Democracy was alive and well on a recent Thursday night at the Copperfield Adult Condominium Homeowners Association clubhouse in deep East Portland.
Under flickering overhead fluorescent lights and the clinging smell of cigarette smoke, 30 angry owners of condo units sat on foldout chairs and couches. Many were retirement age and had parked their walkers next to their chairs. All are part of Portland’s working class; some are on fixed incomes or disability payments.
Their ire was pointed at the condo association’s eight board members, all but one of whom appeared on a computer screen.
The angry homeowners had a clear mission: ditch the entire board. They needed a simple majority of owners by square footage to do so—there are 111 units total at the complex.
At issue was a $5 million siding project the HOA board had recently approved and that was already underway. Each unit owner will incur a $40,000 to $52,000 upfront payment or monthly payments of $288 to $378 for 300 months, plus interest.
For some, such payments are crippling—and could cost them their housing. Brianne Bigej’s 40-year-old brother, who has autism spectrum disorder, lives in a Copperfield unit. His siblings bought him the condo using money from their father’s estate.
“It seems insane that you could double someone’s HOA fees without any input from the owners,” Bigej says. “We don’t have a plan B for our brother. If we can’t afford that, which we can’t, he will be without a place to be. He could be homeless.”
The bind residents of the Copperfield face is one playing out all over the city: Often, housing remains affordable because maintenance is deferred. Buildings crumble but rent stays low. At Copperfield, two priorities—affordability and safety—came to a head.
Mike Vial, the longtime attorney for the homeowners association who specializes in HOA law, acknowledges the expensive project could displace people.
“It’s clear that throughout the entire life of this project, no one has done a lot in the way of maintenance repair. It’s been a starter home for a lot of people on a fixed income,” Vial says. “Every time a board gets elected and tries to make repairs, they’re met with a lot of resistance and back off. That’s how they got here.”
The 111-unit Copperfield Condominiums, which stand along Southeast 138th Avenue in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood, are governed by a homeowners association. That’s an arrangement by which condo owners pay monthly dues to help maintain the complex. That’s supposed to include fees for future repairs estimated to be pressing in the coming years and decades.
But for many years, Vial says, few funds for future projects were collected to keep costs low. He says that puts the current board in the difficult position of having to embark on a project that will put the entire cost burden on current homeowners.
Vial says just one bank was willing to loan the Copperfield money for the repairs. “We’ll do it now,” he recalls the bank saying, “but this is your last chance.”
There’s little question the repairs are needed. Contractors started work in February. One condo owner sent WW video of a gloved hand pulling off siding. The damp wood flaked off with a gentle tug.
The board is going forward with the siding project at a time when the construction market is racked with uncertainty.
Preston Korst, director of policy and government affairs for the Home Building Association of Greater Portland, tells WW there’s a “growing connection between rising construction costs and diminishing housing affordability…residential remodeling and repair projects are also being hit hard by rising interest rates, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and high volatility in commodities.”
The condo board did attempt to get a lower estimate. In fact, it went through three separate building consultants to get a less expensive project proposal, Vial says. It fired the first two firms after higher estimates and finally settled on the third estimate of $5 million.
Vial acknowledges the project could displace some residents.
“There are people out there on fixed incomes that flat out just don’t have the ability or raise a couple hundred bucks a month in order to pay the increased assessment to fund the bank loan,” Vial says. “Some of those people might have to sell. I wish there was a better answer than that, but there’s not.”
For some on a fixed income, the thought is daunting—and could cost them their housing. Brianne Bigej says her family can’t afford the siding payments—and finding her brother a new home will be challenging.
“Is it possible to sell it and put him in a house where there won’t be an HOA? Yes, but the cost of housing in Portland hasn’t gone down. And to uproot him is not practical for his well being,” Bigej says. “We don’t even know if we’ll be able to sell the unit. Because who would want to sell the house that has that much of an HOA payment?”
Mihai Zamfir purchased his Copperfield condo for $80,000 in 2015 with plans to move his elderly Romanian parents there once they came to the U.S. When they made it to the States, Zamfir’s parents moved in with him—after all, their health was failing. Last summer, he began renting to a family of Ukrainian refugees that had recently escaped that war-torn country. Now, he may have to raise the rent on them.
“We bought this not to invest, as some people say, we bought it for my parents. Everything was one level, one story, they had health problems,” Zamfir says. “We’re just trying to give the liberty back to the people to decide democratically.”
The tense, loud and curse-filled vote Thursday night at the clubhouse took two and a half hours. Emotions ran high.
An older man with crossed arms and a Seattle Mariners baseball cap at the back of the clubhouse yelled, “Fuck you!” and “Shut the fuck up!” whenever a board member spoke up from the screen, occasionally receiving a scolding shush from other attendees.
Board chair Lori Balkema was first up to speak. Her remarks cut to the heart of the impossible dilemma.
“It’s been 50 years, and no one has ever had the money to pay for this, and no one wanted to up the HOA fees to cover the costs. Like it or not, we have the responsibility to fix the property so it can last the test of time,” Balkema said. “There’s no cheap fix here. It has to be done. We’ve pushed it down the road as far as we can.”
Unit owner Kent Koenig, tall and mustachioed, voted by proxy for more than 45 owners throughout the night to kick off each board member.
Ballots were filled out and results were tallied by the HOA’s legal team. Five minutes later, lawyer Ryan Harris said the removal of Balkema had been successful. That drew muted nods of approval and small cheers from the clubhouse.
Shortly after that, Harris backtracked. The results had been tallied incorrectly. The motion hadn’t, in fact, passed. It had lost by just 2 percentage points. After another narrowly unsuccessful vote to oust another board member, Koenig said the clubhouse was done. There was no point in continuing.
Homeowners gathered their walkers and parkas and trundled out.
The $5 million siding project approved by the board will continue. The first bills fall due April 1.