As the elderly highrise building took shape and became a reality, it was time to start taking applications. I went all over town, talking up the building. At first it was slow. People were embarrassed to have to apply for low-income housing. It seemed like welfare to them. But when I got them into the office and spoke with them, I found out how poor some of them really were — some were even eating dog food to survive! This broke my heart, and I swore I would make life better for them. I had to!
Some were just lonely. Back then, most of the applicants were
women in their 60s, and a few in their 70s. Most had been housewives,
supporting their husbands, and had never worked. When their husbands died, they
ended up living on Social Security benefits, and it wasn't easy. Either the
apartment rental ate 80 or 90 percent of their income, or they had to live with
relatives. They didn't like feeling dependent, but they didn't have a choice.
Affordable housing would give them a choice.
It hurt my heart to have them feel that living in the highrise
would be welfare, and I went on a crusade to explain to the whole community
that this was their right! They or their husbands had worked all
their lives and paid taxes — they deserved this! Feelings about the building
began slowly to change, and we started to get more applicants. Word got around.
I had plans and color schemes, and prospective residents were
allowed to pick out which unit they wanted. The city didn't have any other
nine-story buildings, so living high in the building was scary! Most wanted the
lower floors. A few wanted to be up high, and some of them loved looking over
the stockyards where their husbands had worked — and they were high over
Finally the time for move-in came close. The walls were painted
in the color scheme we'd selected, the tile was buffed to a shine, and the
furniture donated by businesses for the community space (including a beauty
shop and a pool table) was in place. The prospective residents gave their
notice to move, and we were within a month of move-in.
One morning, very early, I received a phone call from the police department. Vandals had turned on the standpipe in the stairwells. It had run all night and the building had been flooded. It was a headline in the paper. As I sloshed through the water, we cried, and I thought, "What are all the people who gave their notice going to do?!" We were going to have a delay in move-in, and no one knew how long it would be.
We talked with landlords; people moved in with their families.
It was not a happy couple of months. But this, too, did pass, and finally it
was move-in time. It was almost Christmas, but many people were ready and
wanted to move in. When they actually saw their apartments, some were upset
because not all their oversized furniture would fit into the apartment space
they'd been allotted. Some people had given up a house, and this space
I didn't tell them that this space design was a whole new venture for HUD. Prior to this, elderly housing was made up of efficiency units with very few one-bedroom units, the thought being that these were single elderly people and they didn't need much space. Secretly, I thought a man had probably made that decision because the developer-types in HUD were all men. Women need space.
I read the rules over and over again and thought, "There's
nothing that says you couldn't add a wall for a bedroom, as long as you stay
within the space limits." Ha! I took the square footage of the
efficiencies and the square footage of the one-bedrooms we were allotted, and
convinced the powers-that-be that we could do all one-bedrooms. The day we
received that approval, I danced around the office!
But, at move-in time, that story would have fallen flat. The
residents thought the units were just too small. So we talked and talked, and
finally they agreed they could probably give up the stuffed couch and go for
just two of their chairs. Not that they were happy about it, mind you, but it could
be done. And the move-in continued.
We had hired a caretaker and his wife, who turned out to be a
wonderful addition to the building. Leo and his wife Lilly took the building
and the residents into their hearts. Leo had been a farmer in North Dakota, and
he could do anything. This was his building, and he put his
heart and soul into it. Lilly was a little more skeptical at first, but the
people won her over.
We had a deadline from HUD to get to 95 percent occupancy, and Christmastime wasn't the greatest time to move. We didn't have a full building by New Year's Eve, but the adventurous and brave ones were in. I suggested a New Year's Eve party, and the response was, "WHAT?! Stay up until midnight? Go to a party?!"
We'd built a kitchen into the community space with a pass-through into a huge "living room" with chairs all around the room — stuffed chairs that rocked. By this time, I had been divorced for a year and had fallen in love with a most handsome man. Anyway, he helped me get ready for the building opening by putting together the furniture, carrying a multitude of things, and then hosting the party with me.
We made appetizers, popped corn (at 25 I didn't think about
dentures and popcorn), made punch, had the pool table up and ready to play on
for the guys who liked to shoot pool, decorated the room, brought in a group
for music, and we had a ball. They dragged out their best finery that hadn't
been worn for a long time, and wore their best jewelry. We celebrated New
Year's Eve at about 10 p.m., but it was the most exciting New Year's Eve that
they, Jim, and I had had in many a year.