Issue #18, December 1996


Part I

The Tiger's Revenge . . . a cautionary tail

Thank God for gray, dreary days! If it is the only way to end the driving intensity of 1996 (or any other year), then I am all for it.

All this day lacks for grimness is a driving rain, and I am sitting here in slippers with a waning cup of hot tea, feeling so entirely relaxed that I really wonder at the downside references so often made about Seattle's weather.

Of course, the narrowing closure of a year, as a seasonal function, may also have something to do with this sense of ease I'm feeling. December always has that soft edge for me -- and perhaps the more so, now that I'm moving into my own life's December. The onset of old age may have its problematical aspects, but getting "out of the way of things" is surely not one of them.

This past year, however, hardly qualifies under that particular rubric. It has yanked and tumbled me along its course, leaving far too little time to even be sure of what it's been all about. In another few weeks, when the year turns, I'll take my own turn of solitude for several days, to write a long, thorough retrospective for a clearer view of it.

This dedicated annual time for reflection -- I've made room for it, now, for close to 30 years -- is the fruit of one of the first discoveries that journaling turned up for me: that life close-up seldom makes any sense. Or if it seems to, the supposedness of it may be drastically revised, if viewed later in a deeper perspective. But unless the pause for reflection is a conscious and deliberate process, the as-it-happens impression too easily becomes frozen in place, lending itself to a chaotic view of life. Reflection brings an awareness of order and design, which may be the single greatest source of real security and well-being.

A year's end tale to share

These end-of-year writings are private -- or perhaps for some inquisitive investigator, if anyone else wants someday to make sense of my life -- but I want to do a preliminary foray, here, into what has been the central activity of my year: the Senior Housing thing. I want to do it partly to "gather it in," so I'll be better ready for the year-end task (since my regular journaling these days falls far short of anything adequate to the term), and partly because I'm hoping to be done with it by then, for reasons that should be clear by the time you finish reading this. In any case, I have been feeding a trail of bits and pieces to you, over these many months, and it seems only fair that I should give you a full and coherent picture, since it has so taken up my year.

I do expect that it will be winding down very shortly -- either by coming to a natural end, or because of a "December resolution" presently perking in me. I simply refuse to devote more than a year of my life, at this late stage, to the last hurrahs of activism, when there are other things that concern me more deeply. I'll elaborate on that, a bit, when I am done with this preliminary retrospective.

So...let's take it from the start

It began in March -- quite late in the flow of a year's opening for a 'sprout' to pop itself into the still chill sunlight of an approaching spring. The usual pattern for such things is an early February emergence, and then a lingering month or more of just "gathering its energy," for the stride of development about to begin. But this one was different, though it had all the other sprout characteristics: the out-of-nowhere suddenness, the insistent, compelling demand for attention -- perhaps because it was such a 'late birth,' it arrived with a full head of steam, not only demanding attention, but immediate action.

On the 8th of March, the tenants here were informed of a series of rental policy changes designed to increase revenue. Rents were to go up, of course, but also the waiting-list rules would change, so as to favor a higher range of income earners for entry to the program -- and it was this that challenged me directly. For my sweetie, Joy, who has a very low income, was on that list, already in line for close to a year, to get a space in my building and some relief from the costly and deteriorating rental situation in which she lived.

Our notification came just ten days before the March meeting of the Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, at which they'd be presented the list of changes to be finalized in April. I hastily requested the allowable three minutes of speaking time for that March Board meeting, and went to work at gathering material for that more critical April meeting.

It was a pitched battle, right from the start. On the basis of little immediately available information, I charged the Housing Authority with trying to manipulate the definition of "low income" so as to serve some interest of their own -- which I was unable to specify. I think it made very little impression, but I was back again at the next meeting to present a more thoughtfully constructed argument, with the assist of a perfectly timed Op Ed piece that I had managed to get into one of Seattle's two major dailies. That piece had some effect,for it focused on a built-in program anomaly that actually gave the agency license to redefine the clientele they were being mandated to serve, and I brought it home in a human-interest context. A week earlier, we had also gotten Joy's personal plight into a front-page feature, with photo, in the city's other daily.

Thanks to all of this action, plus letters sent to every potentially concerned person or organization I could think of, there was a stronger turnout of seniors and organizational resistance at that April meeting, and the Board eased up a bit on the proposed changes: rent raises were lowered a notch, and the waiting-list item was postponed for further study.

The Campaign continues

I had hoped that the mid-April deadline we were working to would mark the end of the process, whether for better or worse. But with the waiting-list thing up in the air, I had little other choice than to keep working on it, on whatever new avenues I could find. Among other things, this meant a continuing presence at their Board meetings, and as often as not a request to further plead our case. We had also, in the meanwhile, discovered other tenant allies in the program, some of the strongest of whom were right in my own apartment building. Thus, I had the necessary support around me, for whenever my own energy began to flag.

The several of us made a good team. Joyce, upstairs, was a steady sparkplug with incredible telephone skills (which I lack entirely); Virginia, next door to her, had organizational skills, and before long she was pulling people from most of the 23 program buildings, scattered around the city, into an active/interactive/pro-active advocate group. Bruce, a sometimes member downstairs, had professional cartooning talent. And I, of course, had my computer, with the software needed for newsletters and graphic materials, as well as fax and Internet capabilities. It was almost like God had put us together, here, to fight this battle (shades of the Blues Brothers!) -- which had hardly, as yet, found its real focus.

First objective achieved!

June brought a surprising development. Joy's name was suddenly near the top of the waiting-list, and one of several soon-to-be-vacant apartments would become hers. A fas-cinating scramble ensued around this, not all of it even yet known to us. We were alert, of course, to any hint of retaliatory delay or displacement, or the more desirable possibility of preferential treatment in hopes of getting me off their backs . . . we were alert, yet I'm almost certain that one switch was pulled on us, for the first available unit went quietly to someone who'd been "reactivated" after having given up a place on the list last year -- someone whose income was much more substantial than Joy's. That person took a top-floor apartment which, at first thought, seemed one of the best, simply for its elevation. Yet -- and in a marvelous display of Providence at work for us -- the one that Joy did get is one of only two in the entire building that have sizable exterior decks.

So the motivating cause of my activism had been successfully resolved. But the momentum underway could not be so easily released -- though I tried to ease out of it. We were now beginning to uncover material having to do with how the program began and grew, which suggested other trails to follow; and beginning to discover who our friends in the Housing Authority were.

Up to now, it had felt like beating against an imperious/impervious wall, every time I made a presentation before the Board. There were even occasions when I had to raise a fuss for the time to speak. My words were met with a kind of stone-faced resistance. The Board Chairman, Bill Block, would reply with a pained insistence that the agency fully understood the tenants' concerns, but was faced with certain fiscal realities that required...etc., etc. Our specific proposals were summarily shot down, with a patronizing thanks for the input.

The Campaign broadens

In addition to those presentations, I had opened a 'second front' in the war: strong 'Letters to the Editor' in a small tenant monthly that went out to residents and management alike -- everybody and anybody concerned with public housing in Seattle. My opening blast was actually a resentfully worded letter sent innocently to the editor, himself, trashing the paper for giving no heed to tenant concerns in the Senior Housing Program, but merely echoing the self-serving flack that came from the management. To my surprise, it was printed in full as a Letter to the Editor.

And then there was a sudden breakthrough. In the discussion following one of my presentations before the Board, one Commissioner turned on to the positive elements in this exchange, and broached the idea of holding such open dialogues prior to each Board meeting. Seeing it, perhaps, as a way of disengaging this continual 'senior harangue' from the Board meeting proper, they picked up on the idea and began what has become an ongoing series of such "workshops," as they are called, which include a selected handful of activist seniors and the top echelon of management, with as many Commissioners as can manage to be there (usually two or three). Once past the opening effort at "learning to communicate" -- a facilitated process that was punctured by Virginia, who wanted to get right into substantive discussion -- we began a fruitful monthly interaction, with two good sessions behind us, now. More on that development in a moment.

One of the things that had turned up, as we delved into the background of the program, was a huge problem centered on one of the building sites known as the Morrison Hotel -- a six-story hulk down in Seattle's old skid row area, built around 1910 and salvaged from its deteriorating condition. That it should even be in such a program as this, among mostly newly built structures designed for low maintenance, should have drawn my attention in the first place; but the one I live in is almost as old, refitted nicely from a onetime schoolhouse, so I gave it little thought. But the city archives unfolded a story that finally revealed what the Housing Authority was trying to cover up.

I can easiest explain it with a portion of a freshly written article due for publication any day, now, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the daily that printed my first Op Ed article. The Norm Rice, mentioned in it, is our mayor, who is up for the Cabinet post of HUD Secretary.


Seattle's Downtown Problem Child

It was a brilliant stroke of fundsmanship when they saved the Morrison, twelve years ago. The derelict old hotel, just off skid row, had been a steady loser and an intractable headache ever since the Seattle Housing Authority took it on, in 1974, largely to fulfill a city commitment to a downtown transient shelter. And the city had already paid plenty for its failure: more than a million dollars in various grants and waivers.

What was needed was a full scale renovation, a $4 million job, but the money was nowhere available . . . until the timeline for the sinking hotel crossed the rising timeline of the bond-funded Senior Housing Program (SSHP) - a 1000-unit project with "excess funds" that had grown from interest on the bond money.

It was clearly a win/win situation - the freshly built low-maintenance senior housing, well on its way to completion, didn't need the $4 million in unconsigned funds, and the money could hardly be put to better use.

Just one problem had to be solved: the bond money couldn't legally be parted from its SSHP consignment without first going back to the voters. But there was another way to do it: bring the Morrison into the SSHP! All it took was a cooperative effort between:

  1. a Seattle Housing Authority that "figured out how to make the Morrison work as an SSHP building" (as was noted by SHA Commissioner Margaret Ceis, who chaired the Board at the time),
  2. an Oversight Committee willing to look the other way (the watchdog crew, of which Norm Rice was a member, decided it had no jurisdiction over "excess funds"), and
  3. a City Council that would give its blessing to this awkward and unlikely December-April marriage (the Council, over which Norm Rice presided, permitted SHA pressure to override their own Finance Chair's caution, and okayed the arrangement).

Had the Morrison gotten a new lease on life, and soared from there on as expected, everything would have been fine. But unfortunately, the Morrison failed to follow the script. It went into a steeper plunge than ever, losing money now in the six-figure range every year.

The Morrison, however, was now a part of the SSHP, entitled to the financial support of the Senior Reserve Fund, a trough at which it proceeded to feed for the next twelve years - right into 1996.

Over those years since 1984, the Morrison has cost the fund $2.4 million in direct fund transfers, and another million dollars in interest losses that would reasonably have accrued. The SHA did nothing to stop the drainage - even after a 1994 alarm was raised in that year's proposed budget.

Nobody seems to have considered that the Reserve Fund, consisting entirely of tenant rents from low-income seniors, was the program's only backstop against operating losses, capital replacements, or other program contingencies. The loss of that fund's strength has cost the seniors whatever shelter security they had, for the SSHP receives no subsidy - it is entirely on its own: a singular index of character and integrity in today's welfare-funded world.

But to what end? The Senior Housing Program, at the SHA's own present estimate, will be flat broke by 2002.

The Morrison, after compromising the program and crippling its ability to survive, is saved from the approaching demise by a recent HUD commitment to $400,000 in annual support. There can be no such rescue for the Senior Housing: as a city-sponsored program, it doesn't qualify for HUD funds.


In greatly expanded detail, I wrote about the Morrison situation in the tenant monthly newspaper -- a three-part series that has not yet been entirely published. I had wanted also to present a summary of it beforehand at the October Board meeting, but in another one of their moments of 'innocent ineffectuality' they had neglected to put me on the agenda. Their neglect, however, whether absent-minded or not, proved this time to be a blessing that has provided a significant turning point in this whole struggle.

The Tactical Turning-point

At the tenant/management workshop just prior to that Board meeting, I found myself seated next to Bill Block, the Chairman of the Board and its strongest voice. They had been rotating our seating around the great rectang-ular table layout, and it happened by someone else's design, not mine. It was the first time I'd had a chance at personal interaction with this 'ultimate authority figure' in the whole situation, and we got into a direct and easy discussion, which felt promising to me. When it developed, then, that my name was missing from the meeting agenda -- and I had told him that I intended to speak, that day -- Block renewed an earlier offer to meet with me over coffee and talk about what I wanted to present.

The offer had first been made in our person-al exchange when he learned that I meant to talk about the Morrison history. He'd said he already knew all about the Morrison, and I expressed some doubt that he'd been given the full, unvarnished story. My strategy, all along, has been to drive a wedge between the Board and the management, seeing the Commission as the best shot we've got for any justice in this thing. So he repeated the coffee offer when he saw that I wasn't on the agenda, adding that we could include other Board members if I wanted.

We did it early one morning, about a week later -- just he and I and a single other Commissioner who takes an active part at the Board meetings (the three others are pretty much echoes of what goes on between these two). It was a bit risky to venture this, as I can be rattled by the appraising, intimidating gaze of someone resistant to what I'm trying to put across -- but I could hardly have turned it down, either. I found him, as before, easy to talk with, even agreeing with me on some things, but I didn't think I made much headway, overall. I did, however, give him a complete copy of the yet-to-be-published article series as we parted.

At the following month's pre-Board meeting workshop, Block went out of his way to come over from his seat at the table, with a generous compliment for my writing skills. Everyone of us, that afternoon, noticed a change in him during the workshop and a somewhat related change in the Executive Director of the agency, who seemed unusually irritable that afternoon. He was openly challenged once or twice, by Block, on matters relevant to the Morrison. And we gained, for the first time, that day, an acknowledgement in the form of a commitment that the agency would begin a fund transfer, from the Morrison to the Senior Reserve Fund, of $50,000 per year. It was only a token, for it would take 50 years at that rate to make up the loss, and it relies on the solvency of the Morrison, which is still a problematical matter. But it marked a significant turning point, a measure of progress in being heard, at the level from which we need response.

And at the Board meeting following that workshop, I gave the presentation that I was denied time for, the previous month. It wasn't the same presentation, of course, for I had a better angle, now, on the resistance of the agency. It wasn't even the full presentation I wanted to make, but an abbreviated version to fit within the twelve minutes they were allowing me. I suppose I can't complain, for I had fought my way up from the five minutes they were first willing to grant -- and I didn't quite manage it in less than thirteen, actually -- but the very idea of any time limit, at all, for the documented charge of a $2.5 million misuse of funds, seems outrageous to me.

The presentation was built around a theme of Denial, which was the only generous way that anyone could possibly account for such a gross handling of fiduciary trust. And I'm consciously trying to be generous -- I need this program to survive, and it may depend on getting them to accept their level of responsibility for it. I have no reason to suppose that any of this happened for anyone's personal gain -- it was a good move that turned sour, but they did allow it to curdle, and that's the point that my writing wants to drive home.

Enter from stage left: The Tiger!

Well, within a few days of that mid-November workshop and meeting, the tiger, whose tail I've been hanging onto all year long, suddenly turned and clamped his fearsome teeth on ME. I lost my sensible caution in this campaign for just a brief moment, but long enough to present the beast an unguarded flank.

It was entirely a side-issue that put me off guard. Joy had awakened me, that morning, with the anxious word that they were cutting up a tree limb outside my front window. I could see it happening, sure enough, though the tree it came from was beyond my angle of sight. We have several trees out there, one of which is directly below me -- a still young shoot of a tree that I care very much about keeping in place. And when Joy returned, a few moments later with word -- straight from the maintenance crew -- that they were bent on taking out all of the deciduous trees, I knew I had to do something.

I made a couple calls, finding I could do no better in the moment than leave voice-mail messages. In the call to the agency's Director of Maintenance, I asked urgently to talk with him about it . . . and added the offhand, spontaneous remark that if they came for that tree in front of my window, I was liable to be out there with a gun!

Well, in this day and age you don't say such things to 'authority' -- and certainly not on their voice-mail with no benefit of any mediating dialogue. Twenty-four hours later, they were at my door with a 3-day eviction notice!

Thus began my (mercifully brief) five-day Ordeal, in which I discovered who were my true friends among the agency personnel -- most of which I already knew, but the confirmation in these circumstances was vastly encouraging. It was impossible not to see the development as a perfect opportunity -- hastily grasped -- to be rid of the worst thorn in their sides. Nobody would admit to this, of course, for a retaliatory eviction is against the law. But their haste, in view of their familiarity with me, and certain anomalies in the way they carried it out, still make the case, as far as I'm concerned -- though I only suspect one or two of them of that motive.

My first move, a cautious but solid one, was to trust my instincts and call Bill Block -- first of all, to see if he was even aware of it. He was, and went through all of the rational reasons why they had to assume it could be a valid threat and act on it as such. But he also said that he was sure I could come through a hearing okay, and that he hoped it would not interfere with the excellent work I had been doing. That buoyed me a lot. He added that should I run into any problems, in talkng it through with agency people, to call him again.

I had no such problems. It was probably the swiftest hearing any potential evictee ever had, and all of the testimony given -- except for the self-incrimination of my own recorded voice -- was unstintingly in my favor. Any who might have spoken against me were not there. Even the hearing officer, whom I had never before spoken with, expressed admiration for the work I've been doing.

The most difficult part for me, actually, was keeping it from Joy, who was flying to spend Thanksgiving with her east coast offspring the very next morning after I received the eviction notice. There was no way that I'd load her with that sort of downer, just before plane time. But that part went smoothly, and as I even write these words it is yet another day before she'll be back to hear the tale with its favorable ending, and none of the ordeal that I had to go through, for herself.


So, what does it all add up to?

I was assured, by everyone in the Housing Authority whom I asked, that this was in no way meant to compromise my activism. But of course, they'd have to say that. It puts a chill at my doorstep, regardless, for I value this housing situation, and what Joy and I have made of it, as a supreme demonstration of Providence -- it is even fair to say that my escape from the jaws of the tiger is a further manifestation of it. But nothing in life is without meaning . . . and every such 'message' is ignored only at our peril.

All the way along, I've been reminded of Alexander Dubcek, the hapless 'hero' of Czech-oslovakia's long ago "Prague Spring." If you can't recall the world's political events of 1969, he was the motivating spark of a brief efflorescence behind the Iron Curtain that tried to make, of their national Communism, what every idealist always hoped it could be. He had the dream, but not the ultimate power, and he was shortly crunched from the scene -- allowed to live, but quietly and circumspectly.

So the article going into the local press -- the one that I quoted for you -- may very well be my swan song in this campaign. A parting shot to remind them that I am not really helpless, presumably not cowed . . . though behind the scenes, there is a somewhat different dynamic at work. It is important, however, that my fellow tenants, activist and otherwise, not be similarly intimidated on the basis of what has happened to me.


Part II

The Year Takes its Toll

The trend of the housing situation is not the only thing that has given me pause to reconsider my level of activist involvement. It is also late in the year, and late in my own life - a double December, as earlier noted. And this circumstance was brought home to me with particular force, just a few weeks ago, by the sudden death of a friend. A friend twelve years younger than me, whom I never imagined would cash in before I did.

Many of you knew him, too: Danaan Parry, who founded the Earthstewards and inspired many thousands of people to discover and pursue the best in themselves. Including me, for it took the potency of one of Danaan's workshops to show me that my passion for Taoism as a way of life had gone too far toward the passive end of the spectrum. I may, in fact, owe this very year of effective activism to Danaan's tutelage, in that respect.

Well, Danaan is gone, felled by a heart attack, at 57. In the realization that I knew Danaan for more than a third of his life - long enough to watch him formulate and develop a magnificent materialization of his life's dream - while I have ambled along at half-speed, by comparison, often lingering in the backwaters of self-discovery - I see both the tragedy of his heedless energy, and the wastage of my own . . . by comparison, again.

I don't mean to imply that I regret my choice in favor of his. We each responded, but at a vastly different pace of ambition, to the perception that life's most foolish mistake is the tendency to put the important things off . . . to live each day as if there will always be a thousand more, and so to excuse the everlasting postponement of a dream. Given the option again, knowing its outcome this time, I'm sure that Danaan and I would have made the same respective choices.

But I must hasten at this point, just as Danaan should have slowed down. And for essentially the same reason: that Nature is unremitting in its demands. For me, however, the imperative means that there is still too much to be done, that only I can do. And that last is the key phrase, for the work involves writing what I know.

The finest tribute that I can pay to Danaan is to see that my remaining time does not fly by, without bringing the remainder of my dream to completion.

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