Every time Amiree Moore uses the microwave in her two-bedroom apartment on Northeast Broadway, she says, it trips a breaker in the fuse box.
For the past two months, that's been an urgent problem for Moore, a former clothing boutique manager who quit her job in September to care for her ailing father. Each power outage shut off his oxygen machine. (He died of lung disease and prostate cancer two weeks ago.)
In her jog to the fuse box, Moore gets a reminder of the other problems in her Lloyd District fourplex: leaking pipes next to exposed wires and rotting wooden beams. Windows that topple out of their frames. Overflowing garbage kept in a basement that floods.
In October, Moore received a letter from her landlord: Starting Dec. 1, the monthly rent for her apartment would rise to $1,800, a 29 percent hike. Moore's neighbor in the fourplex, Alicia Aispuro, had her rent hiked 34.5 percent.
"This place is not worth $1,800 a month," Moore says. "I figured $1,400 a month for two bedrooms in this neighborhood was worth it. But [the landlord] has done absolutely nothing to fix anything. So why the rent increase?"
Moore's landlord, RareBird Property Management in Lake Oswego, which bought the property in early October, says it has responded to all tenant complaints and will soon start fixing the basement. (When Moore provided proof of her father's medical condition, the company delayed her rent hike until February.)
"The [rent] increase is large from their standpoint, but it's still below market," says RareBird co-founder Tyler Combs. "When people are getting below-market rent year after year, when the building sells, you gotta increase the rent."
In a normal rental market, Moore and her neighbors would have an obvious recourse when their landlord hiked rents before doing basic upkeep on their building: They could find new apartments.
But this is no normal market. Portland faces a serious rental crunch: one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country at 2.6 percent, soaring rents, and development that is struggling to catch up to the thousands of new residents pouring into the city annually. Average rent in Portland rose a whopping 16.8 percent this year, according to brokerage firm Marcus & Millichap.
Cristina Palacios, who oversees the Safe Housing Project for the Community Alliance of Tenants, says rent hikes in deteriorating buildings are becoming more common.
"Usually it's because the landlord chooses to disinvest," she says, "so they can evict everyone and either sell it or bring in new tenants at a higher price."
However common the abuse, City Hall is largely failing to protect tenants from landlords who jack up prices in neglected properties.
In recent months, the Portland City Council has rushed to provide renters with new protections—including a requirement that landlords give three months' notice before any rent increase of 5 percent or more.
Those new restrictions, approved in October, are being challenged in court. A Nov. 18 lawsuit argues the protections violate state law.
The city already possesses a tool to protect renters from landlords who raise the rent without doing basic upkeep: apartment inspections. Yet the city's enforcement relies on renters to complain.
Moore's building is rife with violations of Title 29, the city's property maintenance code—everything from overflowing garbage in enclosed areas to a lack of guardrails on stairs. If a city inspector had seen the building and decided RareBird Property Management was violating Title 29, that inspector could have mandated that the landlord fix the problems.
However, tenants say they didn't know they could complain to the Bureau of Development Services—the arm of the city that enforces building codes.
Rental inspections are conducted only in response to complaints, says Mike Liefeld, enforcement program manager for the bureau. When a complaint is filed, inspectors are required in most cases to inspect only the unit in question. Without landlord permission, inspectors cannot enter any other units on the property. That restriction makes it that much harder to pin down bad landlords.
Palacios says the problem with a complaint-based system is a lack of education: Most people don't know how or where to complain. "It's a shame," she says, "because when a housing inspector comes, the landlord is more likely to make the repairs."
This isn't the first case of the Bureau of Development Services failing to crack down on scofflaws during the housing crunch. In February, WW reported that the bureau did little while dozens of apartment owners—including several living out of state—were breaking city rules by renting out multiple units on Airbnb and other short-term rental websites.
Liefeld says the bureau is already overwhelmed with complaints: 815 in the past two months alone. Each inspector currently has a backlog of 17.5 cases.
Liefeld says his bureau doesn't have the money to look for more abuses.
"I can't even begin to imagine what it would take—budget, staff, vehicles—to do more than just verify violations," he tells WW. "Right now, the complaint-based system is what we have the resources for."
There is a way for city inspectors to actively track whether Portland landlords are maintaining their properties.
In 2008, in an attempt to hold landlords more accountable, the city enacted the Enhanced Rental Inspections Program, a program targeting East Portland and recently expanded to North Portland that allows inspectors to look at other units in buildings where complaints have been filed.
Matt Grumm, a policy aide to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, says the program is not enough. "It was a compromise," Grumm says. "Originally what advocates wanted was a charge per apartment that would pay for inspectors to go into apartments at random, without complaints."
Portland is more lenient with landlords than a neighboring city.
In 2008, the city of Gresham implemented an inspection program that assesses a fee on rental properties to pay for mandatory random inspections throughout the year.
Grumm says Portland's 2015-16 adopted budget requires the Bureau of Development Services and public-housing agency Home Forward to present, by January 2016, ways in which the city could adopt a rental-fee model.
"There is concern that complaining to [the bureau] could be dangerous for renters, in a sense," he says. "Word might get around that they [had complained], and they might get kicked out, so this model would protect them from that."
When people do complain, city inspectors find cases astonishing in their shamelessness.
Maria lives with her children, boyfriend and father-in-law in a two-bedroom apartment in St. Johns.
One day in September, Maria says, she was removing mold from the kitchen wall while her 1-year-old son sat on the floor. She turned around for a moment, and when she looked back, her son was lifting his hand to her, a mouse attached by its teeth to his finger.
Maria, whose name has been changed for this story, lives in one of five units at Clarendon Terrace that received a city inspection in October.
Clarendon Terrace falls within the boundaries of the Enhanced Rental Inspections Program, so the city inspector responding to a complaint in another unit there had authority to check all five units. The inspector documented 60 code violations—everything from fire safety violations to black mold, pests, broken appliances, and holes in walls and ceilings—to the building's owner, Pacific Coast Capital Investors, a company based in California.
Earlier this year, Pacific Coast raised Maria's rent from $525 to $725, a 38 percent increase.
A city document dated Oct. 22 states that Pacific Coast has 30 days from the date of the inspection to correct the violations before incurring fees—$643 per unit per month.
Kyle Fuller, who manages the property for Pacific Coast, says he had no idea about the code violations. "I am blindsided," he tells WW. "We will definitely address it. There is no reason I would want those code violations to sit."
Palacios, the tenants' advocate, says the violations at Clarendon Terrace show that renters want the city to crack down on landlords abusing a lax inspection system.
"They are not getting repairs, and their rent is rising," Palacios says. "But they're ready to do something about it."