Issue #27, August 1998

Notes of a year-watcher as August rounds the bend

That otherwise cheerful old sun hangs high in the midday sky and Seattle scorches, along with the rest of the nation, in a deep summer heat that is almost vengeful in its torment. Yes . . . July and early August, far more the time to be wary of, than the ides of March.

How is it, that a seasonal lore so readily apparent has all but escaped the general notice? Fortunately, I have learned it on my own -- late in life, it's true, but not too late to ease me through these years when the available energy has to be carefully paced, and a patience grounded in knowledge is what so often passes as wisdom to the uninformed.

Twenty-five years ago, I had neither the patience nor the insight that might have grounded it . . . so I very well know what that is like. Bashed and battered was I, summer upon summer, until forced to recognize the pattern, for which I shall ever be grateful.

You who read me regularly know that I'm not talking about the sun or the heatwave; these are merely the visible and obvious aspects of a pattern that weaves through our entire scope of activity. Everything heats up in July and early August, sometimes to a tinder-dry edge that even seems explosive, before it finally fades back from prominence. And sometimes it does explode! But this is more usually the result of someone's failure to see it through . . . which only underscores how important it can be, to understand the Nature of it.

Yes, understand the Nature of it, for it is precisely how our lives are in constant intersection with all that Nature basically does, and is. Nature Lives! And she lives according to a pattern of growth, everywhere visible. To make that pattern our very own -- which is to say, to see and feel and know its measured cyclic progression through our own pursuits -- is to be in harmony with it at a conscious level, and able to ride its crest as a surfer might.

Each year presents us with this wonderful opportunity, and it is one of life's great thrills to pick up on that developing wave, early in the year, and ride it through to a crashing finalé, knowing all the while that you are really, truly, "in touch" with it.

I have had that thrill this year. I recognized the cues early on, took my own cues from them, and rode the wave all the way. Not always precisely on top of it, for I was caught off guard at several sudden moments . . . but I kept my balance, and made the necessary corrections for those momentary shifts, and . . .

But I am already ahead of the tale.

The tale, in fact, has not yet come to its crashing finalé, so it will be a bit of a challenge to see how I am going to put this across to you. But time, now, is of the essence -- as it has been at several points along the way -- and I do need to get the tale of it underway, whether yet resolved or not. In addition to the imperative of this August report to you, I also have to get out a term paper, mediated by a dozen books or more, on the modern-day question of whether or not Lincoln was a racist -- and what difference it makes for the shape of things as they stand today. (Don't dismiss it, you contemporaries of mine . . . the question has a serious grounding!)

So summer cannot be aborted, you see. The time is immediate; if I falter I am liable to miss the boat. And as 'Professor' Harold Hill is remembered to have said, in The Music Man, "I've paid my dues, and I mean to be there at the finish." (or something like that)

I'll have to begin this accounting with a stage-setter, a short and tight summary (as well as that can be done) of my extended battle with the Seattle Housing Authority, the monumental management machine that is my landlord. This is to refresh weak memories and inform those who have not been around for the full though intermittent ride of my past reports on the matter. You'll need it -- take my word -- in order to understand what my current year is all about.

I was simply a happy tenant . . . March of '96, less than two years a resident and not aware of anything at all, in back of the monthly billing for my very modest rent. I thought we were subsidized (how else could I get away with a rental amounting to no more than a third of the going market rate?), and that I had arrived in 'poverty paradise' -- the lovely pasturage of a true retirement, never in prospect for the likes of my sort. But we were abruptly notified, that month, that the Senior Housing Program (SSHP) was in serious financial trouble.

It turned out that we were not subsidized; the low rent simply reflected the careful program design, and the inherent difference between housing for people and housing for profit. But it wasn't quite paying our way, and several correctives had been drawn up, with less than a month allowed for tenant input.

I would have simply accepted this and done what was requested of us, but for the fact that one corrective measure -- which wouldn't impact on any present tenant, they were careful to note -- would involve a shuffle of the waiting-list so that higher-income tenants would begin to enter the stream and make a difference, rents being based on percentage of income. But it impacted on me, because my partner, Joy -- among the lowest of the low-income -- had been already a year on that waiting-list, and was within striking range of an apartment in my building. We had been envisioning a summer move-in.

So I girded my loins (whatever that means) and did battle . . . David taking on Goliath. I made such a rabid registration, with prominent press exposure and a forceful presence at two of their board meetings, that I not only gained my goal (Joy had her apartment by July), but I stirred a following among the tenants, and I was unable to simply fade back into the woodwork. Things very soon took on a life of their own.

A tenants' organization came into being, ramrodded by a fellow building tenant, Virginia, who, at 77, was an absolute dynamo, completely belying the fact that she could hardly get around on her own two feet. She obtained 600 tenant signatures on a petition, and established a program-wide sense of community (23 buildings throughout Seattle) that simply hadn't been there before.

Confronted with this, the SHA Board of Commissioners set up a round of monthly meetings between staff and SSHP tenants, and I was simply a necessary part of it for having set it off in the first place. Virginia, for all her feisty energy, needed help in the facts and figures department, which is where I fit in.

These meetings only lasted a few months, from the summer of '96 into late fall, largely hamstrung because the staff really wasn't prepared to hear us, so much as to inform us . . . of all that SHA was doing in our behalf. But two worthwhile things came of it: I discovered a degree of personal rapport with the chairman of the Board, Bill Block -- such that I now had access to a non-condescending ear, though it never substantially altered his agenda; and secondly, in probing around for the real cause of the financial difficulties, I tracked onto the history of a 12-year drainage of tenant rent funds supposedly in reserve for longterm program maintenance, but used instead ($2.4 million of it) to prop up a limping old hotel (the Morrison), located in the down-and-out part of town, that should never have been brought into the program in the first place.

Bringing this to light, however, merely served to firm-up the battle line between the tenants and the Housing Authority. Outside of a hypocritical show of sympathy, and a token restitution plan that, even if ever fulfilled, would take fifty years to equalize the loss, they proceeded to stonewall on the entire issue, forcing us to seek other avenues of redress.

During the following year . . .

...two such avenues got underway: a formal court challenge and a coalition-based effort to reorder the makeup of SHA's Board of Commissioners, through a legislative revision of the applicable state law. Neither of these played out as expected . . . there were surprise shifts along the way, both good and bad.

Our coalition involvement seemed, in the first place, hardly likely to jell. One of the more interesting aspects of my close work with Virginia has been our basic political incompatibility -- she is a rock-solid conservative, with all the expectable attitudes, including a knee-jerk cynicism about labor unions . . . and the backbone of the coalition was a labor element. The office employees' effort to unionize had been continually frustrated by SHA, so the organizers banded with several seasoned, longtime activists for Seattle's displaced and homeless community. They wanted a tenant constituency, now, for a combined assault on the impregnable SHA bastion.

It was clear that they could bring our own issues up for considerably more public scrutiny, just as we could help broaden theirs, but Virginia would have none of it. I could only join as an independent senior tenant, and it took my continuing report of their threshold successes, in getting the proposed legislation into the stream of this year's opening session, to finally soften Virginia's resistance.

The court case, being a direct assault, seemed to hold more promise for her. And why not? It was being handled by a top-rated local adversarial firm, on a pro-bono basis. But now, with both irons in the fire, things felt incredibly promising as this year opened . . . which is where this tale must properly begin.

On a strictly personal basis, as I'm sure most of you know by now, I am most attentive to what is happening in my world as February opens. I get my best cues to what the year is all about in the few weeks that surround this moment of the annual cycle. Sometimes it's diffuse, and I learn little. Sometimes it can be weeks before I realize the cue was there, I just didn't see it. But this year, it was trumpets blaring, like gate time at a Kentucky Derby.

The action was actually underway before the end of January, with two early-morning coalition carpools to the state capitol in Olympia, followed by a lobbying visit to the Mayor's office, back in town. It became apparent, early-on, that the SHA was going to dig in and fight us, on this one, and it felt good to have the fighting power of the coalition with us. But the point to be made, here, is that this was already going on in my world, by the time I started looking around for "sprouts," which are best identified by their sudden and unassisted appearance on one's horizon.

And then, on the tenth of February, I received a phone call from Bill Block, the Commission chairman. It came just days after a survey article on the senior issues, in the city's principal alternative weekly, which had singled out yours truly as a primary actor in the thrust of our double-edged campaign -- a somewhat exaggerated notice.

I had not had any contact with Block for more than a year, ever since the gracious way that he helped me through an eviction crisis (not directly pertinent to our housing crusade; see Ripening Seasons #18). It led to a shared breakfast, reaffirming our rapport outside of all the adversarial stuff. I'm sure it had a more subtle agenda, but it was enough to have this 'side avenue' of discourse confirmed once again, and I was content to leave it at that.

On the main thoroughfare, we ran headlong into our first roadblock. As a number of us sat in stunned silence, the Superior Court refused to hear our case. The judge took a legalistic Statute of Limitations approach that cut us off before we could establish the critical basis of our claim. It was like saying: "Never mind what the fox did in your hen house; he was living there, and it's too late to be complaining about how he got in."

Everything now rested on the legislative thrust --

...which I had frankly given up on, after seeing the legislature at work (so to speak). The coalition never expected to achieve much more than some reasonable groundwork in this session, for a followup effort in the next. After all, the present political climate is not such as to encourage high hopes for reform. But there were some experienced hands at work on this, and the light kept burning. The House bill (where our strength was at first thought to reside) went under, but the Senate bill managed to make it, and they sent a revised bill back to the House. In the end, albeit not without compromises, it got through both houses without a single opposing vote!

The critical final hearing, before a thinly represented Senate panel, was something on the order of a circus performance. SHA had actually bused-in a contingent of anti-legislation tenants, but they somehow took the wrong cue, in their protestations, and ended up opposing the single problematical amendment that we, too, opposed (and that was ultimately dropped). Bill Block, who sat beside me in the first audience row, went up to somehow try and save the day -- or at least the "face" of it -- for SHA, but only ran into a withering blast of senatorial questions for his effort. The day was ours, and there was no mistaking it!

Toward the end of March, we all went to the Governor's signing of the bill, and it would be just a matter of months before the SHA Board would be expanded with two additional commissioners, to be appointed by the Mayor -- with a free hand, but under some advisory restraint that there should be a labor appointee and a tenant appointee. In fact, the latter was mandated by the text of the bill: two ten-ant appointees, hereafter, instead of just one.

An ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign . . .

...would have ended on that note. But this, you'll recall, had already signalled itself as my year's central thrust, and the year's summer had not even begun. A new focus of action -- still with-in the larger framework -- suddenly emerged from its gently simmering background.

Quietly, almost beneficently as far as could be seen, SHA was preparing to embark on a new mode of refinancing for the Senior Housing Program (which would not have been necessary had our Reserve Fund remained intact), utilizing this particular building I live in as the opening wedge. It involves the sale of tax credit benefits under a state agency's program. But some legal footwork is required in order to offer those benefits, and the question is: does it really serve the program's best interest? For it involves setting up a 99-year lease of the building to a limited partnership.

The answers are not yet sufficiently clear. But the question has stirred a hornet's nest of interested concern, being the payoff for all the awareness we have brought about, around the SSHP dilemma.

Some of it was underway before I embarked on my recent 'sabbatical' hitch-hiking holiday, a couple months ago. But something of even more pertinent concern to me had entered the picture by that time. The coalition had been trying to work up a slate of recommendations for the Mayor's consideration, for the new Housing Board appointments, and they wanted me on it. But I function best in a free environment and wanted to make no such lengthy commitment (4 years), so I shied away from it.

Then, a week before my journey was to begin, a call came from the Mayor's office wanting to set up an interview appointment! I could only guess that Bill Block must have nominated me, and I later learned I was right. After very briefly considering it, I called back and told them I really wasn't interested -- feeling quite happy with myself for having resisted ego's siren song. And then I left for Arizona.

The journey, so right for me in so many ways . . .

...also provided a sounding board for my decision. I spoke with several people about it along the way, and an interesting process developed. The most significant contributor was Jack Noel, that magical person who picked me up outside of Truth or Consequences, NM (hmm, not until this moment of literary reflection have I grasped that bit of signification!).

I'm not even sure that we discussed it much, directly. But there was inference in the overall conversation . . . I remember Jack talking about how he had decided, somewhere along the route of his own path, that he had to stop talking about the way things might be, and do something about them. I openly admired the way he moved through life, linking and networking, letting people see their own place in the larger scheme of evolvement, as if to say "things are not static; each of us plays a vital, moving role, as we 'grow the society' through its doldrums!"

The SHA wasn't really on my mind. I told him how limiting and helpless it sometimes felt, simply doing an occasional newsletter for a hundred people or so, and he came back with encouragement: "But that's real. It's the people you link and network with, and it may be far more important to them than you know." It seemed, for that brief moment, that I really was part of some grand movement that none of us can fully see.

Only later did I see the connection with the flow of my year, and realize that if one purports to be in the flow (as I certainly always do), one has to take its gifts with proper gravity. Isn't this, after all, what I keep saying Providence is all about? If the Universe is thrusting me into that situation, it is less a matter of ego for me to accept it, than a downright bit of selfishness (and what is that but ego?) to turn it down.

It went round and round in my head, and by the time I got to Roundup, Montana (Jeez, how appropriate can it get?), I put in a call to Bill Block, and left word that I'd like him to resubmit the recommendation for me. Never mind my 'druthers . . . if this is where my fate sends me,then this is where I go.

So the stage was set . . .

...with the hot months of summer still several weeks off, by the time I got back to Seattle. I learned quickly that the interviews had been put off until the first of July; and the day after that, a special SHA presentation had been arranged for the City Council's Housing Committee, chaired by Peter Steinbrueck, who could become an important figure in all of what was happening. The press had been picking up the tempo on the fears of this new financing plan for the SSHP, much of it generated by the coalition, with Virginia playing no small part. Where I stood, in this swirl of things had become uncertain for me. What kind of stance do I take, now, as a potential appointee for the Board? Who, if anyone, should I be partial toward? Who should I be careful of?

The I Ching gave me no useful counsel, but an interesting commentary: #55 Abundance. "Be like the sun at midday" (with the corollary warning, however, that the only way it can go from there is down).

Three tenant candidates were interviewed, two of us on the coalition slate and the third a mystery, assumed to be the SHA-preferred choice. But the Mayor was under some pressure to give prime consideration to coalition candidates -- the check-and-balance key being now in the hands of the City Council, whose approval was required, according to the new rules. My own candidacy, from both sides of the fence, would seem to have the edge. But I could easily have blown it by stressing my independence in the course of the interview. To the extent, even, of irritating Bill Block, who was one of the interviewers. I figured I had to put it right out there, right at the start.

Steinbrueck's hearing, the next day, proved to be a massive case of mis-communication . . . by someone. We were led to believe it was to be an open hearing. But it seems that SHA had laid out some groundrules before they would even participate, which gave them central stage. But that was not enough: they proceeded to hog it for a solid hour, followed by 15 minutes of questions from the assembled City Council members, leaving 15 minutes for the input of a much larger than expected audience. Steinbrueck was shocked when the audience exploded, in their frustration. For awhile, it was a madhouse, which got good press coverage even though we were going into the 4th of July weekend. I, myself, never said a word.

But afterwards, I had a great deal to say!

I first of all emailed my reactions to Steinbrueck (whom I have not yet even met!), at quite extensive length, not so much chiding him, as going into all that I might have chosen to say, had I been given the chance.

Then I got to reading the promotional material that SHA had brought for the occasion, and spotted some figures in it that could provide evidence for one of our most ignored claims: that a non-subsidy program cannot be run economically when embedded in a management system primarily ordered around the search for and use of subsidies. I drew up a letter, now, for Steinbrueck, and -- since the evidence came from SHA's own figures -- I copied it not only to the SHA people who were at the hearing, but also to the press and certain state senators favorable to our cause, and the Mayor as well -- the Mayor who held my appointment candidacy in his hands.

Then I got further into the material SHA had provided, and spotted what appeared to be further proof of my point, and drafted a second letter to Steinbrueck -- and all of the same copied people. This great whirlpool of response went out during the week after the hearing . . . I was roaring like an overheated furnace!

By that time, I'd begun to have some concerns that something untoward might be going on around the commission appointments, for I'd been told that the selection would be forthcoming within a week. The delay, and my sudden sense that the City Council (not represented at the interview) might be relegated to nothing more than a rubber-stamp role in the process, led me once more back to my white-hot keyboard, this time for a long email to Stein-brueck, detailing my concerns and suspicions.

I went one step further with it. In watching a video replay of the event that had generated all of this response, we saw Bill Block, toward the end of the SHA presentation, offer a bit of testy and challenge-edged observation that the City Council had no proper authority over SHA -- and Steinbrueck had said as much, himself. So I filled the latter part of my email with as strong a case as I could make, for the Council's oversight rights, with respect to the SSHP.

Perhaps I should own up to Summer Madness . . .

...for I was not yet done. I had to get out one more letter -- my momentum now geared more to some kind of instinctive urgency than any rational need for it -- and I let fly again, exactly at mid-month. On the day it went out, I received a copy of a response to both of my earlier letters, directed to Steinbrueck, from the Executive Director of SHA . . . who had copied it to all the recipients that I had graced with my own.

It pointed out at least one thing that I had overlooked, but included also some figures that simply did not jibe with or address my own, and ignored a lot of what I had written. The important thing, though, was that I had flushed the tiger from its lair, and within the next few days I received a "white flag" phone call from Steinbrueck's staff assistant telling me that I need letter them no more . . . that they were resolved, now, to take hold of the oversight function, one way or another, seeing it even as the only legitimate claim they could make, for some influence in what SHA is doing.

This -- if followed through -- may be the most significant victory of our entire (now) 28-month campaign. It is one of the three things we have tried to get, and been consistently refused (the other two being a return of the lost funds, and a separate management structure).

So here we are, then, almost to the year's 'moment of reckoning' . . .

...I've been several days at the writing of this, interspersed with classes and library work for my other summer responsibility, and it is now Sunday, August 2nd. The Mayor's appointment to the Board of Commissioners, according to the latest word, will be made (or announced) in this coming week, but I cannot delay this issue for the wait of it. I need to have this up and done, so that I can get to the mailing of it by midweek and move on.

I could very well have screwed my chances at the Board position, with that fevered rash of mailings. I'm not so sure, in fact, that it wasn't a subconscious motive of mine, for the prospect of taking on that responsibility is not one that thrills me. But either way, I don't want to leave you hanging on the uncertainty, if I can help it. So I am going to use the yellow cover, this time -- the inside of it -- for a last-minute checkoff, to give you whatever I know, up to the time of the mailing.

What I really want to leave you with, however, is a recognition of how beautifully the experiential year conforms to the pattern of the archetypal cycle. Twenty-five years ago, based on what was happening to me in those years, I narrowed the high crest of summer (in terms of development, not weather) to the ten-day span of August 3-13. In this year's near-classic instance of it, the pattern once again shows true . . .

After all the usual pre-summer points of registration (the February 10th 'sprout', the March blossoming in Olympia, the 'growing season' run-up of my own internal changes on the road), an appointment that was supposed to take place in June -- as written into the law -- was put off, first to July, and then (amid the heat of all that July processing of mine) to early August.

If, as some may still claim, I have 'engineered' my life so that things happen thus and so, they will have an interesting time of it explaining how I have managed to corral so many other people into it, including, this time, no less a personage than the Mayor of Seattle.



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