Sunday, March 10, 2013

Boomers in paradise

A freelance story. 
I discovered the subject and wrote it up as a post for the New York Times' Booming blog.  
With a crucial boost from the blog's editor, Mike Winerip, it mushroomed into a story for the National desk, and then a story for the Times' front page ...  and then, unbelievably, for Page One Sunday. Along the way, I picked up Mike as a writing partner, whose tweaks gave it the particular tone that the Times' editors were seeking.  

The story was a huge hit, reaching No. 2 on "Most E-mailed," and staying on the chart (as No. 9) two days later, rare staying power, according to Winerip.

March 10, 2013

Too Young to Retire, but These Deals Can't Wait

By Howard Goodman and Michael Winerip

Susan Shapira, who is 58, recently moved into a condominium in Century Village, a gated retirement community here where most residents are almost as old as the name.

In the nine months she has lived here, she has learned some of the drawbacks of being a baby boomer among the very old.

“I don’t see anyone after dark,” she said. There is zero night life. The bus is often delayed — walkers slow people getting on and off. And her building’s resident representative had been hard to find after going into rehab for a back injury.

But Ms. Shapira says she has no regrets. She bought her two-bedroom condo for cash — $26,900.

“It’s like a car,” she said.

Last year a condo here sold for $7,000, according to the real estate industry’s Multiple Listing Service

One in Kings Point, a similar retirement community in nearby Delray Beach, sold for $3,000, according to the listings.

The prices in these large retirement communities are not low because the properties have deteriorated since they were built in the 1970s and ’80s. In fact, they are mostly well kept.

But they hold little appeal to most baby boomers, who never imagined hanging out in the same sprawling retirement complexes that attracted their parents to come here.

With that World War II generation dying off and the collapse of the Florida real estate market during the recession, condominium prices in many cases are lower than they were when the units were new.

According to Palm Beach County property assessment records, Ms. Shapira’s condo originally sold for $40,800 in 1980. In 1990 it resold for $65,000.

And that is not an anomaly. In 2012, the average price of a condo in Century Village of Boca Raton was $35,436. For Kings Point in Delray Beach, it was $24,436.

In 2006, at the height of the real estate boom here, the average Century Village of Boca Raton condo sold for $114,000, according to multiple listings data.

Ms. Shapira, who was recently laid off from her job in the credit card industry, believes that over time she will look smart for having bought early on. “It’s a nice standard of living,” she said. “That’s how I look at it.”

She raised her son as a single mother, and this is the first time she has owned a home.

Her annual property taxes are just $632.

For the older generation, the men and women who came of age during the Depression and World War II, these senior communities — populated in large part by middle-class Northeasterners, often Jewish — were the Levittowns of retirement life, with thousands of condos in identical low-rise town houses offering comfortable living at affordable prices.

For a while now, the thinking in the real estate business has been that they were a thing of the past.
If baby boomers did not follow their parents to the Catskills for vacations, it did not seem likely that they would retire to the same places.

But Barry Fogel, who sells real estate in Kings Point, says that business has picked up and that many buyers are older boomers, in their late 50s to mid-60s. “A lot of them are not thrilled about it, to be honest, but they have no choice,” Mr. Fogel said. “It’s all they can afford.”

The vacancy rate among the 7,200 units, he says, is under 2 percent.

And there are signs that as demand picks up, prices will start to climb. In the last few months, sellers in Century Village have raised the average asking price to $50,000, up about $10,000 from last year.

Ben G. Schachter, the president of the on-site real estate company that handles South Florida’s six largest 55-and-older communities, said the units were not going to speculators.

“These are being bought by people who expect to live in them,” Mr. Schachter said. “They’re mostly buying for cash. It relieves them of having a mortgage payment as they get by on Social Security and fixed incomes.”

The communities offer a warm-weather routine of golf, shuffleboard, swimming, nightly shows, lectures, pottery classes and exercise groups.

Century Village in Boca has two synagogues, though no churches.

It is one of four Century Villages (the others are in Deerfield Beach, Pembroke Pines and West Palm Beach). Along with Kings Point and Wynmoor Village in Coconut Creek, these retirement communities — the largest in South Florida — help cushion the aging process with bus service to shopping malls and doctors’ offices, as well as round-the-clock security.

One night, Ms. Shapira attended an event at the clubhouse, which includes a 1,250-seat theater, and watched as women stood on the dance floor wiggling their wrists back and forth to the music.

“I guess those were the only parts that worked,” she said.

She has taken advantage of the clubhouse’s fitness center, lifting weights and using a stationary bike.

George Handy, a 58-year-old retired state worker from New York, and his wife, Colleen, 57, a manager of a CVS drugstore, moved in three years ago, liked it and persuaded a friend to buy a unit in a nearby building.

The Handys have made friends with some of their elderly neighbors. When Anne Landau recently fell in her condo at 3 a.m. and could not get up, Mr. Handy went over and helped. And when Mr. Handy’s car broke down, Ms. Landau’s husband, Stanley, lent him theirs.

Ronny Solomon, 61, is an insurance agent from Toronto. For more than 30 years, his father, Morris, 88, has lived in Century Village in Deerfield Beach — first part time and now full time.

About a year ago, Ronny Solomon asked his father to scout properties, and last spring he bought a two-bedroom, two-bath unit in the same building.

Ronny Solomon is not ready to retire. But a strong Canadian dollar made the deal too good to resist. 

“You can have a property there and not worry about how you’re going to spend your retirement,” he said from Toronto.

Mr. Solomon and his wife, Susan, a salon executive, plan to spend “Yom Kippur through Passover” at their Florida condo.

“Eight or 10 years ago, I said I could never live there,” he said. “But you see it changing in the people on the sidewalks, on bikes, in the swimming pool — it’s in transition.”

Check out the accompanying video here.
And here's how it looked in the print edition  (click on image to enlarge):

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

That's me on TV

While writing a series of blog posts about Florida's attempts to suppress the vote in the coming 2012 presidential election, I was asked to appear on a national cable TV show, Jennifer Granholm's War Room, on Current TV, and talk about the issue as an expert.

With only a couple of hours notice, I rushed over to the almost-empty studios of our local PBS station in Boynton Beach, where a technician placed me behind a desk, stuck an earpiece in my ear and gave me a signal. I was on! 

I didn't have a video monitor, couldn't see the guy who was talking to me (he was in San Francisco) and didn't know exactly what he'd want me to talk about. 

But this was how it came out:

And here are stories I wrote for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting blog on voting issues:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Israel at the World's Fair

A freelance piece from Shanghai at the start of the World Expo.

Israel Showcases Its Brain Power on a Receptive World Stage
Letter From Shanghai

The age of great world’s fairs is supposed to be over, but no one told the Chinese.

Ignoring the conventional wisdom that these grand global assemblages have been rendered obsolete in the era of the Internet and satellite communications, and that their six-month life spans make them an unconscionable financial waste, the Chinese have merely gone ahead and opened the biggest, most ambitious World Expo in history. It’s an extravaganza that costs more than the Beijing Olympics, and is expected to draw a minimum of 70 million people.

No one told the Israelis, either.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dean without borders

Here's a story I did for "Horizons," the alumni magazine for Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, Florida, Summer 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Don't mention God here!

This story, which turned out to be one of the last I wrote for the Sun Sentinel, caused a great sensation. It went out on the Internet and whipped around the world, quickly attracting 175,000 hits and getting lots of play on, you guessed it, Fox News. I wrote it as straight-down-the-middle news story. But the reason it got so much attention is the absurdity of the hospice position: so afraid of offense, it reduces a chaplain's message to pabulum.


By Howard Goodman
Sun Sentinel Staff Writer

A chaplain at Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton has resigned, she says, over a ban on use of the words "God" or "Lord" in public settings.

Chaplains still speak freely of the Almighty in private sessions with patients or families, but the Rev. Mirta Signorelli said: "I can't do chaplain's work if I can't say 'God' - if I'm scripted."

Hospice CEO Paula Alderson said the ban on religious references applies only to the inspirational messages that chaplains deliver in staff meetings. The hospice remains fully comfortable with ministers, priests and rabbis offering religious counsel to the dying and grieving.

"I was sensitive to the fact that we don't impose religion on our staff, and that it is not appropriate in the context of a staff meeting to use certain phrases or 'God' or 'Holy Father,' because some of our staff don't believe at all," Alderson said.

Signorelli, of Royal Palm Beach, said the hospice policy has a chilling effect that goes beyond the monthly staff meetings. She would have to watch her language, she said, when leading a prayer in the hospice chapel, when meeting patients in the public setting of a nursing home and in weekly patient conferences with doctors, nurses and social workers.

"If you take God away from me," she said, "it's like taking a medical tool away from a nurse."

Saturday, January 31, 2009

An unknown for too long

This started out as a follow-up to a news brief: An accident victim, probably an illegal immigrant, left no ID and authorities couldn't figure out who he was. Several weeks went by, and I was asked to try to profile this man from the few clues he left behind. Before I could get the story in the paper, investigators solved the puzzle. It looked like we had no story -- until we learned that this guy hadn't been quite so unknown after all, and that the authorities had failed the man's relatives in the most fundamental way.

Mystery, then grief
Despite report, it took more than a month to ID accident victim
Date: Saturday, January 31, 2009
Edition: Palm Beach Section: Local Page: 1B

Byline: By Howard Goodman and Erika Pesantes Staff Writers

For five weeks the accident victim was an unknown -- a corpse in a cooler in the county morgue, case number 08-1379.

He was carrying no ID when he stepped in front of an oncoming SUV five days before Christmas on Military Trail west of Lake Worth.

No one recognized his picture when Gary Pace, a sheriff's investigator, took a photo door to door.

No one was asking about him or appeared to miss him, Pace said in mid-January, frustrated by a paucity of leads and haunted by the thought that a family somewhere -- in Central America, he guessed -- was missing kin.

Finally, this week, Pace and a Spanish-speaking assistant, working the numbers on the dead man's cell phone, found an acquaintance.

Their victim was Jorge "Jose" Francisco Velasquez, 30, a native of Guatemala, last living in a home along Haverhill Road about a mile from where he had been killed on impact.

Velasquez was not so unknown after all. His brother and other relatives had filed a missing-person report with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. That report was on file even as the sheriff's Vehicle Homicide Unit was trying to identify the victim. But no one connected the two.

Velasquez's brother, Norberto Velasquez, a nursery worker who lives west of Lake Worth, said he began wondering about Velasquez's whereabouts the night of the accident, Dec. 20.

Besides filing the missing-person report Dec. 26, Norberto Velasquez and a sister-in-law, Blanca Manuel, said they searched three hospitals for Jose Velasquez, a landscaping worker who had cognitive problems and was often disoriented. They checked the jail, though Jose Velasquez had never been arrested. They said they checked the morgue three or four times.

Everywhere, authorities said they had no information.

"I don't know how in the world this could have happened," said Sue Steel, a medical examiner's forensic investigator assigned to the case. "You just feel bad for the family.

"It's sad to think that they had to keep coming back here," she added.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The decline and fall of a favorite market

This story was conceived as simple salute to a well-known store that went under. In reporting it, however, I found a story that hadn't been told: the store's misfortunes were the result not of bad weather and a bad roof, as everyone thought, but of bad management.

Fallen King's Market to be auctioned

For some, this is final indignity for the gourmet grocery that had ruled supreme

Date: Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Edition: Palm Beach Section: Local Page: 1B
Dateline: Boca Raton
Byline: By Howard Goodman Staff Writer

The building stands empty, stripped of its name and streaked with graffiti.

And now a further indignity: A billboard proclaims that the building and grounds of the former King's Gourmet Market -almost 2 acres at

a high-profile Boca Raton intersection -are up for auction.

Bids start at $3.9 million. Principal owner Jeff Sussman is telling all comers that the site, on Military Trail just south of Glades

Road, is perfect for high-end retail, a restaurant, an office tower.

"It's a unique situation," says Sussman, who sports the longish hair of a 1980s rocker and the eternal optimism of a serial entrepreneur.

But to people connected to King's Market in its heyday -- when gleaming fruits and vegetables piled irresistibly in perfect pyramids, when fresh-made loaves of bread filled the bakery counter, when the meat and fish departments groaned with tantalizing cuts and catches -- the auction denotes heartbreak.

King's shut down a year and a half ago, when broken trusses in the ceiling prompted city officials to order the 29-year-old market closed at once.

Seventy-five people lost their jobs.

Yet there's more to this regicide than a broken crown. Some ex-employees and others say that King's was on a crash course ever since the founding Costa family sold it in 2005.

"It took a year and a half to put a $15 million business out of business," 20-year employee Arnold Levine said with bitter wonderment.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Politics comes to the nudist colony

The assignment: Cover a political debate at a nudist camp. The challenge: To keep my juvenile sense of humor in check.

Date: Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

It is great to watch the body politic put democracy in action, but maybe not so much when the body isn't wearing clothes.

That was plain to see at last week's candidate forum at the Sunsport Gardens Family Naturist Resort in Loxahatchee Groves.

The hopefuls for the Groves' first Town Council were fully dressed, mind you.

But moderator and the nudist camp's owner Morley Schloss wore only a pale beaded necklace.

And about a dozen men and women in the audience of about 100 also were clad only in the skin God gave them, plus some more picked up at the dessert table. A dozen other folk were in sarong or towel -- feeling overdressed, I imagined.

It was an unlikely meeting of potbellies and pothole politics. Private parts and public policy. News people and nude people.

Although photographers, including some from national publications, snapped away, business was conducted as if it were nothing to take questions from people dressed in nothing.

If anyone felt weird that a naked woman was signaling "time's up" when candidates rambled too long about traffic noise, police response times or unused sewer capacity, no one showed it.

"Not here in the Groves," said Bill Louda, a candidate for Seat 2.