Two Portland City Council members are vowing to clean up local "no-tell motels," the city's housing of last resort for the poor--and do so in a way that doesn't force the occupants into the streets.
City Commissioners Randy Leonard and Erik Sten called for an inquiry into the conditions at several seedy motels following a joint investigation by Willamette Week and KGW-TV ("Home Sweet Home," WW, April 14, 2004).
The two-month investigation found that an increasing number of poor families are living amid drug users, prostitutes and career criminals in these substandard rental units, which skirt both the city's housing code and the state's landlord-tenant act.
The city's top priority is to relocate occupants from the worst of the motels, which are found in clusters along byways that once were major highways, such as Sandy Boulevard, Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue.
"We need to respond to the emergency situation that some of these people are living in," says Marshall Runkel, Sten's chief of staff. (Sten is responsible for the city's affordable-housing programs, while Leonard oversees city inspectors.)
One of the first stops will be the All States Motel, at 11814 Sandy Blvd., a major focus of the WW story. On April 9, the owner, Georgia Hoffman, served eviction notices on a number of tenants, many of whom said they have nowhere else to live if they are tossed out of the Parkrose motel.
Hoffman told WW she could not afford to fix the problems at All States, even though she is a co-owner of four other rental properties and lives in a $700,000 home in Molalla.
City officials, upon learning of Hoffman's actions, contacted her immediately, Runkel says. "We told her, 'Don't you dare put anyone out on the street.'"
Some of the All States tenants are fighting back on their own. Denise Muggli, who appeared on last week's WW cover, will go to municipal housing court Thursday to fight her eviction, with help from local lawyer Mark Peterson, who runs the landlord-tenant project at Lewis & Clark College.
The commissioners, meanwhile, say they will seek a long-term solution to the critical shortage of affordable and habitable housing for the city's poorest residents. In the meantime, they want to come up with a system to better monitor the aging motels, which were intended to provide short-term lodging for visitors, not semi-permanent housing for the poor.
Because those who stay in the motels are not considered "tenants," they don't have the protections given apartment dwellers. WW and KGW reporters found that motel residents live in constant fear of eviction and rarely complain about the abysmal conditions.
"We need to clean up the motels and rationalize them into our housing system so they don't drop below the radar," Runkel says.
Hoffman, for example, has allowed All States to deteriorate over the past decade and has ignored city orders to repair glaring violations of the city's housing code. The city said Hoffman owes nearly $71,000 in code-violation fines dating back to 1994. She has also been ordered to clean up a unit at All States that was polluted by methamphetamine ingredients, another order she has disregarded.
In an effort to find a way to bring the properties up to code, Portland officials plan to look hard at a couple of other cities that have cleaned up similar motels.
Sally Erikson, a recent addition to the city's homeless-advocacy team, hopes to adapt a program founded by officials in Mesa, Ariz., that successfully addressed crime and substandard housing conditions in low-end motels.
The city of Lakewood, Wash., launched its version of Mesa's Clean & Safe Motels program four years ago and has witnessed a substantial improvement in crime rates and habitability of its 16 motels. Erickson has invited Lakewood's Clean & Safe Motels director, Mike Dixon, to meet with Portland officials.