For many space-strapped homeowners, particularly those in possession of family heirlooms that simply can’t be offloaded at the local Goodwill, the options are limited. The best advice is this: The next time you buy something of significance, don’t just consider its price, its durability or how it will look in your front room. Also consider if it’s worth a couple hundred bucks per month that you, or your loved ones, will have to pay to store it.

DACA Recipients Can Apply For Renewal, Government Says

The Department of Homeland Security says it will once again accept renewal requests from recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in response to a court order.

“Until further notice, and unless otherwise provided in this guidance, the DACA policy will be operated on the terms in place before it was rescinded on Sept. 5, 2017,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of DHS, wrote on its website Saturday.

The Obama administration began the program in 2012, which enabled certain young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to apply for work permits and protection from deportation. As of September, about 700,000 people are currently protected under the program.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in September that the Trump administration would wind down the DACA program. The administration said it was executive overreach and called on Congress to come up with a solution to the status of DACA recipients, also called DREAMers.

But a federal judge in San Francisco halted that plan late Tuesday and ordered the administration to resume processing DACA renewals while a lawsuit against the September decision moves forward.

The statement from USCIS says people who have already been granted deportation deferral under DACA can request renewal, but the agency will not accept new requests from people who have never received deferred action before. If someone’s DACA expired on or after Sept. 5, 2016, that person may file a renewal request, the agency says; people who received DACA that expired before then can file a new DACA request.

President Trump held a meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday about passing new legislation to allow the DREAMers to stay in the country, though he has pushed for funding for a wall with Mexico to be part of any immigration policy overhaul. He also received widespread criticism this past week after reports that he referred to immigrants from certain countries using a vulgar slur.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

DACA Recipients Can Apply For Renewal

Government Says DACA advocates march near Trump Tower in August in New York City. The government says it will resume DACA renewals. DACA advocates march near Trump Tower in August in New York City. The government says it will resume DACA renewals. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By James Doubek –

The Department of Homeland Security says it will once again accept renewal requests from recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in response to a court order. “Until further notice, and unless otherwise provided in this guidance, the DACA policy will be operated on the terms in place before it was rescinded on Sept. 5, 2017,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of DHS, wrote on its website Saturday. The Obama administration began the program in 2012, which enabled certain young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to apply for work permits and protection from deportation. As of September, about 700,000 people are currently protected under the program.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in September that the Trump administration would wind down the DACA program. The administration said it was executive overreach and called on Congress to come up with a solution to the status of DACA recipients, also called DREAMers. Demand for Immigration Lawyers Surges in Central Valley Immigration Arrests Increase in Northern California Advocates Rally, Opponents Threaten Lawsuit After 5 Years of DACA But a federal judge in San Francisco halted that plan late Tuesday and ordered the administration to resume processing DACA renewals while a lawsuit against the September decision moves forward. The statement from USCIS says people who have already been granted deportation deferral under DACA can request renewal, but the agency will not accept new requests from people who have never received deferred action before. If someone’s DACA expired on or after Sept. 5, 2016, that person may file a renewal request, the agency says; people who received DACA that expired before then can file a new DACA request.

President Trump held a meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday about passing new legislation to allow the DREAMers to stay in the country, though he has pushed for funding for a wall with Mexico to be part of any immigration policy overhaul. He also received widespread criticism this past week after reports that he referred to immigrants from certain countries using a vulgar slur. Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

6 Steps to Severe Storm Recovery

Limit downtime with this post-storm cleanup checklist

Severe Storm

Do you know what to do if a severe storm damages your facility? Every minute counts after a natural disaster. This six-step checklist by emergency repair provider Cintas can help you minimize post-storm downtime.

  • Be aware of safety hazards. Loose debris and shock hazards are not uncommon after a severe storm event. Make sure employees know ahead of time how to shut off electricity in storm-affected areas. Even if electricity is down, it may be restored without notice, so take precautions accordingly.
  • Review your emergency preparedness plan. You should already have a preparedness plan with up-to-date contact information for emergency repair providers and instructions and checklists for emergency situations. Review emergency procedures during regular staff meetings to make sure employees know how to get help during a crisis and minimize panic during an emergency.
  • Inspect exterior glass and doors. Glass exteriors are two of the most important items to assess after a storm as they usually take the brunt of severe weather. Check the condition of handles, locks and weather stripping. Even small-scale damage like scratches, moisture buildup or hairline fractures can easily escalate into bigger problems and create hazards for employees and visitors.
  • Check the water lines. Flood-damaged facilities often suffer from plumbing backflow, pipe blockages and clogs. Avoid drain line backups and keep sewage out of your building by bringing in a professional to extract and jet the pipes after the storm.
  • Disinfect surfaces. Remove anything that has been contaminated by flood water and thoroughly disinfect all surfaces. Be careful when removing contaminated materials – it’s easy to spread contaminants to other surfaces.
  • Deep clean the floor. Any floor that has been affected by flood water needs to be deep cleaned, regardless of what kind of floor it is. Minimize bacteria and mold growth with cleaning chemicals, adequate dwell time and high-pressure steam

At Least 17 Dead in California Mudslides, Over a Dozen Missing

By Marcio Jose Sanchez and Amanda Lee Myers –

MONTECITO — Anxious family members awaited word on loved ones Wednesday as rescue crews searched for more than a dozen people missing after mudslides in Southern California destroyed an estimated 100 houses, swept away cars and left at least 17 victims dead.

“It’s just waiting and not knowing, and the more I haven’t heard from them — we have to find them,” said Kelly Weimer, whose elderly parents’ home was wrecked by the torrent of mud, trees and boulders that flowed down a fire-scarred mountain and slammed into the coastal town of Montecito in Santa Barbara County early Tuesday.

The drenching storm that triggered the disaster had cleared out, giving way to sunny skies, as hundreds of searchers carefully combed a landscape strewn with hazards.

“We’ve gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud,” said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief.

“The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It’s crusty on top but soft underneath, so we’re having to be very careful.”

Buzzerio led a team of 14 firefighters and six dogs in thick debris. They used long-handled tools to search the muck in the painstaking task.

Teams rescued three people Wednesday, but they also discovered two more bodies, raising the death count to 17, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. Seventeen people were reported missing.

A dozen people were hospitalized at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and four of them were in critical condition, Dr. Brett Wilson said.

“Most injuries we saw were related to fast-moving debris,” Wilson said. “You can’t even fathom what these poor patients went through to finally make their way to the emergency department.”

The deluge destroyed 100 houses and damaged 300 others, Santa Barbara County authorities said. Eight commercial properties were destroyed and 20 damaged.

Some 500 firefighters and other rescue workers were searching debris spread across a wide swath of Montecito, a wealthy enclave of about 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres.

Helicopters were used to hoist more than 50 people to safety from roofs, where they scrambled to escape the mud or because debris had blocked roads and left them stranded.

At one point, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued a family of five and their two dogs. Video shot from the hovering chopper showed a house surrounded by muck and debris as a mother, muddy from the waist down, handed her infant to two rescuers on the roof and then got help onto it. She and her newborn were hoisted to safety, followed by the rest of the family.

Weimer’s missing parents, Jim and Alice Mitchell, didn’t heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home Monday to celebrate her father’s 89th birthday. She hoped to find them in a shelter or hospital.

“They’re an adorable couple, and they were in love with their house. That’s their forever home,” Weimer said.

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town. But it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.

“We totally thought we were out of the woods,” said Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped damage in both disasters. “I was frozen yesterday morning thinking, ‘This is a million times worse than that fire ever was.’”

Residents have a look at boulders which were carried down nearby hillsides by flooding in Carpinteria on January 9, 2018. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

Marco Farrell, a real estate agent, cited “evacuation fatigue” as his reason not to leave — a decision he wouldn’t make next time. He woke to the sound of pounding rain early Tuesday and went outside to investigate.

He was two blocks from home when he heard a rumble that he realized was the mudslide he feared.

“I ran as fast I could and yelled, ‘Flash flood!’ as I passed neighbors’ homes,” he said.

Farrell warned his parents inside, and within a minute, a boulder plowed through the kitchen door. The mud flow went through the home and burst through a backdoor.

Farrell planned to float his elderly parents to a hillside on a surfboard, but it was unnecessary. The mud never got above their thighs and after about an hour of huddling in a hallway, he led his folks and dog outside where a passing fire truck took them to safety.

The flow was so powerful it swept several homes off their foundations, crushed others and wrapped cars around trees. At least two unrecognizably mangled cars were carried like driftwood all the way to the beach, where they were partly covered in seaweed.

In Montecito, heavy debris still covered a stretch U.S. Highway 101, closing the main link between Ventura and Santa Barbara for 30 miles. It was not expected to be open until Monday.

Another storm-related death was reported in Northern California, where a man was killed when his car was apparently struck by falling rocks in a landslide Tuesday evening in Napa County.

How urban design warms up cold-weather cities

Edmonton leads the charge of northern cities embracing winter.

Instead of fleeing from it, Edmonton is bundling up and embracing its frigid winters through smart urban design and civic engagement. (Photo: Heidi G/flickr)

Much attention has been paid to how urban design can help overcrowded and perilously hot cities cool down as the planet warms and the global population shifts away from rural areas.

Less discussed is how climate-sensitive design can aid northern cities where the weather is extreme in the reverse — places that don’t necessarily bake like a concrete oven in summer and aren’t lashed by tropical storms come fall; places characteristically more shiver-inducing than sweltering. How can urban design make residents healthier and happier in cities notorious for being really, really cold?

Historically, city planners in cold-weather North American cities have gone out of their way to work around brutal winter temps instead of with them. Throughout the 20th century, going outside while downtown became optional in numerous northern cities through the creation of pedestrian skyways, underground tunnels and labyrinthine subterranean mini-cities a la Montreal’s RÉSO.

Moving pedestrian life indoors often means that downtown cores are sucked free of street-level hustle-and-bustle for a long stretch of the year. Sometimes, city-dwellers remain inside longer, even after the temps rise and it’s safe to go outside without donning Planet Hoth-inspired outerwear. While nice — and often necessary — to have an amenity-filled refuge to turn to when the weather outside is frightful, civic life that exists solely within a climate-controlled bubble located above or below the street year-round can be detrimental. Street life risks becoming unattractive, obsolete.

Snow brings out the kid in everyone – and 9 more reasons to love winter! 

Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta and North America’s northernmost city with a metro area that’s population exceeds 1 million, wants to prove that cold-weather cities can have it both ways, inside and out.

Home to a perennially divisive 8-mile network of tunnels and elevated walkways known as the Edmonton Pedway (not to mention one of the world’s largest shopping malls), this fast-growing Canadian city with exceptionally frigid winters has the indoors firmly covered. But in recent years, Edmonton has also gone all-out luring people outdoors. City leaders are embracing arctic temps and recommending design strategies that make the outdoors more alluring. Sure, the weather may be eyebrow-freezingly bad — average wintertime lows in Edmonton hover around 14 degrees Fahrenheit and can dip much lower — but why not make the best of it?

Snowman in Edmonton, AlbertaNot so harsh: Edmonton casts a warm, romantic glow during the winter months. (Photo: Mack Male/flickr)

Blocking wind, chasing the sun

In late 2016, Edmonton City Council endorsed comprehensive Winter Design Guidelines geared to make the built environment less hostile to pedestrians in cold and icy climes.

Trees, not surprisingly, play a crucial role. Per city guidelines, dense rows of evergreens — spruce, in particular — serve as effective wind-blockers along popular walking trails and paths while deciduous trees enable the bright winter sun to reach where it’s needed the most. Similarly, buildings — especially buildings that have adjacent outdoor space, including patios and public plazas — should be oriented toward the south for maximum sunlight exposure. (Despite frigid winter temps, Edmonton enjoys unusually abundant sunshine almost year-round.)

New and tall buildings should be strategically designed with features like balconies, podiums and stepped-back facades that block prevailing winds and downdrafts. Skyscraper-speckled Edmonton already has dastardly wind tunnels in spades. Even colossal snow mounds can be used to block wind — and give city-dwellers a designated place to frolic in the white stuff. (Worth noting: One of the many downsides to pedway networks found in cities like Edmonton is that elevated passageways and pedestrian bridges can accelerate wind speeds at street-level.)

“We’ve done a really good job of creating hostile micro-climates,” city council member Ben Henderson told the Edmonton Journal in 2016, referring to the city’s plentitude of north-facing outdoor spaces and downtown wind tunnels.

Winter Design Principles, EdmontonCity councillors want to see the implementation of more winter-centric design standards. (Image: WinterCity Edmonton)

On the aesthetic front, buildings and public spaces should employ bursts of color — bright enough to help offset winter darkness but also warm enough to prevent glare and “enliven the winterscape.” Similarly, outdoor lighting should be warm, pedestrian-scale and help cast oft-overlooked buildings and infrastructure in an ethereal glow.

Other winter design strategies include installing push-button heaters at high-traffic bus stops; widening sidewalks; raising crosswalks to make navigating the streets easier, particularly for those with mobility issues; installing barrier-free warming huts in public parks and along trails; and improving cycling infrastructure for increased wintertime bike commuting. The recommendations — many of them inspired by or lifted directly from Scandinavian cities — go on and on.

Of course, 93-pages chock-full of beneficial cold-weather design recommendations aren’t all that beneficial unless they’re installed, instituted and written into zoning law. Some, including design considerations related to tree placement, already have been.

“They’re meaningless if they just sit on the shelf,” Sue Holdsworth, coordinator of Edmonton’s so-called WinterCity Strategy and advisor to the Winter Cities Institute, tells the Journal.

Ice rink at city hall, Edmonton, AlbertaIn Edmonton, even city hall has an ice rink. (Photo: IQRemix/flickr)

Unabashedly in love … with winter

Edmonton clearly has plenty of smart ideas on how to make outdoor life more hospitable during the winter: blocking wind, capturing sunlight, beautifying public spaces and limiting the expansion of the Edmonton Pedway are at the core of the city’s WinterCity Strategy. (The guidelines explain why the Pedway gets such a specific call out: “generally, elevated systems are considered bad for civic life, bad for retail business and bad for culture …”)

But perhaps most crucially, Edmonton is duly rewarding those who venture outdoors. After all, why bundle up and brave the elements if there’s no reason to?

With over 900,000 residents living in the city proper, Edmonton has succeeded in flipping the narrative on winter and, by some small miracle, managed to generate genuine excitement about several prolonged months of biting cold. Instead of resenting winter, Edmonton owns it.

As Simon O’Byrne, an urban planner and co-chair of the city’s WinterCity Strategy, tells CityLab: “Winter conjures up these very nostalgic images — think Joni Mitchell skating on a river. It captures the whole essence of Canadian romanticism, which people actually love.”

He adds: “Edmonton’s not going to out-New-York New York, it’s not going to beat out Southern California for weather, but what we can be is a great mid-size city in North America that reacts really well to its environment.”

Key to this — aside from actively promoting nippy weather as the greatest thing to ever happen to this mid-size Canadian city — is the use of parks and public spaces for cultural programming and (limited) commercial development that provides “people a place to linger, warm up and enjoy.”

Come winter, Edmonton functions as a sort of revolving showcase for glacial art installations, one-off al fresco events and lively annual festivals. (All are conveniently listed in the city’s annual “Winter Excitement Guide.”) In 2015, Edmonton garnered headlines for opening the Edmonton Freezeway, a spectacularly illuminated artificial ice trail now known as the Victoria Park IceWay. (The trail’s creator, Matt Gibbs, envisioned more of an extensive pedestrian “ice highway” than the scaled-back skating loop eventually developed by the city.)

Ice Castles, a Narnia-esque walk-though attraction, recently opened to enthusiastic, bundled-up crowds for its third consecutive year at Hawrelak Park in the city’s public green space-laced river valley. A hugely appealing conceptual scheme — one of 10 shortlisted proposals for a city landmark design contest called the Edmonton Project — would see a handful of Scandinavian-style public saunas open within the river valley (if, of course, the concept happens to win).

“We’ve got nice, cold, dry winters and a beautiful river valley. We need this,” urban planner and concept co-creator Emma Sandborn tells CBC Radio.

Our growing winter culture may be young, but a hot sauna on the bank of our river could just be the thing that makes more of us fall (even more) in love with winter. Right on, @emmAuthentic! 

David Staples: River valley sauna would help cure our immature winter culture

If we do nothing else major in 2018 in terms of building a healthier, happier city, let’s find a way to build a large, gorgeous and public sauna spa next to the river in the valley downtown.

Ice castles, skating trails, riverside parkland dotted with saunas … Edmonton is the closest thing you’ll find to a real-deal cold-weather urban utopia in North America. And other northern cities have taken notice. Recently writing for the Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely praises Edmonton’s WinterCity strategy while wondering why his own city can’t better celebrate its own cold-weather qualities.

“Edmonton has the advantage of more consistent and predictable winter conditions — less slush and wet, more cold and clear. The variability of our weather is a challenge for outdoor fun, for sure,” writes Reevely. “But the evidence is right in front of us, and in 2017 it’s been stronger than ever: Ottawans will go outside and play in the cold, given half a chance. Let’s make more chances.”

As much of North America emerges from a brutal cold spell with rest of winter not looking all that much better, it might seem difficult to love chilly weather quite as much as Edmonton does. (I, for one, am already done.) Still, there’s something refreshing about how Canada’s sixth largest city has refused to turn its back to the cold. By using urban design and civic engagement to transform less-than-ideal weather into an attribute, Edmonton is evolving into a city that’s livable during all seasons, even seasons that prompt an oh hell no the second you step out the door.

California Legislators Introduce Bill to Block Trump’s Offshore Drilling Push

Since the 1980s, California’s local governments have developed strategies to stop oil drilling in federal waters. (Molly Samuel/KQED)

The Trump Administration is proposing a major expansion of offshore oil leasing nationwide, including off the California Coast.

It would be the first West Coast oil lease sale since the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. State and local officials could easily throw a wrench in the plans.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and long-time offshore drilling opponent. “I think the Pacific part of this five-year leasing plan is dead on arrival.”

Becoming an “Energy Superpower”

The Department of the Interior is proposing lease sales from Northern to Southern California beginning in 2020, as well as in Alaska and on the Atlantic Coast. Exactly where those oil leases are would be determined later in the planning process.

“This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance.”

West Coast elected officials were quick to condemn the plan.

“They’ve chosen to forget the utter devastation of past offshore oil spills to wildlife and to the fishing, recreation and tourism industries in our states,” Governor Jerry Brown said in a joint statement with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “They’ve chosen to ignore the science that tells us our climate is changing and we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Cities and Counties Pull Up the Welcome Mat

The leases would be offered in federal waters, which begin three miles offshore and extend to 200 miles offshore.

But oil companies must bring that oil onshore to refine and sell it. That’s where they run into state and local jurisdictions.

During the last federal push to open up oil drilling in the 1980s, the City of Santa Cruz passed a measure that banned new onshore oil facilities, including pipelines, unless it went to a public vote.

Many other California cities and counties followed suit, including Sonoma, San Mateo, Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties. These “onshore facilities” ordinances survived a legal challenge from an oil industry association in 1990.

“They still stand today and those tend to have a chilling effect on leasing by an oil company because they aren’t going to have anywhere to take any oil or gas they might find,” said Charter. “I think there’s going to be more pretty soon after today’s announcement.”

California Legislators Respond With New Bill

California has banned offshore oil drilling in state waters, which extend from the coastline to three miles offshore. But state legislators are looking at taking it a step farther.

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) is introducing SB 834, which would ban new pipelines, piers, wharves, or other infrastructure that would go through state waters. A similar bill died in committee last year. A companion bill, AB 1775, is being introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance).

That could dissuade oil companies from buying oil leases. Without a pipeline to bring oil onshore, oil companies would have to turn to other means, like using ships for transport, which is generally seen as riskier and more expensive.

The State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over state waters, has already adopted a resolution that directs staff “to take appropriate actions to ensure that any oil and gas product from new drilling never makes landfall in California,” according to commission chair Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

Price of Oil

Economics is perhaps the largest factor in determining whether new oil rigs appear off the California coast. Oil prices have been low and offshore drilling is generally much more expensive than exploration on land.

Still, oil industry groups applauded the Administration’s drilling push.

“This new offshore leasing plan is an important step towards harnessing our nation’s energy potential for the benefit of American energy consumers,” said the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito in a statement.

In comments to the Department of the Interior, Chevron expressed interest in opening the Pacific Coast for leasing, but ranked Southern California as seventh on their priority list, after regions in the Gulf and Atlantic.

“Our priorities in offshore exploration are in the Gulf of Mexico and understanding the potential of the Atlantic waters off the East Coast,” Chevron said in an email.

Still, many environmental groups believe that today’s oil prices wouldn’t stop oil companies from speculating on leases now and waiting for the conditions to change.

“The economics aren’t there now,” said Charter. “But because they can acquire leases and hold them, they can drill later.”

The Trump Administration’s plan could take up to two years to finalize with the first leases being offered in California in 2020. The public comment period opens on January 8 and the Department of the Interior will hold a meeting in Sacramento on February 8.