At Multnomah County Housing Court, most of the action takes place in the hallways, as landlords and tenants haggle like buyers and sellers in a bazaar to settle their disputes without getting a judge involved. The landlords usually want money owed to them; tenants want repairs made to their units. More often than not, the landlords get the cash.
Last Thursday, Denise Muggli broke that pattern when Georgia Hoffman, owner of All States Motel in Parkrose, agreed to pay her $1,200. For Muggli, and other tenants at the deteriorating motel complex on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, the settlement represented a moral as well as financial victory.
Hoffman, who owns several run-down "no-tell" motels in Portland and an apartment building in Gresham, threatened to evict Muggli two weeks ago for nonpayment of rent. Muggli believes Hoffman was angry because Muggli had cooperated with a Willamette Week/KGW-TV investigation into conditions at substandard motels (see "Home Sweet Home," WW, April 14, 2004).
Muggli had a two-part response. First, she said, she had provided 200 hours of work on Hoffman's properties to make up for back rent that was due. Second, she noted that the WW story had revealed she was living in a unit that Hoffman wasn't supposed to rent. In April 2003, a city inspector found 118 visible city code violations at All States, including four in the unit Muggli currently occupies. The city had ordered Hoffman not to rent the unit until the code violations were fixed, but she rented it to Muggli anyway in December without having made the improvements.
Mark Peterson, a clinical professor at Lewis & Clark College's School of Law, took Muggli's case for free and last Thursday morning squared off with Hoffman's lawyer in the courthouse hallway. Two hours later, Hoffman agreed to drop the eviction and pay Muggli $1,200 as long as she vacated her unit by May 3. Muggli said the cash was sufficient to allow her and her boyfriend, Carey Trabue, to relocate to better quarters.
"I hated to leave, because Carey and I spent days fixing the place up to where it was actually livable," she said outside the courtroom Thursday. "But I just needed to make a clean break, and this does that."
Peterson would have liked a full hearing before a judge on Muggli's claims, but didn't want to risk seeing his client immediately evicted. He says Muggli's situation exposes a serious flaw in the city's inspection enforcement process. Tenants of motels enjoy fewer legal protections than other renters, Peterson notes, and are therefore unlikely to complain and thus risk eviction.
"The city can order a landlord not to reoccupy a unit with code violations until they are addressed," he says, "but if the landlord chooses to ignore that order, the consequences of getting caught are minimal."
Hoffman had the satisfaction of ousting the rabble-rousing Muggli from her motel complex, but she still faces more than $70,000 in fines dating back to 1994 for code violations at All States.
Meanwhile, other All States tenants, en- couraged by Muggli's case, say they are looking for lawyers to help them take on Hoffman. And city officials say they have stepped up a campaign to clean up or clear out All States in the wake of WW's revelations.