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Life Arts    H3'ed 7/16/12

YES! Magazine's Solutions-Oriented Journalism Tackles The Housing Crisis

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My guest today is Doug Pibel, Yes! Magazine's managing editor. Welcome to OpEdNews, Doug. Your latest edition is dedicated to the concept of home.  Can you tell our readers why? 

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photo: courtesy of Doug Pibel

Hello, Joan. First, thanks for inviting me to chat with you. When I read your interviews, I always think of one of the first issues of YES! I worked on, back in 2006, when we featured your work with "Invisible Ballots." Great to see where you've come from there.

To answer your question, we've watched the fallout from the 2008 crash, and especially the effect it's had on the housing market. Millions of people have lost their homes, and nothing much is being done to get them help. The government's provided plenty of relief to banks and financiers who took a hit in the meltdown. But that relief's not doing anything for distressed homeowners or people without homes.

We wanted to find out who is working to change the way we own and finance homes; who's working to help the humans, rather than the institutions, who lost everything.

And we wanted to take a look at what we, as a culture, might change in our expectations about what a home is. For a lot of reasons, ever-bigger, isolated, single-family homes really don't seem to be the best answer. We set out to look for the best alternatives.

So, don't leave us hanging. What did you find out?

We found out that many of the solutions are really simple, at least at first glance. Harder, maybe, given the amount of indoctrination we've had about what we "need." For instance, just 60 years ago, the average new house in the United States was a bit less than 1,000 square feet. Now, that's the average space available per person. Did our needs really change that much? Or have we just been sold the idea that we need that much space?

We discovered that it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg to build or remodel to exacting environmental standards. In fact, a family in Victoria, British Columbia, built one of the greenest houses on the continent for a lower cost per square foot than typical standard construction.

That's not to deny that there are big problems. The foreclosure crisis continues. But the Occupy movement is now using its national reach to connect local groups who have been working on housing issues for years. The combination is providing some powerful ways to fight back against the banks and financiers who created the mess in the first place.

And, long term, we need to find better ways to deal with owning and financing homes. Community land trusts and cooperatives are time-tested ways to keep homes affordable. The challenge is getting those solutions in place on a broader scale.

Finally, we found that people who are doing these things--living in tiny houses, sharing living space, lowering their environmental impact--are having the time of their lives. Once they no longer have to spend so much on housing, they have time to build community, be with their children, or do other things they didn't have time for.

Doing more with less - makes sense. What's a community land trust, Doug? I'm sure many of our readers are in the dark about that one.

A community land trust is an organization--usually a nonprofit--that buys and develops affordable housing. They offer subsidies that allow low-income people to buy homes. In exchange, the buyers agree to limit the amount they can resell for. It's a way to keep low-cost housing available and to keep the homes out of the speculative market. There are about 260 community land trusts in the United States. During the real estate crash, homeowners with conventional financing were 10 times more likely to go into foreclosure than people in CLTs. There's an article in the current issue of YES! that goes into more detail on CLTs and other alternative forms of ownership.

Interesting!  I love the way YES! has focused on positive ways to deal with the housing crisis, rare these days. Life seems so much grimmer than in times past. Is it hard to be remain institutionally upbeat and find stories and angles to explore?

I think it's actually easier to stay upbeat, personally and institutionally, doing the work we do. Our commitment to solutions-oriented journalism allows us to focus on the people who are doing something to move away from the status quo.
We certainly don't deny that we're all facing enormous challenges--you can't look for the solutions if you don't know what the problems are. But finding the places where there's real change underway gives you hope. And we try to pass that along to our readers. There really aren't any easy answers--but there are answers.

How did you hook up with YES! in the first place?

Short version of a long story: I heard a David Korten speech on "Alternative Radio," then read When Corporations Rule the World . David had a website and mentioned that he was involved in starting a new magazine. I emailed YES! to offer volunteer work and started out as a proofreader. That led to writing assignments--my first YES! byline is in Issue 5, back in 1998. In 2005, I happened to be available when YES! happened to need a managing editor, and I've been here since.

What's it like working in an institution with such a positive outlook and attitude? Am I a Pollyanna to think it would be sublime?

I have the good fortune of working with a small team of talented, really smart people who are dedicated to the proposition that positive change is possible. That's a good start on a good workplace. It also helps that, when we list jobs, one of the requirements is "sense of humor." Because we are, after all, putting out a magazine, and that inevitably involves deadlines and crunches and a certain amount of stress. The entire organization--the magazine team is just a quarter of the staff--is built around principles of collaboration and collegiality. I think it says a lot about the place that we repeatedly hear from interns that this is the warmest, most supportive work environment they've ever encountered.

I was going to ask a wrap-up question now but you piqued my interest. You mentioned that the magazine team is only a quarter of the staff. Will I be showing my vast ignorance by asking what else comprises the YES! staff? I assumed YES! is the magazine and the magazine is YES! - end of story.  Fill me in.

YES! has always been more about the message than anything else. So we actually have as many people working to get our product out for free as we do working to sell it. We publish all of our content under a Creative Commons license, and anyone who wants to use it for not-for-profit purposes is welcome to it.

Of course, those of us on the editorial team think there's nothing quite like the experience of holding a magazine in your hands and turning the pages. But all of our magazine content is available online, for free. Our Web team not only makes that happen but also produces daily coverage of stories in our topic areas.

We have people working to make other media outlets aware of our stories and making free copies of the magazine available to activist groups and others who can use the magazine in their work. We also offer free subscriptions to the magazine to qualified teachers.

And, because all of that doesn't get paid for by magazine subscriptions (and we don't sell advertising in the magazine or online) we have a development team to find people who are willing to help fund our operation--including hundreds of Dedicated Friends who pledge five dollars or more a month to help keep us going.

We have a fulfillment team that keeps our subscribers happy and also fills orders for our other products. And, of course, no modern operation can exist without an IT team--and we've got a couple of extraordinary people doing that for us.

That's probably more information than you wanted. But the fact is, YES! is much more than the magazine, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to recognize the people who aren't out front the way the magazine team is.

Thanks for the lowdown, Doug. Who knew?!  What can YES! readers look forward to in upcoming issues?

We're just a few weeks away from press on our next issue, which looks at the relationship between our environment, our bodies, and our health. After that, we'll be exploring how we humans can learn from natural systems and develop better ways of manufacturing, producing food, and finding our proper place in nature.

Can't wait! Anything else you'd like to add?

I'd just like to invite everyone to check out our content at There's fresh, online-only positive journalism along with an archive of pretty much everything YES! has printed in the last 16 years. Thanks again for inviting me to chat, Joan.

It was delightful and refreshing. Let's do it again sometime soon!
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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