On March 22, Gov. Kate Brown used her emergency powers to place a moratorium on residential evictions during the pandemic. Despite that order, the owners of Portland's downtown Stewart Hotel are asking a judge to eject the building's residents.
In February, tenants in the Stewart Hotel sued their building's owners, alleging squalid conditions, which they say became worse when the property management company Westwind LLC went bankrupt in 2017.
The owners have responded—with a legal action that says because the tenants no longer have a rental agreement, they are squatters and can be kicked out.
Despite Gov. Brown's executive order prohibiting residential evictions during the pandemic, attorneys for Pamela and Leon Drennan say they're within their legal rights to eject the residents.
"Her moratorium is on evictions on residential tenancies," says attorney Kimberly Hanks McGair. "This is not a residential tenancy. It's similar to if you have an abandoned house and some squatters move in and just start living there."
In May, Pamela Drennan filed an ejectment complaint in Multnomah County Circuit Court seeking to eject—not evict—the tenants of the building.
Such complaints are usually used in situations when a building is occupied by squatters and the owner needs to get a court order to vacate the property, according to Troy Pickard, a Portland lawyer who specializes in tenant-landlord disputes.
"Almost always, an ejectment case would be between two parties who don't have anything resembling a landlord-tenant relationship," Pickard says. "The most typical scenarios that come up would be a squatting situation, or someone's grandma was letting them live in the house and then the grandma died and the estate wants to clear the house out."
It is unusual, however, to see such an attempt when residents have occupied a building for years, Pickard says.
The residents, some of whom have lived in the building for decades, disagree they're squatters.
"I've done nothing wrong. It's cold-blooded," says Wesley Appling, 69, a tenant who's lived at the Stewart since the early 2000s. "They're going to have to literally take me to jail before I leave."
He moved into the Stewart two decades ago with his wife, Marge, who died last year. In exchange for their one-bedroom apartment, Appling says, Marge worked as a manager and Appling as a maintenance man.
“I have nowhere to go,” he says. “I would be homeless. I got nobody, no family.”
At some point after Westwind LLC went bankrupt, the landlord stopped coming by to collect rent, so the residents didn't pay it. Shortly thereafter, the building's conditions started to decline steeply, residents say.
Their lawsuit, which WW previously reported on, describes squalid conditions, such as leaky ceilings, holes in walls, cockroach infestations, "persistent and potentially dangerous mold," and bedbugs.
Hanks McGair says the build's owners want to improve the Stewart Hotel's conditions.
"[The owner's] goal here is to get the property prepared and in better condition," she added. "We want to make repairs, and we can't do that with the people living there without permission."
Pickard says choosing to eject the tenants rather than evict them once the moratorium is lifted is an interesting choice, in part because ejectments can take months to process, whereas evictions can happen in a matter of days or weeks.
"In any normal situation, no landlord receiving good legal advice would decide to file an ejectment case against tenants rather than an eviction case," Pickard says. "The only way these owners are going to be able to win this ejectment case is if they can convince the judge or jury that these tenants are not the actual tenants."
One reason to seek to eject rather than evict is because state law mandates a landlord pay a tenant one month's rent should they be evicted. And in Portland, because of the city's relocation assistance law, the landlord must also pay about $3,000 for each tenancy that is being evicted.
Michael Fuller, the attorney representing the tenants in the lawsuit filed in February, says ejecting people who've lived in a building for years is almost unheard of.
"It's rarely done in the context of someone who's living in the home they've been in for over 20 years," Fuller says of ejectments. "It's disgusting and it's a show of power by people who have a history of disregarding tenants and their rights to live in a safe, clean property."
Fuller says the outcome of the ejectment case could set a precedent for how other tenant disputes are handled during the pandemic.
"It could encourage any landlord that could try to get around the governor's moratorium on evictions," Fuller says. "It could apply to any tenant who chooses to withhold rent."