Oregon House Speaker-turned U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Merkley has a few unhappy constituents—the renters of property he owns in Portland and Tualatin.
WW set out to find how well Merkley manages 10 rental units owned by him and his wife, nurse Mary Sorteberg. The conclusion from talking to a half-dozen renters: the Democratic speaker may be a neat "master of the House" in Salem, but Merkley also has a track record of being comfortable with a little shabbiness when it comes to managing his own rental units. He recently switched property managers for the Tualatin units after almost four years.
No code violations were found, but Merkley's tenants were eager to speak about problems in their units. The 10 rental units that house a few dozen tenants include one small house in Southeast Portland and nine duplex units on Tualatin's Southwest Santee Court. Together the properties pull in at least $100,000 a year in rent before expenses.
As a lawmaker, Merkley has earned a reputation as a brainy progressive. Lobbyists and other legislative observers have praised Merkley's legislative acumen; earlier this year they gave him high marks in WW' s 2007 legislative survey (see "The Good, the Bad and the Awful," WW , June 13, 2007).
But tell that to Danitra Lewis, Merkley's tenant in a 972-square-foot Mill Park home in outer Southeast Portland. She and her husband, Wayne, a bank operations processor, pay $900 a month in rent for the three-bedroom home. Yet Danitra, a health-care worker, says she's tired of waiting for her water heater and furnace to be fixed. She estimated it's been a real problem for a couple months.
"As time's gone by he's been bogged down with family, state work," said Lewis. "But if he doesn't want to fix my furnace…well, shoot."
In addition to his investment properties in Southeast Portland and Tualatin, Merkley also rents out two homes. One in Washington, D.C., is currently being used by Lutheran Volunteer Corps as a group home for the mentally ill. The other, which is in Northeast Portland, until July housed volunteers through the Portland chapter of the Christian volunteer group Holy Cross Associates.
That Portland house, a blue 1,500-square-foot Craftsman on Northeast 15th Avenue, was Merkley's own residence before he moved further east into the Mill Park neighborhood, Merkley spokesman Russ Kelley says.
The property houses five former post-graduate volunteers, whose $1,475 in monthly rent is covered by the Holy Cross program.
In Tualatin, Bryan Marsh and his family pay $760 a month for their three-bedroom duplex. Marsh says he's patched the walls of his unit, installed baseboards and replaced the screen door without getting compensated by Merkley. Tenant law doesn't make Merkley financially responsible for those repairs. But the drip of complaints continued from Marsh, who says an on-site manager told him Merkley wouldn't pay for water Marsh wanted to use on the lawn.
"Merkley didn't want to pay for the water, so all the grass died," Marsh said. Merkley now appears to have recognized the problems, however.
On Sept. 1, Lake Oswego's L. Moore Management, a company specializing in keeping up residential properties, took over Merkley's units in Tualatin. Merkley previously had used an on-site manager for those Tualatin properties. L. Moore already manages Merkley's other properties in the Portland area.
Merkley announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate Democratic primary on Aug 1. (Activist Steve Novick is also in the primary, seeking the nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.). But Kelley says the timing of the switch was coincidental and not linked to the Senate run.
"Shortly after the last legislative session, he became aware that the current management situation wasn't working out, so he made a change," Kelley says.
About time, says Marsh. According to Marsh, the on-site manager, paid by Merkley to keep up Santee Court, was given a "tight budget" to work with, much tighter than before the Merkleys bought the development in 2002.
Bryan Marsh's wife, Michelle, was much less sympathetic about Merkley's efforts to maintain her family's duplex on Santee Court.
"He has no management ability at all," she said.