As the novel coronavirus descended on Oregon, state officials told grocery stores they could stop accepting empty containers for recycling.
That left just two BottleDrops in Portland—locations where some of the city's poorest people can redeem bottles and cans for cash. (Both are run by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, the industry co-op that oversees bottle returns.)
Now the landlord for one of those locations, in North Portland, is threatening to evict the BottleDrop Center, saying it has attracted so many people trying to return bottles and cans that it's creating a public health hazard.
On March 27, TMT Development sent a notice of default to the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, warning that the BottleDrop on North Hayden Drive was violating the governor's stay-home order and that the redemption center would be evicted if its security guards couldn't keep people 6 feet apart.
The notice, obtained by WW, shows TMT Development gave OBRC 20 days to keep people 6 feet apart or vacate the shopping plaza, which the company owns.
"Inability to implement social distancing guidelines for those customers who are waiting in line to transact business at the BottleDrop renders BottleDrop a business that must close unless it is able to implement social distancing guidelines," the notice says.
Jules Bailey, OBRC's chief stewardship officer, says the notice amounts to a crackdown on poverty.
"If BottleDrop closes, thousands of people living on the edge will fall off it," Bailey tells WW. "On the Tuesday after the governor's order, statewide we paid out about $115,000 in refunds to customers, which is quite low for BottleDrop but represents cash going directly to people who were desperate enough to come and wait in line in the rain and hail because they have no other choice to get cash, at least legally."
Vanessa Sturgeon, CEO of TMT Development, tells WW she simply wants the BottleDrop to comply with the governor's social distancing order.
"If they do not, it could lead to far greater problems for our city and all of its residents, particularly our most vulnerable," Sturgeon says. "We must recognize and prevent the catastrophic and potentially deadly impact that COVID-19 would have on our houseless community if it were to spread through encampments, our shelters and food banks. OBRC must fix this now."
TMT is one of the most prominent real estate companies in Portland. It owns Fox Tower and Park Avenue West, two of the tallest towers downtown. Its properties also include Delta Park Center, a North Portland shopping plaza whose tenants include Walmart, Lowe's and Dick's Sporting Goods, along with the BottleDrop.
The dispute has already caught the eye of Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, who urged TMT to reconsider its notice.
"While long lines can be inconvenient, keeping these BottleDrop locations open is the right thing to do," Kotek said in a statement to WW. "We have to keep each other safe through social distancing. And people need to be able to return for their deposits. Access to cash from bottle returns makes a huge difference to a lot of people. Everyone, including landlords, needs to do their part in this crisis."
On March 15, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission told grocery stores it would no longer require them to keep their bottle redemption stations open, citing health and staffing concerns. That meant the two BottleDrops run by ORBC—one on North Hayden Drive, the other on Northeast 122nd Avenue—were the only places left to return empties.
Both sides of the shopping plaza dispute agree that the result of the OLCC decision was hundreds of poor and homeless people arriving at Delta Park Center in North Portland with bags of cans and bottles.
Emails obtained by WW show that a Lowe's manager complained to the property manager on Friday. Sturgeon emailed Bailey that afternoon: "This is absolutely unacceptable and needs immediate attention," she wrote.
Bailey wrote back, saying he understood her concern but was complying with state requirements to set a limit on how many people could pack inside the BottleDrop Center.
"Since we can't stop people from coming and wanting to return containers, and we can only allow so many people inside and must space them in line, the result is a lot of people waiting outside," he wrote. "Other than the unsightliness, have you heard of any actual instances of problems?"
Sturgeon replied that the lines at the BottleDrop were creating a danger for other tenants. She suggested OBRC hire armed guards.
"We suggest that you immediate deploy armed security to manage this situation (we have a team, but your store needs its own team as some of your customers are armed)," she wrote. "If you need a referral, please let us know. We would also suggest that you employ your own cleaning team.
"In the meantime, we are exploring legal remedies to shut down this store," Sturgeon added. "This situation has become combustible; it is only a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed here."
Bailey again asked for examples. "I don't know of any actual incidences of violence or disturbance other than the lines that these people are in," he wrote. "I think introducing armed guards into the equation, especially ones that are unfamiliar with our operations, clientele and staff, creates a much greater danger of an unintentionally violent confrontation."
Shortly after 4 pm, Sturgeon said she was issuing a notice of default—a legal notice saying OBRC had violated the terms of its lease.
"If you have security onsite, they unfortunately appear not to have been trained with regard to the governor's executive order," she wrote. "OBRC has created, and is failing to manage, an environment where many low-income people are congregating tightly in large crowds. Again, please understand that the environment is extremely dangerous on many levels, and we are highly concerned for the health and safety of your customers and Lowe's."
Bailey says he's baffled. He says the BottleDrop hasn't had a violent incident since the crowds grew in size.
"There is no evidence this population is dangerous, and should any situation arise, our staff is well trained and we have a good partnership with law enforcement," he tells WW. "TMT has taken us to court to shut this location down before, and I believe they are simply looking for an excuse to do so. Shutting down BottleDrop during this crisis would have disastrous consequences for a lot of vulnerable people."