$71? You’ve Got to be Kidding.


It is 7:25 a.m. and the sun is peering bleakly through a haze. The temperature is eight but feels like -12. It is predicted to go up to a blazing 11 degrees this afternoon. “Niagara Falls freezes over” is today’s headline. Beneath my window one of Syracuse University’s big CATs is plowing snow and using its loud backup horn. (The afore-mentioned “haze” was an oncoming snow storm, which is now falling hard.)

Last night the S.U. vs. Louisville basketball game tipped off at 7:00 p.m., which is also about the time that fat snowflakes started to fall. On my way to bed at 9:00 p.m., I noticed a car in the parking lot with its parking lights on. Oh dear. Somebody’s going to come out of the game and find a dead battery. Should I call S.U.’s Dept. of Public Safety? Ask them to check out the car with its lights on? Broadcast it in the Carrier Dome?

You see, an activist is not a hairy fellow carrying a protest sign with nasty words on it. Activism is a lifestyle that says “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” I’m going to do something about it. I am going to act. An activist is one who takes action, contrary to all the folks who sit on their butts, look at the world passing by, and do exactly nothing.

So while I’m debating making the phone call, I see another car with its lights on. And another. And lots of dark figures streaming down the hill, remotely activating their car lights. The game is over and the fans are coming into the parking lot, which has been snowed on for two hard hours. They open their car doors and trunks and wave their arms antically as they sweep off snow. Have you ever seen, from above, a parking lot full of people all simultaneously cleaning snow off their cars? It looks like a cover on The New Yorker.

At night, I turn the thermometer in my apartment down to 72 degrees; in the morning it registers 65 degrees. I had been asking tenants to bring their National Grid bills to the Tenants Action Council meeting last night.

The first problem with this is that all the notices about the meeting were taken down. Related Management’s state supervisor said she could stop that problem. She said she had directed our manager to write a letter that would go to all tenants today or tomorrow. Yesterday our manager said, “That’s news to me; I know nothing about it.”

So the turnout at the meeting was very low. I was the only one there who could read the National Grid bill and find “Account Activity: Current Charges” and “Summary of Current Charges: Total Current Charges,” the two being the same number. You have to understand, dear reader, that people in low-income housing are not smart. If they were smart then they’d have an earned-income high enough to keep them out of poverty.

Further, in low-income housing for people who are elderly, the tenant’s mental faculties have been dummied down either by various illnesses that reduce brain acuity or by the drugs used to treat those illnesses. In this building, there are 176 tenants, 91% of whom are disabled.

It is hard, if not impossible, to get an accurate reading of how many HUD-subsidized high-rises there are in the city. (The difficulty, in part, is that on the Internet “HUD homes” is a euphemism for houses, apartments not included.)

A rough estimate is that there are about a dozen of the buildings, with an average of about 200 tenants in each, so we may be talking about 2200 people living like this—although that is probably a conservative estimate. (Give me a couple hours to do the research and I could give you a more accurate number, but I don’t have a couple hours. My aide is in the kitchen and I have to go cook with her as she doesn’t know how to cook.)

The problem of interpreting the National Grid bill is further complicated by HEAP and the Budget Plan. The Budget Plan used to be an average that was figured once a year; it no longer is. My bill says that my budget plan amount is $94.00—and it “will change to $175.00 effective with your next bill.” That’s some average, isn’t it? I do pay my bill every month.

HEAP is the Home Energy Assistance Program for people below the poverty line. In November we are told that we will get $400 but we are never told when it will go to the electric company. One tenant says her HEAP payment does not appear on her February bill; mine is not on my January bill. Last year, later in the season, we got an additional $50. The year before, it was $100. On my bill, which is characteristic of the rest of the tenants, it says “Accumulated Budget Plan charges -594.00” and “Accumulated Actual Charges 731.81.” My $400 from HEAP will be completely wiped out the moment it reaches National Grid.

And what of Related Management’s state supervisor, when we tell her that leaking windows are taking all our money? Well, for starters, she doesn’t believe the tenants. She asks us to trust her but she doesn’t trust us. We are angry; very angry. When I ask her for specific names, dates and actions, she says, “I don’t know; I don’t know.” Then she gets defensive, then angry, then asks why I am so angry. “Because I live in your property” I am tempted to say, but hold my tongue.

She says that she has referred it to her Compliance Department, which ten months ago reviewed our heating bills and gave an allowance of $71/month.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in activism, Government Services, Housing, HUD-subsidized housing, Poverty, Powerlessness and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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