That’s Not Asbestos Stuck in Their Throats

If you think Seal Beach Leisure World is the place for you or your parents, consider what has happened to residents Erika Furlong-Swenson and Hildegard Zeller. When the milk of human kindness was called for, Leisure World management poured ice-cold water on them.

In the last year, the two widows -- 63 and 85, respectively -- have been put through an emotional grinder and been grievously wronged. For starters, would an apology from management be too much to ask for?

Apparently so.

Here’s their story: In January 2003 a fire in an adjacent unit routed them from their apartments at 3 in the morning. Told that the fire resulted in asbestos contamination in their units, they spent the next four months in a hotel -- but not before signing papers that authorized the disposal of thousands of dollars worth of their contaminated possessions. They returned to their homes in May, only to find them nearly stripped of appliances and clothes and priceless personal items like photos. Then, in October, each got a bill -- one for $5,000 and the other for $2,400 -- to cover the cost of the disposal. Neither had personal property insurance.


Bad luck, indeed, but here’s the kicker: They learned for the first time earlier this year that their units had not been contaminated at all. In short, they’d lost thousands of dollars worth of possessions and been billed for disposing of them ... for absolutely no reason.

Did the Golden Rain Foundation board, an elected group of residents that runs Leisure World, express sympathy toward two of their own for the mistake -- or whatever it was -- that led to this? Hardly.

Instead, Leisure World’s idea of being charitable is not making the women pay the bills right now. Rather, officials attached liens to the two properties so the women don’t have to pay the cleanup bills until they or their heirs sell the units.

Talk about a compassion disconnect.

As for the lost personal items, well, a Golden Rain official sympathized in a column in the community newsletter in December but said the main issue is that that the women should have had insurance and that the situation was no different than if the fire had destroyed their possessions.

That misses the point by a considerable margin -- but it gets worse.

How did the women come to learn there was no contamination in their homes? Did Golden Rain eventually come clean on the mistake?

Nope, the situation came to light only after an official at the South Coast Air Quality Management District read in The Times last November about the women’s plight and became somewhat suspicious about why certain items had been thrown out after the fire.


As a result, AQMD sent an investigator who discovered that a report from February 2003 about the fire and the cleanup had reported only “water damage in Units C and E (the women’s units); that is, there was no asbestos contamination identified to be cleaned up in Units C or E.”

Golden Rain officials must have a good explanation for all this. Unfortunately, they haven’t said a word about the case to reporters since The Times first wrote about it in November. I’d love to hear how in good conscience they can maintain the liens on the women’s homes, thereby adding to their nightmares. Or why they didn’t read the same reports, available a month after the fire, that AQMD received. Or, if they did read them, how did they overlook the fact that the women’s units weren’t contaminated? And if it was an honest, if horrible, mistake, why don’t they now feel the need to make things right?

I suspect they don’t because they don’t have to. The foundation oversees a group of elderly (average age: 77) residents-- some vulnerable and alone -- who depend on management for many vital services. Many people in that situation are afraid, understandably, to complain. “Golden Rain has this kind of imperial attitude,” says David Lyon, a member of a residents’ group that has backed the two women. An attitude, he says, “that whatever they say is to be accepted and not challenged in any way.”

So take that, Mesdames Zeller and Furlong-Swenson. How dare you complain about a place that needlessly tossed out your possessions and then billed you for it?


As for Golden Rain board members, it’s never too late to apologize to these ladies. While you’re at it, any chance of assuring other vulnerable seniors that this isn’t what the golden years are all about?


Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at or at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.