Friday, April 25, 2008

The Special "Savo Island, the Movie" issue of my housing co-op newsletter

(Photos are of my son and his daughter actually living at Savo Island and of someone who might or might not be named Julia, holding baby Mena next to my infamous window)

What if Hollywood made a movie based on the dramas that go on every day at my HUD Section 8-sponsored housing co-op? What would that movie be like? Perhaps it would be called "Little Housing Co-op on the Prairie"? Or even "Harold and Kumar Escape to Berkeley". Let's just keep our fingers crossed that they don't have to call it "Nightmare on Stuart Street"!

But if Hollywood DID make the saga of my housing co-op into a movie, would it get rave reviews from the critics -- or not? Would Ebert and Roeper give it thumbs up or thumbs down? Let's watch as Robert and Tony express their opinions on this new flick.

"The acting wasn't so bad," said Tony, "but the screenplay was an embarrassment. This was some of the worst screenwriting that I've ever seen."

"I agree," replied Robert. "The script was totally unbelievable. How do they expect us to believe that a duly-elected group of co-op board members could actually be allowed to get THAT far off track for the entire 15-odd years that they controlled this co-op and still stay in office. I mean, c'mon."

"If I'd lived in a housing project like that where the interiors were falling apart, it looked like dog dookie from the outside and was facing eminent bankruptcy," said Tony, "I would have voted those board members out in the first 15 minutes -- not just wait around for 15 YEARS. And how do you expect me to believe that none of the other residents spoke up when HUD gave the board a 60-day notice to make all the necessary repairs to the units by June 16 or else lose their Section 8 program completely? Or even that any sane board members would let it actually get to that point?
That's crazy. That's messing with people's LIVES. That's bad screenwriting. Just watch this clip."

[Scene shows a desperate co-op resident, wringing her hands.] "If they take away our rent subsidies, I don't know what will become of me and my family! I bet that if HUD backs out and the place is sold, the first thing that the new owners will do is raise our rents to $2,000 a month in order to have the same market rate as the rest of the neighborhood."

[Resident sighs heavily and a tear silently rolls down her cheek.]

"Do you have any IDEA what I would have to do in order to make that much rent per month? All of my family and half of my friends would have to come live with me just to help pay the rent. I'll have 20 people living here in a three-bedroom apartment! And if HUD gives me a voucher to move elsewhere? Get real. Most landlords don't take HUD vouchers anymore, I won't be able to find a new apartment, time runs out, the voucher expires and I'm screwed. This just can't be happening! What should I do! What should I do...." The camera then zooms out to show shots of broken plaster and leaky plumbing.

As the screen goes blank, Robert makes a face. "I couldn't agree with you more, Tony. The plot of this movie is just too unrealistic."

"And how about that whistleblower character who keeps putting out those newsletters that everyone just ignores? And did you see the way she just keeps her mouth shut during all of those board meetings? I find it totally unbelievable that in real life someone would actually sit through board meeting after board meeting for 15 whole years -- just sit there and say nothing while she is threatened, harassed, unjustly called terrible names and has her reputation trashed at a board meeting of an officially-registered State of California non-profit organization. And outside the meetings, she's been threatened with eviction, had her rent raised illegally and was even threatened with JAIL -- yet she still just sits there and takes it? If Julia Roberts had been playing that role, she would have at least cried."

"Here's another clip from the movie." [Scene opens at a board meeting where board member A's girlfriend is castigating poor Julia, calling her a liar and a fraud.] "Your son and his family don’t even live with you," claims the girlfriend. And her boyfriend agrees.

"I never hear them."

And another member speaks up too. "Her son lives down on 54th and San Pablo and not only that but her foster care license expired last year!"

Julia just hangs her head and remains silent. Of course her son's family lives with her! Don't they hear her son and daughter-in-law taking turns walking that colicky baby at all hours every night? And who in their right mind takes a tiny new-born outside in the middle of freaking WINTER just so the board members can see her out in the rain every day, standing around waiting to be noticed. And Julia's son hasn't lived on 54th Street for years now and her foster care license is current and....

Then board member B starts banging on the table with a nearby metal object and shouting, "Julia doesn’t need that window because she gets lots of light coming in from the west." Oh no. Not the WINDOW thing again. This board has been harping on that freaking window for over seven years now. That's harassment. That's bad screenwriting. Why does Julia put up with it!

"Are you referring," Julia mumbles, "to the light that travels through the three-story building directly behind me before it gets to my home?" Without that window, her unit is as dark as a cave. But the board takes no notice. They are on to the next slur.

"If Julia can go to Iraq two or three times," throws in board member C, "then she can’t be disabled." Julia has tons of doctors' documentation regarding her knee injuries. What right does bm-C have to question doctors? Does SHE have a medical degree too? No. Bad screenwriting.

But board member D isn't finished hatin' on Julia's window quite yet. "That window has caused so much structural damage that it could cause the whole building to fall down." Say what? The only structural damage in Julia's unit was caused when her roof leaked because this do-nothing board hadn't made roof repairs and water was cascading down the inside of the wall.

Then board member A jumps back in. "Julia needs to get rid of that window right now." And not wait until Julia's fair housing appeal is adjudicated? Isn't that illegal? But board member A persists. "She needs to get rid of it now, before she is allowed to move. And her son and his family don't qualify to stay in the unit because they haven't been on the lease for a year either. And her son has a job. I see him leaving for work all the time." So. Her son DOES live there after all? Make up your mind! "And I want to know if her son is reporting his income to HUD!" That is none of board member A's freaking business. And not only that, but bm-A is clearly indicating that he would willingly -- no, gleefully -- throw a struggling young couple and a three-month-old baby out into the streets in order to wreck havoc on poor sweet Julia. That's just TOO villainous to be realistic. Bad screenwriting once again.

But Julia just shrugs. This is clearly the first time that she -- or probably anybody else -- has ever heard of a one-year rule, although she HAD heard of a rule allowing no bilateral transfers. But board member B has already broken that rule with impunity a few months before. But consistency was never this board's strong point when self-interest is involved. Julia just shrugs again and sighs. And plans what to say in her next newsletter. After 15 years, one would think that the board would wise up and realize that every time they attack Julia at the board meetings, she valiantly fights back and defends herself in the only way that she knows how. So. Does that make the Pen mightier than the Board? "Not." Bad screenwriting once again.

Then the clip ends with board member E pointing at Julia vindictively and gesticulating wildly: "Evict her! Evict her!" she screams.

As the screen fades, Robert continues his critique. "Give me a break here, folks. This script just seems too contrived. It just doesn't feel genuine. And remember that other board meeting scene where they told Julia that she was spending too much time in the site office and the board didn't want her going into the office any more? Who would believe that any board member in their right mind would actually say or do something like that? Or even spend their time spying on her? Or that the board would actually ask questions about her son's income or if she had been raiding the site manager's files? The person who wrote this movie blew it here, Tony. What board members in their right minds would risk that kind of behavior? In real life, they would have been slapped with a lawsuit years ago -- or been accused of over-acting at the very least."

Tony nods in agreement again. "And if I lived in a housing project run by a board that was so inefficient that they haven't even raised the rents to cover costs and inflation in almost a decade, can't even get a re-hab off the ground after seven long years and has taken a very viable housing co-op and run it into the ground? Those directors would have been out the door in a heartbeat. Bad screenwriting. For sure."

"But the part I really found unbelievable," said Robert, "was where those two board members who work for another organization which has a history of trying to build condos in the area are still allowed to stay on the board. What if they are secretly scheming to let Savo fall apart so that HUD will abandon ship and the property can be sold to developers? Can you say 'conflict of interest,' boys and girls?"

"I agree," nodded Tony. "This movie could have been exceptional and outstanding if it had been written right -- like perhaps having it be a story of brave low-income families struggling to make the world a better place or using their co-op as a base to set an example of how to build a green project or organize a community for social justice or...."

"Or maybe even a love story where boy meets girl in a clean, happy HUD housing project. But the screenwriters in this movie just didn't do their homework. 'Little Housing Co-op on the Prairie' just doesn't ring true. No one would believe this was happening. It's a good thing that this movie is a fictionalized version. I'd really hate to live in that project if all this was true. Two big thumbs down from me."

"Me too."