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August 5th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories

There Goes The Neighborhood

What housing inspector cuts mean for your rental and Portland’s livability.

OBSERVE AND REPORT: Housing inspector NIck Atanasov on the job in East Portland.
IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com

On a recent Thursday morning, Nick Atanasov pulled his white, city-owned 2000 Dodge Stratus into the parking lot of an apartment complex on Southeast Division Street.

A shade of leaf-green paint covered the Evergreen Park Apartments. Concrete filled an old swimming pool.

But aesthetics had nothing to do with why Atanasov, a 48-year-old former merchant marine from Bulgaria with salt-and-pepper hair and an easygoing demeanor, had driven to outer Southeast Portland. “We don’t do ugly,” the eight-year housing inspector with Portland’s Bureau of Development Services says.

Instead, Atanasov was in the Mill Park neighborhood because two residents in the complex of 50-plus units had complained about mold and water damage in their apartments. And Atanasov had to either dismiss the grievances or ask the landlord to make repairs. He chose the latter.

In this way, by responding to complaints from tenants about their living conditions, city officials inspected about 3 percent of Portland’s 100,000 apartment units last year.

That is changing, and not necessarily for the better.

On July 31, the Bureau of Development Services dismissed some of the 48 workers from the first round of layoffs, with at least two more rounds to come. Last Friday, Atanasov learned he would lose his job in the second wave.

The mass departure follows a June announcement from Commissioner Randy Leonard—who oversees the bureau—that the recession would force it to lay off at least half of its 300 employees. Bureau director Paul Scarlett says he hasn’t ruled out a fourth round of layoffs.

BDS issues construction permits and enforces the city’s building maintenance codes. The bureau depends on money from fees and fines to operate, with new construction projects keeping the bureau afloat. Amid the downturn, the bureau has issued 17 percent fewer building permits, Scarlett says. For months, the bureau’s costs have exceeded its revenues by an average of $250,000 a week. And as of July 1, the bureau’s reserves were down to $2.6 million from $13 million a year earlier.

One area in which the workload has not declined much is Atanasov’s department, the neighborhood inspections division. In fiscal year 2007, the city dealt with 3,059 cases of possible code violations. The following year, the number dropped by less than 2 percent, to 3,005.

Yet, the neighborhood inspections division is undergoing cuts just like all the others because it, too, faces declining revenue. So far, it’s lost four out of 10 housing inspectors and two out of three code specialists, a reduction that worries activists like Valerie Curry, president of the Argay Neighborhood Association in outer Northeast.

“I’m not blaming BDS if they don’t have the revenue, but I’m just wondering if there shouldn’t be some other way of funding the program,” Curry says. “Without them [the inspectors], we would be a mess.”

Scarlett says the bureau will still address every incoming tenant complaint. He just doesn’t know how those cases will be resolved or how quickly. The current response time is five business days. But Scarlett says he’s certain neighborhood associations will gripe if problems fester because of the cuts. “We will hear about it,” he says.

A typical day in the field with Atanasov illustrates the need for the neighborhood inspections division.

Atanasov’s second stop after the Evergreen Park Apartments was the 32-unit Anderson Villa complex, farther out on Southeast Division Street. Weeks earlier, Atasanov found the complex littered with debris and discovered violations that needed immediate attention: exposed wiring, rotten wood, faulty stovetops, missing smoke alarms, leaky toilets and pools of raw sewage. “I don’t have to go inside to see there are problems,” he says.

When he returned in June, a handyman was still making repairs for the out-of-state landlords, John and Rodney Eells. “I can see the results,” Atanasov declares proudly.

Landlords are like children, Atanasov says. Sometimes, they don’t follow the rules. They fail to pull city permits for repairs. They neglect to have garbage outside their buildings hauled away. They’re slow to respond to tenants’ requests.

But—just like kids—they have their reasons, and not all of them are bad. For one thing, some tenants also fail to follow the rules.

Atasanov sees his job as that of a mediator, not just an enforcer. “There’s a lot of struggling out there on both sides,” Atanasov says. “I try to be neutral—in the middle.”

There is some good news for apartment residents, even with the loss of four housing inspectors like Atasanov.

On July 1, Portland embarked on a pilot program that will let BDS employees inspect rental units without needing complaints from residents first. And because that $119,000 program is funded with a one-year federal grant, it will be unaffected now by Leonard’s cuts in the bureau.

“Wherever we can get funding,” Scarlett says, “we’ll take it.”

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