Illustrations by Graham Annable
Photos by Vivian Johnson
If you were looking for a window into the local economy, you could do a lot worse than Room 120 of the Multnomah County Courthouse.
Each weekday, just before 9 am, five rows of blue plastic chairs fill with landlords and tenants ready to do battle.
Their weapons may seem harmless. Landlords carry stacks of paperwork alleging tenant transgressions that range from "unflushed fecal matter" in filthy bathrooms to unpaid rent, late-night parties and illegal drug use.
Tenants come to Room 120 no less well armed. They arrive with money-order stubs proving when and how they paid their rent, notices of code violations from Portland housing inspectors and photographic evidence of mold, broken windows and water leaks.
More than one in three Portland homes is a rental, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And every year, close to 8,000 of those homes' tenants end up in Room 120—or what's commonly known as eviction court. The size of an average high-school classroom, the chamber has all the charm of a public hospital's waiting area.
Only a few decorations adorn its white walls: a giant metallic state seal celebrating Oregon's founding in 1859 and an oversized calendar that looks like it came from Office Depot. When the heavy wooden doors swing open to the courtroom, the faint smell of stale tobacco occasionally wafts over the scene.
Room 120 lacks the formality one typically associates with a courtroom. Having just gone through metal detectors, tenants sometimes address the court without their shoes on, holding their belts in one hand and their pants up with the other.
It's not unusual for one party to erupt in tears or anger over two of life's most irritating matters—home and money. Last year, two lawyers came to blows outside the courtroom.
"People get very emotional," says Judge Pro Tem Steven Todd, who has overseen eviction court since April. "They get irrational. They have trouble seeing the big picture they're so locked into their positions."
"This is where all the drama happens," says David Lawrence, a lawyer who spends several mornings a week in Room 120. "This is where all humanity happens."
As the recession continues to batter Oregon, the changes to Portland's economy have taken many forms. Unemployment has hit record levels. And state and local leaders have had to cut spending on schools, universities and social services.
The recession has hit Room 120, too, but not in the ways many might expect. Since the recession began, the number of eviction cases in Multnomah County has actually declined, dropping more than 9 percent between 2007 and 2008.
Even an expert like Craig Colby, a lawyer who has represented tenants for four decades, is among those surprised by the decrease.
"Landlords are working with people," he says. "They're not insisting on getting the full amount of rent. They're accepting installments and letting people get behind."
What follows are three recent stories from Room 120, tales that represent the conflicts that unfold every day in Multnomah County as renters—and landlords—deal with economic circumstances most of them have never witnessed before.
A 42-year-old Unitarian minister, Cecilia Kingman considered herself an ideal renter—neat and conscientious. Her landlords, Nancy Turner and son Tobin Copeland-Turner, seemed to like her. A former therapist, Turner once thanked Kingman for the "good energy" Kingman and her family brought to Turner's four-bedroom bungalow in the Richmond neighborhood.
So in January, when the Turners raised Kingman's rent to $1,775 a month, Kingman agreed to the increase. Her teenage children attended nearby Cleveland High School, and Kingman didn't want to move. Also, she loved her neighborhood; her great-grandparents once lived around the corner, and Kingman could see their old backyard from the window where she washed dishes.
But on July 15, Kingman was summoned to Room 120, and it wasn't because she couldn't pay her rent. Her landlords had stopped making their $2,100 monthly mortgage payments.
The scenario Kingman faced is increasingly common. In October 2008, Kingman's landlords faced a skyrocketing mortgage rate. They decided to stop making payments to their bank, hoping that doing so would force Wachovia (which Wells Fargo bought in December) to renegotiate a lower interest rate.
Turner had at least seven properties in Multnomah and Clackamas counties, including several she owned with her partner, Robert Beatty, a Buddhist teacher who lost his license to be a clinical social worker two months before the family stopped making their payments. However, it was the buildings' adjustable-rate mortgages that were to blame, Turner says.
"I'm not a religious person, but I religiously paid my mortgage payments on time," Turner explains. "Until I couldn't."
She did, however, continue to collect rent from Kingman and other tenants. That's legal, but Kingman found it to be unseemly. "We all paid rent in good faith that our homes would be secure," Kingman says.
By Jan. 12, Turner was in default on the Richmond home, and the bank started foreclosure proceedings, sending notices to tenants.
On Jan. 27, Turner emailed Kingman and her other tenants to explain her strategy and told them she had no plans to lose her properties. She said she was stashing tenants' rent in a savings account.
At the beginning of May, Kingman searched public records to find the addresses of Turner's and Beatty's other properties. She wrote postcards to the occupants, inviting them to meet her at a designated time at a McDonald's in the Hollywood neighborhood. "I felt it was important to take a stand," Kingman says.
Kingman's attempt to organize her fellow tenants fizzled, however; only one tenant showed up. And shortly after that, in June, Kingman's relationship with Turner soured. On July 7, Turner ordered the minister's family to leave. Turner says she had "personal reasons" for doing that, and that it was not a response to the meeting at McDonald's, which Turner could have learned about from another tenant.
On July 15, their lawyers met in Room 120. By the following day, they had hashed out a deal. Kingman would have to leave, but not until Aug. 15, a small victory. (By then, the Richmond home was in a forbearance plan to prevent a foreclosure.)
Days later, Kingman was filling boxes at her home. "Moving is traumatic to begin with," Kingman says. "I was feeling fairly hopeless. This morning I was crying, because there's just so much to do and so much to worry about."
Unfortunately, Kingman has company. Lawyers representing banks appear increasingly in Room 120 to evict renters from foreclosed homes, according to Multnomah County court records. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of eviction cases related to foreclosure more than doubled, from 185 to 391. It's now so common a problem, federal lawmakers and state legislators have passed bills to give tenants on month-to-month leases 90 days in their rental units after a foreclosure. There are limits to what the courts can do beyond that.
"It's a concerning trend," says Judge Todd. "I do see some sad situations. The law doesn't really contemplate that situation coming up very often."
Teresa Leckenby says she and her husband, Joe, had problems with their landlord almost from the day they moved into their rental home one year ago. But the recession has actually helped them fight their landlord in court.
It all started last August, when the couple moved to a small, ranch-style home in the Lents neighborhood. For $650 a month, they got their own bedroom and access to a kitchen and a living room that they shared with several other adults.
Their landlord, Oskar Hess, is a 66-year-old retired plumber who owns seven properties in the Montavilla, Cully, Argay and Lents neighborhoods. He says he offers a unique and affordable option for tenants who are "down and out," couples not unlike the Leckenbys, who don't have a perfect rental history. (They were once evicted from an apartment 11 years ago.)
But Teresa Leckenby says Hess takes advantage of his residents, some of whom pay their rent with subsidies from groups like Transition Projects, a nonprofit that helps prevent homelessness.
And the problems in Hess' building have been persistent, Leckenby says. During the couple's first month in Lents, a water heater broke, spilling so much water onto the kitchen floor and living room carpet "it was like walking through a swamp," she recalls. To repair it, Hess' manager turned off the water for four days, and everyone in the house had to use a neighbor's bathroom to shower, Leckenby says. Hess disputes that. He says the water heater broke but that it was replaced within one day.
In December, when a record-breaking snowstorm pummeled Portland, Leckenby says a small oil heater in the living room was expected to warm the common areas of the whole house. But no one was allowed to turn on the unit unless someone was in the living room. That meant Leckenby, who at 42 has a metal hip with pins, slept with only a small space heater in her bedroom. The water spill from the water heater had destroyed the kitchen floor tiles, which were moldy, loose and breaking off. And every time a tenant blew a fuse in the house, they'd have to wait hours for a manager to reconnect their power. The landlord wouldn't let tenants have access to the circuit breaker, Leckenby says.
Leckenby's husband, a construction worker, had lost his job months earlier. A hernia prevented him from getting a new one. And while he was recuperating, Leckenby worked 10-hour shifts as a $9-an-hour telephone technician. With time on the bus to and from work, she was gone 13 or 14 hours a day. "By the time I got home, it was dark," Leckenby says. "I would get home, and I was tired."
In February, Leckenby started looking for legal help. Then, in March, she lost her job after the closure of the call center where she worked.
On March 23, Hess' building manager started the eviction process.
But with more free time, Leckenby could devote more energy to fighting Hess.
In April, she filed a complaint with the City of Portland's housing code maintenance department, which found 22 violations at the property, including evidence of mold, a deteriorated roof and a portable heater that created a fire hazard. She has spent hours documenting in writing her problems with Hess. And she has taken dozens of photographs of the water damage, excess garbage and loose electrical wires at her house. "There's still not enough time to deal with him," Leckenby says.
Hess has noticed the change. "They were pretty good tenants that you could get along with, until they got in a real bind," Hess says.
Months later, Leckenby's case has continued to drag on due to the numerous technicalities of her case. In the meantime, Leckenby hasn't paid rent to Hess because of her concerns about the home's conditions. Holding back rent is sometimes allowed in such cases under the Oregon Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (see page 17).
On July 15, Leckenby and her husband were in Room 120 to hear when their case might go to trial. It's scheduled for July 31. The couple now owes about $3,250 in rent.
Leckenby says she just wants to improve conditions at the house. "I'll deal with it if it makes things better for everybody else," she says. "It's supposed to be a place where you can feel safe and secure and not feel as stressed out as you do everywhere else."
Hess, who's been a landlord for 40 years, is unapologetic. "All I'm asking them to do is move," he says. "They've had six or so months of free rent. Who's the victim here?"
As for the violations, he blames the city. "You can always find small things that are insignificant," Hess says.
And he's not inclined to make any repairs until Leckenby and her husband leave. "Why fix something if they're still there?" Hess says. "When they move out, I'll fix everything."
Ted Vogelpohl runs VIP Property Management Inc. He is responsible for 300 rental units across Portland, and he says Room 120 is the last place he wants to go.
But the economic downturn has given him new reasons to worry.
It's not the low-income tenants at his apartment buildings who concern him. It's the middle-income tenants—the single moms or families renting houses for between $1,000 and $1,500 a month. They're the ones who have lost jobs and taken pay cuts. And to keep them in their homes—at a time when vacancy rates in the Portland area have increased from 3.6 percent in fall 2008 to 5.2 percent in spring 2009, according to the Metro Multifamily Housing Association—he has had to reduce rents by several hundred dollars a month for some of his tenants for several months.
"It's a no-brainer," he says.
Vogelpohl says the apartment owners he represents don't need convincing that reducing rent for a defined period of time is a good idea. "I'm in the middle, and I try to appeal to both sides—the owner and the tenant," he says.
His experience doesn't surprise the handful of lawyers who most often represent landlords in Room 120, several of whom say they're dealing with fewer cases because landlords want to keep as many tenants as possible.
"Obviously, with the economy the way it is, I'm shocked that we're not seeing the courts overcrowded," says Aaron Matusick, a lawyer for landlords. "I think it's a testament to landlords' being willing to work through it."
Some rent, Vogelpohl says, is better than none. But on July 15, Vogelpohl was in Room 120 anyway, and with him were Teresa and Joe Leckenby, and Kingman's lawyer. On a single day their lives intersected in Room 120 without their knowing it; separate dramas about the same thing.
"That's the nature of eviction court," Vogelpohl says.
A mere 50 years ago, tenants in Oregon had zero rights to compel their landlords to repair problems at home, no matter how intolerable.
They lived like serfs. Then came Ralph Nader and a nationwide consumer protection movement that included tenant rights. In 1973, that wave of reform brought Oregon the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, a uniform code now on the books in 21 states.
That state law made landlords responsible for fixing conditions deemed unsafe under the law. It also made those fixes enforceable in court. Finally, it decreed that renters could not be evicted because they asked landlords to make repairs.
The Legislature has since repeatedly modified Oregon's landlord-tenant act to help either renters or landlords. That's because neither landlords nor tenants ever seem satisfied the law is addressing every potential problem.
"Whether you're a landlord or a tenant, you're probably going to feel at one point it's not adequate," says Frank Wall, a veteran Portland lawyer who has helped landlords evict tenants and renters fight to stay in their homes.
Nearly 400,000 Oregonians rent their homes, according to the National Multi Housing Council. Oregon, as one of the 21 states that adopted the uniform code, is in the middle of the spectrum nationally when it comes to renters' rights. But state law doesn't do everything renters' advocates would like. For instance, it sets no controls on what landlords can charge for their units.
In Portland, landlords must comply with housing maintenance codes that some other cities in Oregon lack. And if they don't, renters can report them anonymously to city inspectors.
But other cities nationwide do more. In renter-friendly San Francisco, landlords face tight rules on when and how they can increase rents. They must also meet a stricter standard—known as "just cause"—to evict tenants. Seattle adopted a similar rule in 1996. No such rule exists in Oregon.
"They're ahead of us," says Elisa Aguilera, co-director for Oregon's Community Alliance of Tenants. "We have come a long way in the last seven years in terms of protections for renters. But we still have a lot more work to do."
The 2009 Legislature did extend the amount of notice a landlord must give longtime tenants from 30 to 60 days. This year, state and federal lawmakers also addressed the nationwide foreclosure crisis by passing two similar bills to protect renters in apartments or houses that were nearing auction dates.
"Tenants are really, truly the innocent parties here, if they were paying rent but the landlord wasn't paying the mortgage," says Oregon state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton). "They got the penalty of being evicted without being the person responsible for creating the situation."
Eviction court in Oregon offers DIY justice on speed.
The whole process can take less than a month. A landlord doesn't need to be a lawyer to file an eviction. And a tenant doesn't need an attorney to avoid an eviction.
Take, for example, the most common cause for eviction: not paying rent. If a tenant doesn't pay his rent on the first of the month, state law says a landlord must wait until the seventh day of that month to act. At that point, the landlord posts a 72-hour notice on the tenant's door to demand payment.
Then he waits until the 12th of the month, when the landlord can file eviction papers with the courts, a process that costs at least $86 in fees. By statute, the tenant is then scheduled to appear in court with the landlord one week from the filing of the court papers.
Once the court date arrives, three things can happen. If the landlord appears and the tenant does not, the tenant is evicted, giving him a record that will make it harder for him to rent in the future. If the tenant appears and the landlord does not, the renter isn't evicted. If both parties appear in Room 120, there's an unusual twist. The judge asks both sides to go into the hallway outside the courtroom and try to craft their own settlement.
"They can agree to stuff that I can't order," says Judge Pro Tem Steven Todd, who has been assigned to oversee Multnomah County's eviction court since April. "I can't order someone to pay rent. I can only order them to leave."
The hallway is busiest at the end of the month, when landlords and tenants come in droves to hash out their disputes. "There have been times where other judges have had to come out into the hallway, screaming at people to shut up," says Ted Vogelpohl, a property manager who also occasionally handles evictions for landlords.
Usually within minutes, however, the two parties have drafted a deal. If a tenant agrees to move out voluntarily, he avoids getting an actual eviction record, and future landlords can't hold the case against him. Other times, the landlord agrees to let the tenant stay if he pays the rent that's due.
Sometimes rent isn't the only issue.
If a tenant poses a danger or is a nuisance to other tenants, a landlord can use the eviction process—and a possible settlement agreement—to get him to change his behavior. Other times, a tenant might withhold rent to force a landlord to make repairs.
In that case, the renter might want a settlement to lock the landlord into fixing the problems. In all cases, the settlements are binding.
Says Mark Peterson, who represents tenants in more complicated cases: "It's a dispute resolution factory."