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The Seattle Open Housing Campaign, 1959-1968
October 15, 1963
Testimony of Eileen Meacham, apartment house owner (mp3, 1.7 mb)
Moderator: Would you identify yourself and where you live?
Eileen Meacham: My name is Eileen Meacham. I live in Bellevue but we own a triplex in Seattle. Perhaps you heard King’s town hall meeting on the open housing ordinance last Friday night. I wrote a question that evening which read as follows: Last May we rented an apartment to a Negro, and the other tenants became very angry and moved out. This has caused us anguish, anxiety, and unending financial distress. Why wasn’t a provision put in the open housing ordinance to prevent tenants from discriminating against minority groups? If this is indeed a moral issue, then everyone should be obliged to conform.
My reason for asking this question was not because I wanted tenants to be fined or prosecuted for showing discrimination against minority groups. It was asked to try and point out that the problem is not discrimination shown by apartment house owners – because after all, if the tenants would not discriminate against Negroes, the owners and managers would have no reason to.
We not only had the experience of having all of our other tenants move out, but before they moved, they made life miserable in many nasty little ways for both our Negro tenant and us. Fortunately, our Negro tenant is a very intelligent and wise person, and he did not allow himself to be goaded into fighting back. He simply told us when the other tenants did things to bother him, such as loosening all the fuses so that the apartment had no electricity, and we in turn let the white tenant know in no uncertain terms that any more such behavior would cause his eviction without further notice. He had already given us notice that he would vacate at the end of the month.
After the white tenants moved out, we found ourselves with a terrible mess on our hands, so good housekeeping is not inherent in the white race either. [Laughter] We had to completely redo both apartments before we could rent them again. This meant gallons of paint, rolls of wallpaper, some furniture replacement, rug shampooing, and hours of other cleaning, and even completely new walls and ceiling in one room. It also took weeks of hard work on our part, sometimes working ten to twelve hours a day. During this time, not enough money was coming in from the one rented apartment to even begin to pay the mortgage each month, to say nothing of utilities and the great cost of redecorating, and then advertising when we finally had finished. We had to borrow money and run up charge accounts, and we have to just pray that someday we will be able to climb out from under this mountain of debt.
We now have one of the apartments rented, but the other one remains empty. Everyone who sees it agrees that it is a lovely apartment and reasonably priced, but even those who have put a deposit on it have backed out when they found out their neighbor would be a Negro. Can you imagine what the situation might be if an apartment house owner were forced to accept a Negro tenant under the open housing ordinance and the same sort of situation developed that we had in our apartments? We can shake our heads and cluck our tongues and state indignantly that the way our white tenants acted is not the way for civilized people to behave, but you cannot escape from the fact that this is reality. This is the way people behave, and like it or not, it is a very real problem which must be given consideration.
Under the Open Housing Ordinance, the apartment owner will know that when an eligible Negro comes to rent an apartment, his – the owner’s – economic doom is sealed. If he refuses to rent to the Negro, he will have to pay a heavy fine and suffer a jail sentence. If he rents to the Negro, his tenants, who still retain the right to discriminate without being penalized, will move out and cause a situation such as we have.
Mr. Westberg claims that since everyone will have to rent to Negroes, there will be no place for prejudiced white tenants to go to escape. He also says, however, that most Negroes don’t really want to move; they just want to know that they can. He says that if the Open Housing law passes, there will be only a few who will rent in places where they are not now allowed. I agree with the second part of this statement. Only a handful of the hundreds – and there are hundreds – of rentals now available will be occupied by Negroes, which means there will be plenty of all-white buildings for prejudiced tenants to move into. This gives us a very unequal situation indeed. We will have a few apartment house owners going bankrupt because their buildings have been chosen by a Negro to be his residence, while other apartments will prosper with unusually full houses.
Another question arises: Will a Negro be happy in his new apartment, with an owner in charge who feels bitter because of all the hardship he is being caused? Will the owner protect the Negro tenant if he is harassed by white tenants, and will he put forth every effort to make him comfortable, if all the time his greatest wish is that the Negro will just leave?
Moderator: Mrs. Meacham, your time is running out. Could you submit that to us, or summarize in one paragraph…
Eileen Meacham: I just have about a minute more – may I? I haven’t gotten to the point of this yet.
Moderator: Please hurry; we’re on a very tight time schedule.
Eileen Meacham: If the aim of the Negro people is to be accepted wholeheartedly into any area of the city, then I think the open housing ordinance will fail them miserably. It will fail them because the use of force cannot create good will among people. I believe it was stated by Mr. Robertson last Friday night that the cost to the city of one complaint of discrimination would be about $20,000 if it went through all the necessary hearings, investigations, and so forth. Why wouldn’t it be wise to use that money to reimburse apartment owners for rents lost when a Negro moves into his building and whites move out? This would meant that the owner would not have to dread the day when a Negro shows up to rent an apartment. He no longer would have to fear financial ruin because of prejudiced white tenants. He would need no ordinance to force him to rent to Negroes, but with the threat of lost rents no longer haunting him, most owners would open their doors to Negroes and welcome them as tenants.
This would create a much happier and more harmonious situation all the way around, and I believe it would cost the taxpayers much less than the presently proposed system of force. The Negro people would receive the acceptance and the good treatment they expect and deserve by a landlord who would no longer have any reason to be bitter. If Mr. Westberg is right when he says that not many white people will actually move out when a Negro moves in, then there won’t be much money paid out because of lost rents, and it will certainly be much easier to check on whether an owner is sincerely trying to re-rent an apartment than it would be to check on whether a Negro is refused because of discrimination or one of a hundred other reasons.
As people grow used to the idea of a Negro living in the same building with them, they will finally come to realize that nothing horrible results from it, and they will ultimately accept the situation and stop moving out. The claims for lost rents would then stop coming in and the whole situation would be solved economically, painlessly, and without bad feelings on either side. The only argument I have ever received against this solution to the open housing problem is, it has never been tried before. I sincerely hope that Seattle and its leaders are more progressive than to insist that we follow in the more unsuccessful and ineffective footsteps of other cities just because they are afraid to try something new.
Moderator: Thank you, Mrs. Meacham.
Courtesy: CD 55, 56 and 57. Seattle City Council Audio Recordings, 4601-03. Seattle Municipal Archives.