Buildings `Need To Be Opened Up' -- Injured Housing Activist Labors For The Low-Income

Falling through a hole in the fire escape at the Arion Court apartments, Ginger Segel plummeted three stories to the ground - and was elevated from an anonymous housing activist to a high-profile housing proponent.

Segel, 26, who helped hold together a coalition of housing activists who recently occupied the closed building, was hauled to the hospital while friends and associates screamed "Heil Fitzsimons," referring to Seattle Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons.

Long before her accidental fall May 23 at Arion Court, Segel was known to tenants in crisis and to government officials.

As a Tenants Union organizer, Segel rallied tenants behind goals they set themselves, trying to unleash their power in numbers. She has been insistent, yet polite, in pushing government to guarantee affordable housing.

In her spare time, Segel espoused"direct action," such as the takeover of Arion Court by Operation Homestead, to push the process a tad faster.

In the 30-member Operation Homestead, an organization that prides itself on group leadership and decision-making by consensus, Segel is credited with pressing for the Arion Court takeover. The building's owners have agreed to donate the building for homeless and low-income renters.

Recuperating from a crushed heel, four broken ribs, bruised lungs and lacerated liver, Segel brushes aside the notion her approach is radical.

"I don't know what the word radical means," Segel said.

"It makes sense," she said of the direct-action strategy. "They're empty buildings. They need to be opened up. If negligent landlords don't open them - and there are still people on the streets - someone else is going to take that responsibility to open them up."

That someone else would be someone like Segel.

Back in her school days at New York's Columbia University, neck-deep in Russian-language and international-politics books, Segel believed she could help solve social problems through a reasoned, academic approach. Vigorous debates in hushed rooms made sense to the middle daughter of two physicists.

But inside the protective walls of Columbia, her evolution began in her sophomore year.

The university, owner of housing it provided at subsidized rates for employees, redefined its acceptance criteria. Support staff such as clerks and maintenance workers - least able to afford New York's inflated rents - were being pushed out, while associate and higher-ranking professors were allowed to remain.

"I remember one eviction really well," Segel said. "A woman who had worked at the university a huge amount of time . . . she didn't want to go. She didn't have anywhere to go. Just that whole scene of them carting out her furniture. It was really awful."

Segel said she came to realize there wasn't much power in the academic approach. In addition, it was distant from the people most affected by the changes.

She tried social work for about eight months after her graduation in January 1987. Social workers would know children who were in precarious placements, but Segel said paperwork and bureaucratic procedures slowed response.

After traveling the country for three months with a companion, Segel wound up in Seattle about Thanksgiving 1987, when her money ran out and her auto died.

She answered the Tenant Union's newspaper ad, hoping to step away from social work but continue to change the status quo. By June 1988, Segel was working at the agency, where she now supervises four other organizers.

Power, she believes, comes in numbers. The best example, she argues, is the ability of an apartment full of tenants to deal with a single landlord on equal grounds.

Her first organizing efforts, at times, were too spontaneous, too impetuous, sometimes encouraging tenants who wanted to withhold rent, even if that put them at a greater risk of eviction.

"Early on, I think that Ginger, in her desire to do as much as she could, might have had a tendency to jump into a situation where her clients' rights weren't as strong," said Barbara Osinski, an attorney at the Legal Action Center. "I think that was just a matter of not being as familiar with the landlord-tenant law. . . .

"At this point, she's pretty careful to consider her clients' rights under the landlord-tenant law before moving ahead," Osinski added.

Anthony Rafel, an attorney who represents a Rainier Valley property owner, credits Segel for being polite, but says she and the Tenant Union "inflated the expectations" tenants had of recovering payment for property damage.

Segel, who has a reputation of being self-critical, says there have been organizing attempts that ended in complete disasters and landlords whose intransigence led to upping the ante. But she believes organizing tenants works more often than it fails.

"I think it works when people feel good, have more confidence in themselves, know how to exercise their rights in the future," Segel said. "And they're proud of standing up for themselves and not being walked on."

On the whole, housing activists, city officials and attorneys who work on housing and homeless issues say Segel has quickly learned the strengths and weaknesses of local laws and has proved to be an effective tenant organizer.

She fires off press releases, hefts picket signs and raises the public's awareness by leading tours of dilapidated buildings for the media and politicians.

"She kind of eats, sleeps and drinks housing issues," said the Legal Action Center's Osinski. "She's `driven.' And she's very good."

Joe Martin, a social worker at Pike Market Clinic since 1978 and a man involved with the Seattle Displacement Coalition, says Segel is effective because she is intelligent, articulate and gutsy.

"She is someone who is very courageous. In this kind of work, you need a level of courage . . . so you're not pushed around by building owners or landlords who are used to having their wishes followed," Martin said.

Others have come to know Segel through her unpaid work with Operation Homestead. She's quick to point out the distinction between her paid and unpaid duties - in part because the grant-giving bodies that help finance the Tenants Union shrink at association with the civil disobedience of Operation Homestead.

Under the umbrella of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, Operation Homestead gained prominence and headlines during short-lived occupations of the Gatewood Hotel and The McKay Apartments.

Gilbert Saucedo, 49, a former Arion Court resident, said he approached Segel last November, about living conditions in the apartments. Saucedo said Segel connected him to agencies that put pressure on the landlord. When the building closed, Segel was able to get an unexpected bonus for about 30 remaining tenants - certified checks for $2,000 each in relocation expenses they're entitled to under the law.

"She was a beautiful person, real kind, real considerate," Saucedo said. "She went to the lawyers with me. She went everywhere. She was there when she was needed."