By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For all the services offered by Sunset Hall, participation in them is spotty, and those involved in group activities are almost entirely female. The women outnumber the men 3-to-1 for the obvious reason that women outlive men. Of course, there are exceptions: German émigré theater director Martin Magner was a resident at Sunset Hall. He could be seen rocking back and forth in his wheelchair in the courtyard, smoking his pipe while reading a newspaper, lucid until the day he died — a year and a half ago at the age of 101.
Sunset Hall was originally incorporated in 1923 by the Women’s Alliance of the nearby First Unitarian church as a haven for progressive elders. It opened its doors in 1935 in one, and then two buildings on South Manhattan Place, until the current, custom-built facility on Francis Avenue started operating in 1965. In the years that followed, Sunset Hall enjoyed the luxury of a waiting list. But that was in an era when retirees entered such homes when they were in their 60s and early 70s and still relatively fit. Now, even with supporters like Barbra Streisand, Pete Seeger and Ed Asner, the trend toward prolonged home care, rising costs and a decline in the neighborhood has left Sunset Hall only half occupied and with a considerably older population.
Attracting residents is a big enough problem, but keeping them there is just as hard. The operating license, granted by the California Department of Social Services, allows for assisted care — help with dressing, eating, bathing, transportation and even doling out prescription medicines — but no medical procedures. Sunset Hall is not licensed as a clinic. As the youngest residents, like Irja, are mostly in their 80s, the clock is ticking on how long they have at Sunset Hall before they need to be transferred to medical facilities. And many residents use Sunset Hall as a place to convalesce after surgeries, before returning to their normal lives.
The hall was almost shuttered during a residents’ coup in 1989 over the struggle to find occupants. At that time, the board, which is elected by a membership that includes residents, voted to sell the building to a developer and disperse funds from the sale among various Unitarian churches. After the sale was announced, occupancy plummeted to nine, with each remaining oldster facing the prospect of being left out in the cold. When the remaining residents threatened to fire board members who had voted for the sale, 10 of the 12 board members resigned. And though the prospective buyer sued Sunset Hall for reneging on its agreement to sell, a judge ordered an injunction of the sale pending a trial. The developer, however, dropped his demand to buy, as well as his suit, after the residents agreed to withdraw their demand of legal costs, resulting in a highly publicized victory for the old underdogs.
But the financial crisis has returned once more. Only last month, Sunset Hall’s census had slipped to 17. With so few residents, even monthly rents starting at about $1,800 don’t bring in sufficient income to meet costs. With the renewed fiscal challenge has come a disturbingly familiar pattern of secrecy on the part of the board.
At a meeting last month, residents and family were stunned to learn that the board had replaced Phil Way, the beloved executive director, with Sandra Solis, the only candidate presented to the board by its search committee. (Solis was recruited from the Molokan Home for the Aged, in Boyle Heights.) None of the residents was consulted before the new hire was made — a mere six days after the job was posted. This fast hire happened even though Sunset Hall’s mission statement appears to oblige the board to include residents in the process (“. . . residents, supporters and volunteers share in its governance . . .”) and even though the executive director is the person responsible for the day-to-day treatment of the residents by the staff.
The haste and secrecy of such an important hire does “not look right,” ä says Pete Manzo, spokesperson for the Los Angeles–based Center for Non-Profit Management. “Hiring an executive director provides the opportunity for reflection upon the institution’s mission and on long-term strategy planning,” Manzo explains. “Unless that person is from the inside, a quick hire of such an important position without open discussion could be seen as shortsighted, or maybe even reckless.”
Board member Kathryn Black denies there is a crisis (“These situations are part of Sunset Hall’s history,” she remarks), but fellow board member Ernie Pipes says that Sunset Hall could close within months “if marketing efforts don’t work.” Still, nobody has yet suggested selling Sunset Hall.
The most candid assessment of the reasons for Way’s replacement comes from Way himself, who explains that the board was demanding that he be both a marketer and an administrator/caregiver — an impossible task, says Way, considering that the administrative and caregiving responsibilities for the residents are all-consuming.
Last February, Way suggested to the board that it set aside $50,000 of a $230,000 bequest to Sunset Hall to hire a marketing manager to attract residents. The board rejected Way’s proposal, and when the money started running out, Way refused the board’s offer of a 30 percent pay cut to remain at Sunset Hall without any marketing responsibilities — that is, to continue what he was already doing. Now the board hopes it has found, in Solis, somebody who can market the institution while maintaining Way’s level of devotion to the residents.