Distinguished Alumnus / Bill Block ’71
Negotiator, Mediator and Cat Herder
Even while negotiating high-profile property deals
for Amazon, Starbucks and Pike Place Market in
Seattle, attorney Bill Block ’71 always had one foot in the social justice
arena, serving on boards for such organizations as the Seattle
Housing Authority and AIDS Housing of Washington. So it was of
little surprise to his family and close friends when Block gave up his
prominent legal career to head the Committee to End Homelessness
in King County, an ambitious 10-year plan begun in 2005.
Block is Pomona College’s inaugural Blaisdell Distinguished
Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni for their high achievement
in professions of community service.
For Block, social justice is in his genes. His father was an attorney
who also did pro bono work. Block grew up on the south side of
Chicago, and while his neighborhood was stable, extreme poverty
and troubled public housing projects were nearby. “Housing has
always been an interest and, in some ways, a passion of mine,” says
Block. “It just always stuck with me as one of those basic human
needs we weren’t doing a good job of facing.”
After receiving his history degree from Pomona and law degree
from the University of Chicago, Block clerked for a few years for
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and later made his
name as a prominent real estate attorney in Seattle. It was his connections
from his legal career and community service activity that made his Committee to End
Homelessness position as “negotiator, mediator and cat herder” such an appropriate fit.
The Seattle plan for ending homelessness, which culminates in 2014, has the ambitious goal of preventing
homelessness by getting institutions such as foster care, prisons and mental hospitals to stop
releasing people into homelessness, and creating 9,500 units of long-term housing, with adjunct services
to help people stabilize and improve their lives. The units won’t be transitory, but rather provide a
home for people as long as they need it.
“It’s called ‘transition in place.’ You want to be
able to say to a mom who’s had case management and job training
and now has daycare, a job and an apartment, ‘OK, the services are
pulling back, the rent subsidy is pulling back, but you don’t all of a
sudden have to move to a different city, find a new daycare and a
new job,’” says Block. Permanent housing is also essential for the
severely disabled homeless, who may need long-term support.
In the program’s first four years, 3,300 units of the 9,500 planned
have been built or are in the pipeline. By comparison, Portland, Ore.,
has a goal of 2,200 units, Denver’s 10-year plan calls for 4,000 units,
and New York City’s calls for 10,000 units.
“We’re doing things that are national models. We get visitors
every week from around the country,” says Block. “We’re not building
units as fast as our goals, [but] we’re building them faster per
capita than, I think, any other city.”
Block says that after the 10-year plan is complete, he doesn’t
imagine he’ll go back to a life of law, but instead continue full-time
with social justice work.
(A related story appeared in the Spring 2007 PCM at