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August 2, 2004

In Memory: Vern Zuehlsdorff

On Friday, July 23rd the Tenants’ Union lost a dedicated member and leader. Vern Zuehlsdorff was tirelessly committed organizing with other low-income tenants for secure, safe and healthy housing. He passed away at age 67 from an infection. He will be missed by tenants and activists worldwide who had the privilege of working with him.

Vern came to the TU about seven years ago when he sought help to organize in his building. He lived at the Oxford Apartments in downtown Seattle across from the Pike Place Market. It’s been a subsidized building for 25 years and is home to elderly and disabled people with limited incomes. Seven years ago the owner of the building announced his intention to terminate the subsidy and raise the rents, displacing the poor, elderly and disabled people who rely on it for a safe home. Faced with the prospect of homelessness for 50 elderly and disabled people, Vern began an extraordinary journey to save the apartments. It was one of the most grueling organizing campaigns the organization has undertaken.

Vern took on this battle with remarkable compassion and commitment, and at great personal sacrifice. He spent hours working to involve his neighbors and the community in the campaign to save the building. After the owner reneged on a promise and sold the building out from under the tenants Vern gathered the wherewithal to continue the campaign, and he and several other tenants, with the City as a co-plaintiff, filed a lawsuit against the owner for failure to properly notify the tenants of the expiration of the subsidy. Two years of negotiations brought an historic settlement that guarantees the existing residents affordable housing for the rest of their lives, along with guarantees that outlive even the current tenants. This victory came at a great personal cost. Vern was sick when the campaign started and the stress put him in the hospital at one point. Even when it looked like we would certainly lose Vern turned down an opportunity for other housing in order to see the campaign through.

Since winning the preservation of his own building Vern went on to become a leader locally, joining The Tenants’ Union Board, and also at the national level, as a the Vice President of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants and the Chair of NAHT’s Tenants International Housing Rights Task Force. He was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden. As a member of the TU Board Vern brought an unwavering commitment to strengthening the voice of tenants in decisions affecting our lives. He also brought a vision of strong alliances with labor and other community organizations. He started and ended most of his writings and public speaking with the rallying cry “Homelessness Must End!”.

He took on a deep level of responsibility for the TU – and recently coordinated an exciting new fundraiser – a music CD compilation featuring local talent to benefit the TU. He cared a lot about the staff and would always check in to see how things were going. He was uncompromising in his principles and always urged the organization to be strong and resolute in the face of injustice and difficulty.

In recent years Vern has focused on bringing together the struggles of tenants, homeless people and landless people from around the world. He inspired the NAHT board to join the International Union of Tenants and supported the Board’s participation in the Habitat International Coalition. He was encouraging the tenants’ movement to use international treaties and human rights principles in local organizing work.

He supported the creation of the Tenants’ International Housing Rights Task Force (TIHRTF) and was working on an ambitious plan to bring together tenants, landless people and homeless people from all over the world using the internet and new technologies. Vern envisioned a website that would provide practical information about how to use human rights laws to further tenant’s struggles as well as ways to enable people to communicate with and support one another – even from across the globe. He had an expansive vision for the project. Hopefully the organization will be able to pursue Vern’s goals and help the project move forward in the coming years.

Those who knew Vern know that he was always learning and always seeking out more information and new ideas. He always had a book or article he wanted to share with you – sometimes we couldn’t keep up. He was eccentric and interesting and full of stories.

Vern was also deeply spiritual and was a practitioner of Buddhist meditation and studied many religions and spiritual practices. It was perhaps this spiritual focus that enabled him to continue to work so hard right up until his death, despite some difficult illnesses. Only one month before he passed Vern traveled to Washington DC for the National Alliance of HUD Tenants annual conference and board meeting. He worked long hours for eight days straight – lobbying on Capitol Hill, planning new strategies to strengthen the tenant movement, presenting at workshops to teach other tenants how to organize.

Vern will be deeply missed by the Tenants’ Union community, by the community of shop owners, tenants and others at the Pike Place Market (where he once played Santa – his big white beard making him the perfect choice) and by his dear friends and colleagues at the National Alliance of HUD Tenants.)