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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My observations about life in Israel

After spending two weeks in Israel, I learned a lot about what it’s like to live there. While there are so many things I have yet to grasp about life in the Holy Land, let me share my observations - both big and small - with you.

The condo boom followed me! There are more construction cranes in Israel than in Miami. Everywhere I looked, they were building something, especially in central Israel. I was told that many Jews from Europe are moving to Israel, or at least buying condos in preparation for a move, for personal safety reasons. Many wealthy Jews want to own a piece of Israel, even if they don’t live there. All of this is great for the construction industry, but these new condos are very expensive for the average working-class Israel. Sound familiar, Miami?

Israeli cities are pretty dense. Most of them have busy city centers and multifamily buildings packed together, a very urban feel. However, there are large open spaces and agricultural areas between the cities. That’s partly due to the cities being construction where the government built the water supply. Unlike in Florida, you can’t just dig a well anywhere and find water.

How scare is water? We really take it for granted in Florida. The one home I visited that had a full grass yard and a pool had a water bill of $1,000 a month in the summertime. It’s a luxury. So is a garage.

Despite the dense cities, Israel has many parks. The newer cities are well-designed with frequent pocket parks, often with playground, outdoor fitness equipment, and combo basketball/soccer courts. BTW, I saw the kids using those courts only for soccer, not basketball. Those parks make the neighborhoods great for kids. (Are you listening, South Florida?)

Israel also has many small, neighborhood markets. People often walk a few blocks for their groceries.

Paseos (alleys between streets) save time while walking to parks, markets or visiting neighbors. Not every square foot has to be used for development. (Pay attention, South Florida.)

Instead of traffic lights at every corner, Israel has many roundabouts. Traffic flows through them fairly smoothly, as long as people obey the rules.

Israel has solar power, sort of. Most homes have solar-powered water heaters on the roof. The good news is this saves on electricity. The bad news is that you shouldn’t take too long in that hot shower.

When I visited Eilat on the southern tip of Israel, I was pleased to find it had city-wide free WiFi. That’s a great idea for a tourist spot. It also has a city-sponsored app. This Red Sea resort is so much fun.

Most malls in Israel had indoor entertainment activities for kids (for a fee, of course.) These ranged from indoor playgrounds to the ice rink and roller coaster in the Ice Mall in Eilat.

There's serious security at malls, and at many other public places in Israel. They don’t have flashlights. These guards are armed and they are constantly looking for suspicious people, often asking questions and inspecting bags. It’s just a part of life.

From Tel Aviv to Eilat, Israel has great beaches. If you are a surfer, Herzliya had the best waves. Eilat has the best diving because the coral reefs are right off the beach. Most of the beaches have great restaurants, including South Beach’s food stand on the sand in Herzliya.

Not all the food is kosher. Most malls have a kosher McDonalds (home of the Big American) and a non-kosher McDonalds (home of the Big American, with cheese). But if you eat kosher, Israel is culinary paradise.

Most restaurants don’t have napkin dispensers and many don’t have ketchup dispensers either. You have to ask. Israelis must be cleanly eaters. Do they have menus in English? Only in tourist spots. But many Israelis know some English.

Driving around, I saw huge office towers branded by tech companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google. Israel is clearly a tech hub.

Be careful following Waze for directions while driving around. This app, which was created in Israel, recommends the shortest route but not always the most secure route. Some neighborhoods aren’t friendly to certain religious groups or ethnic groups, and some neighborhoods shouldn’t be driven through on religious holidays. I recommend traveling with someone who knows Israel.

Speaking of driving, I was amazed by the array of international cars in Israel. It has many brands you won’t find in the United States. That will be the subject of my next blog.

There were so many places in Israel I could have seen but I didn’t get a chance to in my two weeks there. Granted, this was my third visit. I’m looking forward to seeing Israel again.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Panama Papers: Money laundering loopholes are nothing new

No one who’s been paying attention to the real estate or financial markets should be surprised over the off-shore tax havens and money laundering schemes uncovered by the release of the Panama Papers. World governments have been aware of these loopholes for years.

The only question: Will the publicity storm prompt the United States and other governments to stop the flow of dark money?

Hundreds of journalists around the world [sadly, not including me] worked through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to comb through about 11.5 million leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm and corporate register Mossack Fonseca. Among the 214,000 offshore companies it listed, some were used to conceal from the public and from governments that politically connected individuals, known criminals and people who had no apparent sources of wealth controlled significant amounts of money. In some cases, these offshore companies owned real estate, including in Miami.

Of course, not all of these companies were registered offshore. States like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming also allow LLCs to be registered without listing a managing member.

The fact that this is going on isn’t news. The Panama Papers made headlines because it named names.

Hey, how did that hair dresser from South America buy a $1 million condo on Brickell? You can't ask those questions if you don't know who's really buying.
Law enforcement has known since the 1980s that dirty money found its way into Miami real estate through shell corporations. Watch the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” to see how drug money built much of this town. In 2013, I wrote the story “Condos, Cash, and Criminals” in the South Florida Business Journal addressing the concerns of many experts that dirty money was contributing to the surge of cash real estate deals.

Politicians and law enforcement have known this was a problem for decades. And yet, it has persisted. Who knows who really owns our real estate? Many people would rather not know, as long as they're making money off it.

Having covered both banking and real estate in South Florida, I can tell you that I often run into companies with no clear path of ownership. Sometimes they’re registered in Delaware, or offshore in places the Isle of Jersey or the British Virgin Islands.

Other times, they’re Florida-registered LLCs but the managing member clearly isn’t the owner. There’s no requirement that Florida LLC’s list the owner, only a person to handle the company’s affairs. Sometimes this is innocent, such as a famous athlete who makes his attorney the manager of the LLC because he doesn’t want to be bothered at his home.

It could also be used by money laundering drug dealers to set up straw managers to buy real estate through. There’s really no way I can tell that the LLC isn’t funded by terrorists, drug dealers or corrupt officials.

Some homes are bought by trusts. It’s extremely difficult for the public to know who controls them. You just have to trust that the lawyers who set them up did their due diligence.

As we saw in the Panama Papers, there’s a temptation for incorporation law firms to think money first, due diligence second. Plus, law firms don’t face the strict “know your customer” and “source of funds” rules that banks must comply with.

U.S. authorities could ask more of incorporation law firms. Federal and local governments could take measures to require ownership disclosure for LLCs. Authorities have started asking title companies to disclose the LLC owners in $1 million-plus deals in Miami and $3 million-plus deals in Manhattan

Until authorities start taking aggressive measures to promote disclosure, it’s clear they aren’t serious about addressing this problem.

It’s not so easy, though. Miami, New York and many other international cities are enjoying windfalls of foreign cash that have spurred building booms. That’s created jobs and increased property taxes, although some argue it’s also made real estate less obtainable for working families. I have a feeling that some, or perhaps most, Miami condo projects would fall apart if these loopholes were closed.

Should we start turning money away because we don’t trust the source? Or do we turn a blind eye?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Miami’s wealthy have failed the Frost Museum of Science

Seemingly everyone in Miami loves the idea of a world class science museum downtown but few are willing to pay for its construction, except for public officials using taxpayer money and the Frosts.

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science would be a showcase for wonder and innovation in the heart of the city. In the middle of building the $305 million project, the non-profit ran out of cash. It burned through $160 million in county funds and it’s not asking for another $45 million up front instead of over time. The suggestion that a community redevelopment agency should direct its property tax funds to the museum instead of building facilities for low-income residents (what else is new?) has drawn controversy.

In a city inundated with cash and frequented by many of the world’s wealthiest people, hardly anyone has stepped up to make a significant donation to this project. I’ve heard from countless developers building downtown that the Frost Museum would be a great draw and benefit their projects. Condo investors see it as another amenity for the neighborhood, one they don’t have to pay association dues for. Many downtown retail and hospitality business owners expect it to attract more visitors.

Then why are so few of them cutting big checks? Do they expect to reap all the benefits without contributing to the cause?

The Frosts are by far the biggest donors with $45 million followed by the Knight Foundation with $10 million. If this were New York or Boston or Washington, D.C., there would be a long list of headline making donors after that. The fact that there’s not, really says something.

People come to Miami and buy real estate, expensive clothes, meals from celebrity chefs, and six-figure cars. Corporations and investment funds are paying record prices for Miami property, from apartment buildings to retail strips. They rarely make a true investment for the good of the community, which is what this museum is all about.

People like to brag about Miami being on the cutting edge of STEM, the next city on the rise. In reality, we’re playing catch up with other regions of the country when it comes to science. The Frost Museum could inspire a generation of local scientists, maybe even creating some jobs that actually pay enough to afford living here.

Is anyone going to step up and invest in Miami’s future?

Sometimes return on investment isn’t measured on a balance sheet. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Posting assault on victim's Facebook page backfires for these two

Most Facebook users have probably had the experience of a person something on their page they'd rather not share with the world - a drinking face, bad hair day, the ex you were supposed to be done with. Delete! A video of you curled up in the fetal position getting beaten would be a most unwelcome addition to your Facebook page.

That's exactly what two (alleged) assailants did to Frankie Santana, a Detroit resident with cerebral palsy, which restricts his movements. The two 20-year-olds stole his phone, recorded his beating on it and then posted it all over Facebook, including on the victim's page.

See a snippet of what they did from this report via Fox 2 in Detroit.

 It certainly wasn't hard to catch them and prosecutors should have no problem finding enough evidence.

As I've highlighted in my novel Famous After Death, it's not enough for bullies and killers to hurt their victims physically, they want to shame them emotionally. Social media has become their weapon of choice.

Hopefully next time someone tags Mr. Santana on Facebook, the message will be more uplifting.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Six Can’t Miss Events at the Miami Book Fair

There are more reasons than I can count to catch the Miami Book Fair during its Nov. 15 to 22 run. I’ll list six here, and maybe I’ll see you there during my presentation.

I’m honored to be one of more than 450 authors participating in the Miami Book Fair this year with the event in its 32nd edition. It’s the largest book fair in the United States and it has something for everybody, including kids, readers of Spanish and Creole, and comic book fans. For avid book shoppers, the street fair at Miami Dade College’s downtown campus on Nov. 20 to 22 is a fantastic opportunity to buy books at a discount.

There will be author presentations both during the street fair and in the week leading up to it. Here are some recommended picks.

An insider’s take on the economy

Robert B. Reich, the secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, will discuss his new novel Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. There’s an argument between centrist Democrats and Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders whether capitalism is out of control and working to the advantage of the wealthy.

The news man ditches the teleprompter

I used to watch the evening news all the time. I rarely catch it now, but when I do and I see all the ads for medication, well, that reveals the demographic of who’s still tuned in. Tom Brokaw anchored the NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004, during a time when it was the main source of news for many people. Not only will he discuss his broadcast journalism career, he’ll reflect on his battle with blood cancer as told in A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope.

The architect of Obama’s Hope

David Axelrod was the chief campaign adviser to President Obama in 2008 and 2012, so you either love him or you hate him. Either way, it’s interesting to hear what he things of the current presidential campaign and whether the Super PACs and their unlimited donations have changed the playbook needed to win. His new book is Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.

Women of Science

Three women who wrote science-themed books will share the spotlight. I’m particularly interested in Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk, who started forward-thinking companies like Tesla and SpaceX. Margaret Lazarus Dean wrote Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight - a subject that’s depressing for me as an author of science fiction. How did we fall so far behind in space travel and, really, aerospace. Maybe it’s because we need more women involved in hard sciences, as Eileen Pollack tackles that subject in The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club.

A Journey to the Dark and Supernatural

Tananarive Due writes novels that are both creepy and touching so I’m eager to hear what she’s crafted in her story collection Ghost Summer.  I saw her at the Book Fair a few years ago and she was amazing. She’ll be joined by Benjamin Percy, author of The Dead Lands, and Jennifer McMahon, author of The Night Sister.

Authors in the Line of Fire

A group of brave authors will take questions before a live audience from New York Times Book Review Editor Pamela Paul. Among my favorite, thriller writer Brad Meltzer. I’ve interviewed him several times and he has a great sense of humor, so this should be fun.

While you’re at the Book Fair be sure to check out my presentation “Murder Most Viral” on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 10 a.m. I’m humbled that they’ve selected me to speak in a solo gig and that’ll be cool because I have a lot to say about how social media is promoting violence. If you haven't heard me read from Famous After Death, you are in for a shock.

Grab your coffee and hit the fair early to beat the traffic.

Friday, September 18, 2015

New Wynwood could price out hipsters who made it thrive

In Miami real estate, you either sprint or fall on your face. There's no such thing as steady growth. So goes the case with Wynwood.

Creative planning by artists and local investors transformed the neighborhood from empty warehouses into a district with stunning street art, popular restaurants and bars and emerging retail.

It's expected that property values would grow to reflect the promise. Instead, many recent deals have given Wynwood higher valuations than established retail markets in wealthy areas, such as Coral Gables and Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale.

My print edition centerpiece in the South Florida Business Journal explores where the neighborhood is heading.

The fear of many is the higher property valuations will lead to expensive rents that will price out the artists and local businesses that made Wynwood so successful. I interviewed several property owners that said they would keep key local groups like Panther Coffee and artists, but they're investing tens of millions of dollars because they expect a substantial return from new tenants. Will those big money tenants change the hipster character of Wynwood? Can they sell enough goods to justify $80 per square foot in rent?

Certainly, the new zoning that Miami could finalize for Wynwood will increase the ability of developers to build apartments, condos and hotels there. They're targeted the young, creative professional class. However, it's important that homes in Wynwood are priced below those in areas such as downtown, Brickell and Edgewater. Construction costs aren't going to differ much between those neighborhoods so Wynwood developers will need to find a way to be less expensive for residents.

I'll tell you this about Wynwood, bring it up to any real estate professional in Miami and they're either all in or they won't touch it. There's no such thing as middle ground, or a steady pace, in Miami.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Murder on the Beach gets Famous After Death

I just delivered copies of my novel Famous After Death to the delightful Murder on the Beach independent bookstore in Delray Beach. It's in the Pineapple Grove neighborhood just north of downtown, an area that's always a blast to visit for its restaurants, bars and shops.

Come see me at Murder on the Beach on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. for a reading and signing of Famous After Death. Just ask the people who saw me at Books & Books this month, you need to hear the way I voice the characters in this story about murder gone viral.

Murder on the Beach, located at 273 Pineapple Grove Way (N.E. 2nd Ave.), is a bookstore that specializes in mystery, thrillers, true crime and horror. It also has games, and creepy decorations.

And since it's in downtown Delray Beach, once my event's finished you can go out and have a drink.