Dollard, a 48-year-old project manager, knows most of his neighbors on North Vancouver Avenue, three blocks east of Peninsula Park. Each Thursday night, he hosts a community-supported agriculture pick-up in his garage, where neighbors stop by for their weekly haul of squash, kale and sweet red Jimmy Nardello peppers.
He used to know Elizabeth Fettig, who lived next door in the two-story 1925 home with circular front stairs. She was a friend, even giving pajama sets to Dollard’s children. But Fettig died in November 2011 at age 86. In June, Multnomah County court records show the lender foreclosed on Fettig’s house.
In September, Dollard noticed new residents had moved in. This was strange, he says, because the house had no gas, garbage or water service.
The newcomers’ behavior was even odder. The three men entertained visitors early in the morning and late at night. Dollard says he saw guests arrive with wheeled suitcases, then roll new suitcases out. Often the men stood on the lawn, arguing over money.
Through a series of phone calls and Web searches, Dollard learned that the house next door had become a flop for three squatters with extensive criminal histories. His new neighbors were Ronny Scott Medinger, a prolific identity thief; James Ramone Lewis, a convicted sex offender; and paroled murderer Solomon Omar Osiris.
Two weeks ago, Multnomah County parole officers cleared the trio out of the house. But neither the lending company, Champion Mortgage, nor the city has locked or boarded up the property, despite Dollard’s repeated written pleas to both.
“The only thing keeping these guys from coming back is that one of them is in jail,” Dollard says. “It’s like living in a David Lynch movie.”
The case on Vancouver Avenue is unusual—only because Dollard got authorities to do anything so quickly.
Across Portland, hundreds of homes—one expert says it could be as many as 1,000—sit vacant in foreclosure limbo. In many cases, the absentee lender doesn’t maintain them, the city isn’t monitoring them, and squatters are moving in.
It’s a strange
problem to plague a city where vacancy rates are at all-time lows and
home prices are soaring. But the phenomenon, known as “bank blight,”
“We identified early on that this was going to be the fallout from a massive foreclosure crisis,” says Angela Martin, executive director of Economic Fairness Oregon. “The city wouldn’t have to police it if the owners were taking responsibility. But that hasn’t happened.”
State Rep. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) got the Oregon Legislature to pass a bill last session giving local governments authority to secure a property in foreclosure 30 days after giving the owner notice.
And last fall, former Mayor Sam Adams drafted a plan to force lenders to register vacant properties and pay annual fees on them. But the Portland Business Alliance objected, and the City Council never passed the vacant-property registry.
The problem of banks leaving properties in limbo became so bad last year it was the first question the Oregon Working Families Party asked mayoral candidate Charlie Hales on its questionnaire for the May primary.
“Bank blight leaves holes in communities,” Hales wrote in January 2012, “and I will support blight ordinances that make it easier to identify who owns blighted properties, that levy fines on banks for neglected homes and properties under their ownership, and that contain seizure provisions for banks that let houses and other properties deteriorate.”
That hasn’t happened either.
“He has not yet addressed that issue,” says Hales’ spokesman, Dana Haynes.
Dollard contacted Champion Mortgage on Sept. 30, when a man stumbled across his yard and passed out in the kitchen of the vacant home.
“Considering the person who used to live there was a sweet old Catholic lady,” Dollard says now, “that was a pretty strong sign.”
The man identified himself as “Ronnie Smith,” and said he was a tenant of Elizabeth Fettig’s son, Tony. Dollard says police later told him that name was an alias—he was actually Ronny Scott Medinger, 42, who had prior convictions, including identity fraud, and an arrest for methamphetamine possession.
Dollard wrote the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Champion, asking them to declare Medinger was trespassing.
“Activity seems to start after 11 pm,” Dollard wrote, “with folks coming in and out of house and a lot of yelling of obscenities, discussion of money and standing outside in the driveway drinking. We’re feeling a lot less safe than we did when the house was basically abandoned.”
Tracy Frazier, the lender’s attorney, didn’t offer much help. “Given that we do not own the property yet,” she wrote, “there is very little we can do.”
Emails show that Dollard and several neighbors continued to press the city for a month.
Dollard confirmed with the city that the property had no water, gas or garbage service. But Dollard couldn’t persuade city officials to evict the squatters, even though they were living in a building that didn’t meet safe occupancy standards.
“If you’re going to run for mayor or commissioner and talk about livability,” Dollard says, “why won’t you use the actual city code?”
Mike Liefeld, enforcement program manager for the Bureau of Development Services, says the city sent a warning letter Oct. 16—and can put the house on its case list after 30 days.
“We’re not going to make the final judgement on who’s allowed to stay there,” Liefeld says. “We just want to make sure that the people living there meet minimum standards of safety.”
Dollard reported a number of strange behaviors by Medinger and the two men staying with him in the house.
“[Medinger] and his associates [are] standing around on their mobile phones,” Dollard wrote to a Multnomah County parole officer Oct. 28. “Women show up, usually with hand luggage. Then men show up, and are at the house generally from 10 pm-3 am and leave.”
Dollard told officials he had asked Medinger what he was doing in the house—and says Medinger replied that he owned the house through a religious organization called Nation of Israel Ministries.
But the parole officers told Dollard a different story. In emails, they identified Medinger’s two houseguests as James Lewis, 36—whose most recent conviction was in 2011 for not registering as a sex offender—and Solomon Osiris, 67.
Osiris was convicted of murder in 1991, court records show, after he and his son Paris Taylor went to Portland’s Old Town to get their money back from a cocaine deal. Witnesses testified that Osiris slapped the victim across the face—then handed a gun to Taylor, who shot the man point-blank in the chest.
During his trial, Osiris began yelling that police had paid off witnesses and were manipulating his lawyer. “While the jury was out of the room,” an appeal document says, “Osiris continued his tirade and hit his attorney in the face.”
Neither Tony Fettig nor Champion Mortgage’s attorney responded to WW’s requests for comment.
On Oct. 29, parole officers arrested Medinger on an outstanding warrant, and warned Lewis and Osiris to stay away from the house. Dollard says no city official has visited since, though he notified them that rats are living in the piled bags of garbage behind the house.
Liefeld says the city is dealing with other vacant homes.
“We have more urgent cases that are taking our resources right now,” he says. “We currently have a list of over 15 properties that need actions.”
Dollard says he feels lucky he found a parole officer willing to help him when the lender and the city failed in their responsibilities.
“It became like another job,” Dollard says. “And even then, it’s not really secured. It takes almost an act of God for the city to crack down.”