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December 21st, 2005 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Welfare Check

WW looks at the city's targeting of three low-rent downtown buildings.

     
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Mike Narver grew up in his father's business of running low-rent apartments in downtown Portland.
IMAGE: JENNA BIGGS
Flophouse. Welfare hotel.

Those names are a slap in the face to Debbie Allen, who uses the word "home" to describe the Westwind Apartments on Northwest 6th Avenue.

Allen disagrees with city officials who say the Westwind and two similar buildings are health and safety hazards. Those officials are pressuring the owners to clean up all three or close them down for good.

For the past two years, Allen, 48, has rented a single room with a sink for $410 a month. She shares two bathrooms with about two dozen tenants on her hall.

"I wouldn't live here if I didn't like it," she says, absently swatting her black lab, who keeps eating threads of tinsel from the spindly six-foot tree in the lobby.

The tree is a little pathetic, especially against the backdrop of surrounding clutter, a chewed-up dog toy, old couches and rolled-up carpets. But Allen says, "It's our Charlie Brown Christmas tree."

Nonetheless, this may be the last Christmas for the Westwind and two other low-rent downtown buildings. A resolution passed Dec. 7 by City Council establishes a multi-bureau task force that will unleash a coordinated enforcement attack by police, housing inspectors and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement on the Westwind; the Stewart, on Southwest Broadway; and the Home Apartments, on Southwest 3rd Avenue near Burnside Street.

During regularly scheduled November inspections, the Westwind racked up 39 violations for offenses such as evidence of roach infestation, spongy bathroom floors and a missing radiator in one room. The Home Apartments had a total of seven violations, while the Stewart drew 53.

"If it means to get his attention we have to shut him down, we'll do that," said Commissioner Randy Leonard, adding that alternative housing will be found if the building closes. "He may just clean it up, that's up to him."

"He" is Mike Narver, who has been managing the three low-rent buildings for 40 years and bought the $2.4 million Westwind last year with money from the sale of his $1.8 million farmland home in Tigard.

Narver, who also owns a charter fishing-boat business on the Washington coast, says he has a good relationship with city building inspectors.

"I don't mind improvements," he says. "But to be brought up to Marriott standards is hard to do."

No one chooses to end up in a place like the Westwind, a century-old building that according to hallway lore was once a brothel and a "Shanghai" hotel, where unsuspecting oafs would get clubbed over the head and dragged through underground tunnels to forced labor on the waterfront.

In the lobby, a desk attendant named Marty enforces a strict rule banning visitors and tells anyone he doesn't like the look of that the 67 units are full up. The smell of cigarette smoke mingles sourly with the sweet-warm musk of old meals and dirty clothes. Gray stains mottle the walls and carpets.

More disturbing are the examples of human need among residents, most of whom pay their rent with vouchers from Social Security or disability insurance. Many are elderly, veterans, mentally ill or developmentally disabled.

Last Thursday afternoon, a 60-ish woman in a red hooded parka came downstairs to use the pay phone. She pressed zero and explained that she wanted phone service in her room. "I can't understand what you're saying," she said into the receiver. "Operator? Operator? Operator? Operator?" She rattled the hook and pressed zero again, repeating the fruitless routine. Ten minutes passed before another resident rose, grabbed the receiver and intervened, also with no success.

Narver, who had agreed to guide a tour of the building, headed up the stairs, passing a closed door on the second-floor landing. Opening the door—over Narver's objections—revealed a glum corridor with peeling paint and stained carpets.

Another door swung open down the hall, throwing a rectangle of light onto the dark carpet. A woman who said she had schizophrenia allowed the visitors to look into her room. Piles of clothing and garbage had reduced the floor space to a few cluttered feet. Christmas-tree branches overflowed from the sink. The stained carpet was torn and missing in patches. Narver ran up, scolding.

"I really didn't want to show you the second floor," he said. "It's not done."

Narver says later that he wants the best for his tenants. "I've come to love these people as a Christian," he says.

 
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