Like clockwork, the cars start arriving around 9 pm at a freshly built three-story home in the Humboldt neighborhood.

Audis and Mercedes sports cars, many of them with Washington plates. Luxury Ubers deposit men in expensive-looking suits at the driveway. Women in short skirts pour out of Escalades.

They disappear into the house and stay until the wee hours of the morning.

Windows are papered over, and some neighbors claim there is a stripper pole in the den.

According to five people interviewed by WW, it's been going on like this for weeks now, on a leafy residential street of modest Craftsman homes in North Portland, ever since Oregon's governor shut down bars and restaurants across the state.

"Now is not the time or place to have people coming into this empty, vacated house for whatever activities they're doing," says Andrew DelGreco, 32, who lives on the block. "It feels disrespectful to the people who live here."

The disagreement boiled over April 25, when a high-decibel argument broke out between the homeowner—a burly, blond-haired 58-year-old named Joseph Hughes—and a dozen or so of his protesting neighbors. One of them used his cellphone to take video of the screaming confrontation.

"You're not supposed to stick your ass in Multnomah County when you're a Clackamas piece of shit!" a woman can be heard shouting.

"Keep your mask on, you're cuter that way," Hughes fired back.

What's got them so upset?

As the rest of the city has gone dark, the residents of North Blandena Street allege Hughes has transformed his home into a COVID-19 speakeasy. Neighbors have complained to Portland City Hall of loud music, gambling and strippers. And they say it's happened every single night for the past month and a half.

Neighbors have complained 14 times, resulting in 10 written reports. On at least two occasions, Portland Police Bureau records say officers showed up. But no criminal citations have been issued.

So the neighbors started to revolt.

The tale unfolding on North Blandena Street is not a great scandal. It's not clear Hughes is breaking any laws—and if he is, those laws are rarely enforced.

But it is a remarkably vivid example of how quarantine is ratcheting up the tension in otherwise sleepy neighborhoods, as Portlanders stuck at home become more aware than ever of what's happening right outside their windows.

"[COVID-19] created the situation where they come in," says Trevor Gray, 47, who lives next door to Hughes. "It's also created the situation where we're all here to see it. We all have an excess of energy, because nothing's happening."

***

Joseph Hughes doesn't deny that something odd is happening on his property. He just doesn't see it as a problem.

Hughes' Clackamas-based company, Homes With Style, built the house at 562 N Blandena Street in 2019, but it never sold. He took the house off the market in mid-February, and claims he began temporarily renting it to an acquaintance, whom he won't identify.

A month later, the state began to shut down. Hughes says he allowed his tenant to host poker games, because "it gives people a little bit of sanity."

Around 5 am on March 17, Trevor Gray and his wife, Andrea Chiavarini, were shaken awake by the sound of thumping club music. It was one night after Gov. Kate Brown ordered all bars in the state to close indefinitely.

The couple, who've lived together on Blandena Street for two years, suspected Hughes might be living in the ostensibly empty house next door. (He says he's stayed there overnight on occasion, but it is not his "everyday residence.") Neither Gray nor Chiavarini had interacted with him before, but they had heard him, standing out on his porch, talking loudly on his cellphone.

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: Trevor Gray alleges his next-door neighbor on North Blandena Street is running a makeshift casino and strip club out of his home. (Wesley Lapointe)
NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: Trevor Gray alleges his next-door neighbor on North Blandena Street is running a makeshift casino and strip club out of his home. (Wesley Lapointe)

Chiavarini assumed that whoever was inside had simply fallen asleep with the stereo playing. All Gray observed when he looked out his window were flashing, purplish lights dancing on the ceiling.

"Other people in the neighborhood see things happen," he says, "and I hear them happen."

Police reports paint a picture of what Gray couldn't see.

"Complainants think this residence has been converted into a makeshift strip club," reads a report from March 30. "Lots of females inside. Stripper pole visible on the second floor."

A pattern developed: During the day, the place would be empty. Around 9 pm, according to neighbors WW spoke with, Hughes would arrive in a white Ford truck, along with three associates. Cars would gradually fill the street, and cabs dropped off people no one had seen there before.

The neighbors began piecing things together. They developed a theory, which they still hold: Hughes had moved into his unsold home, and was capitalizing on the statewide ban on public gatherings by transforming it into a makeshift casino and strip club.

Hughes denies installing a stripper pole in the house. He wouldn't directly answer a question about whether dancers perform on his property. He did, however, sanction the card games, as long as the hosts adhered to "the pandemic rulebook" and limited attendance to 10 people. The games were never publicly advertised, he says, and everyone who showed up knew the tenants.

In short, he says, his tenants were hosting private parties—at a size less than the limit set by the governor.

Hughes says he is not a gambler himself and would only stop by occasionally. WW has learned through business filings, however, that Hughes previously had a financial interest in Ace of Spades, a now-shuttered poker room on Southwest Barbur Boulevard.

***

On April 21, Gray and Chiavarini, along with Chiavarini's 14-year-old son, were once again awakened, this time by loud stomping—they thought it sounded like a stripper's platform heels hitting a wooden floor.

"It sounded like they were dancing on my roof," Gray says.

Gray went next door to complain. What happened next is documented in a complaint he later sent to police, which WW has obtained. He was greeted "by a young Asian man who does not live on this street," according to the account. Another man, described as "mid- to late 30s, white, obese," approached the door, and attempted to convince Gray he couldn't be hearing what he swore he was hearing. Hughes says he was not at the house at the time.

"This man then told me there was no stomping, as though he was a Jedi Knight," Gray said in the police report. "The Force was not with him, as I could still hear the stomping."

Other neighbors have kept their distance; at least 10 reports have been filed stretching back to late March, alleging "suspicious activity" at the house, according to Portland Police Bureau records.

The complaints continued through April.

Bureau spokeswoman Lt. Kristina Jones confirms police are investigating allegations of illegal activity on the property. But when it comes to enforcing the stay-home order, "there is discretion in enforcement, and education is our first approach," she says.

Gray also wrote to Mayor Ted Wheeler. "It defies reason that in the midst of a statewide shelter in place order that someone can run what amounts to a strip club in the middle of a quiet neighborhood," he wrote in an April 15 email. Wheeler's office sent him a reply recommending he contact Oregon Occupational Safety & Health.

"Does OSHA have jurisdiction over underground gambling operations in residential properties?" he responded. He received no reply.

Representatives for Wheeler did not respond to WW's request for comment.

***

After the shouting match April 25, Hughes decided to call the cops on his neighbors.

The officer who showed up seemed bemused by the scene. (He left after warning Hughes' neighbors to make sure cars had enough room to pass.) He said it resembled a block party.

About a dozen neighbors sat in lawn chairs around a metal fire pit planted in the middle of the street, sipping beers wrapped in koozies. A small speaker pumped out a playlist of old-school soul and funk jams.

Occasionally, a car with Washington plates would roll down the street, slowly navigating around the fire pit. At one point, a 30-something staggered out of a Radio Cab and asked if this was where "the poker game" was happening.

Gray and Chiavarini weren't sure exactly what their "socially distanced protest" would entail. Mostly, it took the form of passive-aggressive admonitions—hooting and hollering as guests showed up and cheering their "adherence" to social distancing.

The point was just to let Hughes know they were watching him and knew what he was up to. And to that degree, it seems to be working: Hughes tells WW he's starting to think he doesn't need such "negative energy" in his life, and he's considering shutting the games down and letting the house stand empty.

The residents of North Blandena Street would consider that a victory.

"It is oddly a neighborhood-unifying thing," Gray says. "That is the weird thing—that Joseph has created a neighborhood."