COULD BE WORSE: As a rule, I try not to open my mail. And for good reason, I discovered last week, when I deviated from usual custom. First, there was a skinny letter from one of the world’s most all-enveloping financial institutions. Rarely do skinny letters bear glad tidings. I was being rejected for a credit card, it turns out. Making this somewhat unusual — or at least surprising — I never applied for the card in the first place. In fact, I never apply for any credit cards. Over the years, I’ve been “preapproved” for thousands, if only I’d bother to fill out the form. These have all gone straight to the trash for safekeeping. A credit card in my hands is a weapon of mass destruction. Still, it’s nice knowing one has options. To be rejected without ever having asked, well, that seemed like a harbinger of things that might not bode well. Like maybe the collapse of the world economy. The next letter wasn’t much better. The Neptune Society was knocking on my door, wanting to know when I’d like to make “prearrangements” to get cremated when my own personal Elvis decides to leave the building. “Time stands still for no one,” it read, a subliminally implied basso profundo shimmering in the air. Real catchy. “Cremation, Today’s Sensible Choice.” Catchier still. Admittedly, cremation is a tough sell. “Burn now, before you go to hell” might have worked better. But having just been denied credit, I was in no position to be making such choices, even if cremation — as I was informed — “has less impact on the environment.” If you’re getting Dear John notes from the Neptune Society, you’re clearly living in the wrong demographic.
Being too lazy to host a pity party of my own, I attended one being organized by local affordable-housing advocates looking to raise hell about massive budget cuts proposed by Emperor Trump and the Republican majority. The event was one of about 55 taking place throughout the country to protest — among other things — a 15 percent cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, a cut that will have catastrophic consequences for low-income households receiving Section 8 housing vouchers. It was held at a sprawling Housing Authority complex on Laguna Street; about 20 kids were drawing pictures and writing postcards to various elected officials, seeking a reprieve from doom and displacement. They were cute enough to eat with a spoon. A plethora of elected officials were roaming about as well. My spoon’s not that big.
An organizer named Joey Lindstrom with the National Low Income Housing Coalition explained the event was an opportunity for people to “express their outrage” over the cuts. Given the overabundance of things to be outraged by these days, I wanted to know how a trained professional organizer crafted a message that could be heard above the din. But instead I asked him where he was from. With a name like Lindstrom, Joey said, he was originally from Minnesota, where, it turns out, 98 percent of all Scandinavian Americans live. Having lived next door in Wisconsin, home to the other 2 percent, I was curious if he’d ever eaten lutefisk, a white fish cured in a gelatinous lye goop, a famous Scandinavian gross-out food. When he suggested no one really ate that anymore, I had my doubts if he really was named “Joey.” Back when I lived there, every church basement in town offered Sunday-morning lutefisk breakfasts, and the parking lots were always packed with hungover drunks seeking the lutefisk cure. But things change. Maybe people have stopped drinking since I left.
Such irrelevancies aside, the news was — and remains — grim. And the reality, for those who live it, is grimmer still. If the cuts proposed were to be implemented in the next six months, the Housing Authority of the City of S.B. would have to kick about 250 families now receiving housing vouchers out on the streets. The numbers are about the same for the county Housing Authority. So let’s call that 500 families all dressed up with no place to go. These two agencies combined currently provide housing vouchers for nearly 6,000 low-income households. In terms of actual human beings — most of whom are elderly, disabled, or children, with average household incomes of $16,000 a year and not the so-called able-bodied loafers who we are told could otherwise be picking broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or strawberries — it’s about twice that number.
Housing Authority administrators are used to weathering budget cuts. They’re used to having waiting lists 7,000 households deep. They’re used to having no new vouchers to dispense and refusing to accept new applications. That’s life. What they have never done before — ever — is knock on the doors of existing tenants and yank Section 8 certificates out of their hands. That’s unprecedented. It’s one thing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but Trump, it would seem, is intent on drowning all babies first. This possibility is, I should caution, a worst-case scenario. If the proposed budget cuts are allowed to be phased in over a longer time, the pain can be amortized. Instead of kicking existing tenants out, the cuts could be achieved by attrition as beneficiaries die, move away, or, in some other universe, win the lottery. Either way, that’s a whole lot of affordable housing poised to fly out the window at a time when the demand is nothing less than excruciating.
Maybe now is the right time to start thinking about cremation after all. As the bank letter told me in closing: “We know this isn’t the outcome you wanted.”