Sunday, January 31, 2010

Let it Lay or Take it Away

The City of Houston has established April 5, 2010 as the startup date for the collection of yard trimmings in compostable bags. City of Houston Solid Waste Management Department crews will only pick up bagged yard trimmings placed at the curb in City-approved compostable bags. Yard trimmings placed in the garbage cart, or in any other type of container or bag will not be collected. On September 2, 2009, City Council approved the revisions to Chapter 39 of the City of Houston’s Code of Ordinances pertaining to the collection of yard trimmings.

By diverting this material from area landfills, the City anticipates saving at least $1.5 million dollars annually while preserving the environment and valuable landfill space. The Solid Waste Management Department will use avoided landfill costs to add more Houstonians to the Automated Recycling Program.

The Solid Waste Management Department will notify Houston residents through direct mail to residents, meetings with Superneighborhood / Civic Associations, TV, radio, newspaper, Facebook, CitizensNet e-mail newsletters, as well as Council Member newsletter and/or e-blasts. For the latest information regarding these changes, residents can log onto the Solid Waste Management Department’s website at Many of the radio and TV stations will be linking their websites to the Solid Waste Management Department website.

The City of Houston is reminding residents that they can “let it lay or take it away.” Houstonians can choose the free alternative to bagging their leaves and lawn clippings by using a mulching mower for “grasscycling” or making their own personal compost pile. Work done by lawn care professionals can be left on the lawn or should be taken away by the contractor.

Approved compostable bags are available at numerous retailers throughout the city. These bags can be identified by a logo on the box specifying “City Approved”, and “City of Houston Biodegradable / Compostable Bag”. Please go to the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department web site at to find a current list of retailers and more information regarding the compostable bag program.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More than 10% of Houstonians are "Unbanked"

A closer look on Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. released on its national survey of "underbanked" and "unbanked" households. The number only broke out for the 20 largest metropolitan statistical areas.

About 7.7 million of the nation's households don't use a financial institution. They're the unbanked who exist on a cash economy. When they are paid with a check, they take it to a check-cashing service. When they need to send a check, they buy a money order, or maybe they wire money, or they put the money into a reloadable debit card. When they need a loan, they go to payday loan or auto title loan shops. The most frequent reason people gave for not having a bank was feeling they didn't have enough money to warrant opening an account

Another 17.9 percent are underbanked: They have a checking or a savings account, but they occasionally use alternative services - money orders, pawn shops, payday lenders, even refund-anticipation loans. And the underbanked said speed and cost were the reason they use check-cashing business and other non-bank operations.

Texas banking connections are quite a bit below the national averages. Only about 60 percent of the state's 8.89 million households are considered "fully banked." An estimated 11.7 percent are living on an all-cash basis and about 24.1 percent are considered underbanked. It's no surprise that Dallas and Houston household figures are better than the state numbers. The surprise is in how little they really differ.

An estimated 10.6 percent of Houston-area households are unbanked, while Dallas is at 10.9 percent. About 21 percent of Houston's households are considered underbanked, while in Dallas, the number is about 23.5 percent.

Who are the people who aren't using banks?
They're the low income. Nearly a third of Texas households with annual incomes below $15,000 and almost 21 percent of families with incomes between $15,000 and $30,000 are considered unbanked.
Surprisingly, nearly a third of households with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 in Texas are considered underbanked.

About 46.1 percent of Hispanic households and 42.4 percent of black households are considered "not underbanked."

The FDIC report estimates nearly 30 percent of people without high school diplomas run on an all-cash basis, compared with 15.1 percent of people with a high school diploma, 7.2 percent with some college, and 1.5 percent who have at least a four-year degree.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

As American as Tres Leches

The 2010 Census will radically alter the demographic map and the rules of engagement between Hispanic and general-market shops. Hispanic Americans continue to grow in number at a rate four times that of the general population, with the 2010 Census expected to show their total rising to nearly 50 million, from 38 million in 2000. And second-generation Hispanics are fast becoming the driver of the group's growth, with 88 percent of Hispanic children born in America, versus 61 percent of adults.
As a result, agencies that market to this segment are finding themselves in a strong position, armed with the skills and techniques to take on general assignments from big-name clients. Meanwhile, in a tight business environment, general agencies are starting to compete for work previously reserved for specialist shops.

"In the 2010 Census, we'll see confirmation of a shift from Hispanic consumers who are first generation, where Spanish is the dominant language, to second-generation, bilingual, bicultural consumers. It totally transforms how we market," says Cynthia McFarlane, chair of Publicis Groupe's Conill, a Latino agency. There is a new American culture forming, and these consumers are having a tremendous impact on mainstream America."

McDonald's, which sees higher brand loyalty among its Hispanic consumers, has added offerings like breakfast burritos to its national menu. In further evidence of the growing bilingual voice of Hispanic consumers, McDonald's runs ads with Spanish taglines in general-market media, and earlier this year used "Spanglish" in general-market advertising for the Quarter Pounder.

Hispanics now have about $863 billion in discretionary annual income, more than any other minority group in the country. (As of the third quarter, Americans overall had disposable income of $10.8 trillion.) Agencies argue that spending power is still underestimated and that upcoming Census findings -- expected to be released beginning in early 2011 -- will deliver a wake-up call to marketers.
"It will be a huge eye-opener when we see the growing affluence of the Hispanic marketplace, not just in buying power but also in household wealth," says Conill's McFarlane. In 2006, Toyota liked a Conill TV concept for the Camry so well; it turned it into a Super Bowl spot.

"There are certain categories, geographies, brands where the Hispanic market is now the general market and the Hispanic marketing strategy will be the overriding strategy," says Alex Lopez Negrete, CCO at independent Lopez Negrete Communications in Houston.

Language does remain an important factor. Some 44 percent of Hispanic consumers say, at home, they speak Spanish only or more often than English; 25 percent say they are equally bilingual; and 31 percent use English only or more often than Spanish, according to research from Synovate and Nielsen. (That last number offers a glimpse of the future Hispanic marketplace: Among second-generation consumers, 93 percent say they are bilingual or English dominant.)

Uncle Sam Saves You Money

This time the offer to save money does not come from a local furniture store. The bearded Uncle Sam is willing to pitch in up to $ 1500 of the cost, if you are willing to replace existing low efficiency air conditioners and windows, or upgrade existing insulation of your home during 2009 and 2010.

The payment is done through a tax credit when you report your 2009 and/or 2010 taxes. The total claim cannot be for more than $ 1500, including claims for 2009 and 2010 combined.

So, the question that you may be asking is, is it worth to do the changes or upgrades? The answer is very likely yes. The only hesitation you may have is if your home is relatively new and you have a better use for the moneys you will spend with your upgrades.

There are some other things to consider. Even a relatively new home may increase its selling value by upgrading the most efficient air conditioner, or windows and insulation of walls and roofs. As buyers become more energy conscious, they look at energy expenses more closely.

If your home needs new windows or new roof, then, the answer to the question is a resounding yes! Do not hesitate to go for the energy savings version of the air conditioner, or insulation. You not only will get partially reimbursed by Uncle Sam, you will also pay less in energy expenses and increase the value of your nest.

For more information, you may want to visit Uncle Sam’s official websites:

• How do I determine if I can collect the tax credit? click here

• What is the maximum tax credit I can get for the energy efficient home improvements? click here

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Flavors of Latin America: Tequila, Ron, or Pisco?

Each year, we commemorate the National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors speak the same language with different accents and came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Spanish is the national language of 19 countries and Puerto Rico. Each one has it own standard dialect flavor.

The most common Spanish dialect taught in the U.S. is standard Latin American. It is sometimes called "Highland" Americans’ Spanish since it is generally spoken in the mountainous areas of Latin America. (Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Bolivia)

This dialect is noted for its pronunciation of each letter and its strong "r" sounds. This Spanish was spoken in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was brought to the Americas by the early colonists.

The second major type of Spanish is spoken in the Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Colombian Caribbean and some areas of Nicaragua), and in some cases in southern Spain. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the accent in Seville, Cádiz, and other cities in Andalusia, in Southern Spain, began to change. Speakers began to drop the final "s" on words. The settlers and traders of southern Spain took this dialect with them to the Caribbean and other coastal areas.

The third type of Spanish is in Central American spoken in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. In the South American Pacific comprise Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay.

A fourth type of Spanish has developed in Argentina and Uruguay. It is characterized by some out-of-date grammar, and a vocabulary and pronunciation heavily influenced by Italians who settled the area in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Generally in the Spanish world "tú" is the singular way of saying "you." In Argentina, however, "vos" is used instead. It is accompanied by a modified old Spanish verb form. It is as if part of the English-speaking world still used "thee" and "thou" in everyday speech.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Annise Parker: Hire Houston First

Annise Parker is Houston's City Controller and is running for Mayor in the November 2009 elections. We asked the four candidates to answer two questions. Here are the questions and the answers from Annise Parker's office:

LBN: The recession is affecting our small business community more severely than the larger organizations in this city. Can you share three initiatives that, in your view, can be promoted from the position of Houston Mayor to help small businesses?

AP: I have proposed a Hire Houston First policy, which will encourage the city to contract with local businesses that create local jobs. You can find my Hire Houston First policy at this website. In this tough economy, we must do everything we can to create new jobs and keep our residents working. The starting point should be making sure that jobs funded by our local tax dollars go first to local workers and keep our tax dollars circulating in the local economy. This will include a Regional Jobs Alliance. Some of us live in Houston and work in Bellaire. Some companies are based in Sugar Land but create good jobs for Houston residents. Our competition is not Bellaire or Sugar Land – it’s Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

I support the use of economic development incentives that create jobs and bring revenue to the city so we can keep taxes low. Unlike the current mayor, I support the use of tax abatements to encourage companies that provide good jobs with good benefits to locate in Houston. But, these incentives must be tied to measurable results – like the creation of jobs – and the recipients should be required to repay the money if they don’t live up to their part of the bargain.

In today’s economic crisis, we are seeing that maintaining and upgrading our aging infrastructure is more than just a problem to solve – it’s an opportunity to create good, local jobs that will power our local economy while responding to pressing needs. For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that $1 of infrastructure spending can boost the economy anywhere from $1 - $2.50. Moody’s’s chief economist pegs it at $1.59. That’s why I have proposed reforms to the way we maintain and upgrade our infrastructure.

* Federal Stimulus Program & Transparency: The federal government has made it clear that, for local governments to receive more federal stimulus funds, they must demonstrate accountability with the federal stimulus dollars already in the pipeline. That’s why I created a website that allows the public to track the city’s use of federal stimulus dollars – and hold local government accountable to make sure those dollars are being used to create jobs.

LBN: The perception is that crime in the city periphery has increased in the last several months. Can you mention three proposals that can reduce the level of criminality?

AP: Although statistics show a drop in violent crimes, property crimes are on the rise. As Mayor, I will protect the police department budget in this economic downturn. Protecting our law enforcement budget without raising taxes is a difficult but necessary balancing act. I have a track record of fiscal responsibility, using tough audits to cut millions of dollars in fraud and waste – money that is now funding priorities like police, firefighters, after-school programs and economic development.

We need a police department that will protect our citizens while treating all Houstonians with dignity and respect. You can find my detailed plan for improving public safety at this website.
We owe it to the public, and to the men and women who risk their lives every day to keep us safe, to give our police officers the most up-to-date tools to do their jobs. That means using enhanced technology to get real-time crime data to the patrol officers on the street who can best utilize the information to fight crime.
We also need better coordination with the many law enforcement agencies in our area. If you are being robbed, you don’t care what uniform they wear, you want someone with a badge and gun to help you.

We absolutely need more police officers, which is why I am committed to maintaining an aggressive program of police cadet classes. In Houston’s last major economic downturn, we closed the police academy to save money. That was a big mistake, which won’t happen during my administration. And because public safety is so essential to everything we do, we have to have a chief that has his fingers on the pulse of the city. I am committed to replacing our current chief, and I believe the new police chief should come from within the ranks of HPD.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tun on the Green Light

Almost all consumer products these days are protected in disposable containers, usually made of plastic, paper, cardboard, wood, metal, glass, or a combination of them. Most products themselves are made of an increasingly complex mix of the same materials. While we wished that our Texas Legislature would pass laws encouraging recycling of those packaging materials, the reality is that Texas is a laissez faire state, and the probability of having a serious plan agreed by our envoys to Austin, any time soon, is slim. So, what is there for us to do, until the green light shines on our State Capitol?

The city of Houston is doing its part. In the last few years it has opened several recycling and receiving centers accepting almost all kind of domestic containers and used electronics. But those centers are not accessible to all Houstonians. Months ago, some HEB stores started receiving recyclable materials in containers located in their parking lots, but at least some of them have stopped receiving. The program seemed successful to the point that people were flooding with discarded packaging material of products purchased at HEB and at other businesses.

The city of Houston has established a recycling program but it only reaches the areas served by the city trash collection. Most neighborhoods not served by the city have established recycling programs of their own. Most of these programs severe restrictions in terms of type of materials received.

These are some suggestions we can adopt immediately, without waiting for our politicians in Austin or Houston to react:

1. Avoid buying products that are packaged with materials that are not recycled in your neighborhood, or accepted back by your store. Beverages are an example. Soft drinks come in glass, plastic or aluminum containers. Try to favor the type of container that is easier for you to recycle.

2. Some products, such as detergents are sold packaged with very thin film containers (“plastic bags”) that use substantially less plastic than conventional containers. Try to buy those products.

3. Try to use reusable bags when shopping groceries, or return the plastic bags to the store for recycling. Some stores accept the used bags.

4. When replacing batteries used in electronic gadgets, take the used ones to the store. Most stores receive your used batteries.

You will find many more areas where your immediate action can payoff. Here are some suggestions:

1. If you work for a company with many employees, ask the corresponding department in the organization (usually HS&E) to establish a recycling program if not already in place. If there are vending machines in your workplace, suggest adding recycling containers for used bottles or cans placed close to the vending machines.

2. If the local newspaper distributes unwanted weekly advertisement supplements on your sidewalk, ask them to stop the distribution to your home.

3. When your neighborhood community asks for your vote on recycling, within your possibilities, vote for more recycling, not less.

4. Contact your councilperson and ask him/her what your options for recycling are. May be the city can install a recycling container in your neighborhood.

5. Inquire the manager of the store where you buy your groceries if they have plans to receive back the containers of the products they sale. Favor the stores that receive back the containers.

Some of our politicians, organizations and even the government may be oblivious to the reality we face: more landfills, global warming, and loss of wildlife. Our politicians and government need to do their job, but in the meantime we can produce significant changes, even in Texas, why not?