Maricela Ramirez's story is a familiar one in today's Portland.
She came to Oregon more than a decade ago from Northern California, seeking a more affordable place to live. Now, as housing costs climb across the city, a renovation of her building is poised to hike her monthly bills faster than her fixed income can keep pace. Ramirez, 58, fears she'll end up on the streets.
"I'm just very scared," she says.
But this tale comes with a twist: Ramirez owns her home.
The people threatening to drive her out aren't greedy landlords but her own neighbors, who also own condos in a modest complex at the edge of Portland's West Hills.
In June, the Westlake Village Condominium Homeowners Association informed Ramirez—along with her fellow condo owners in the 200-unit complex in the Cedar Mill neighborhood—that it would soon begin repairs, requiring Ramirez to pay a lump sum of $34,000 or increase her $372 monthly association payments by $292 a month.
For Ramirez, who sank her entire savings of $63,500 into buying the condo and lives on a monthly $1,200 Social Security disability check, that's not something she can afford.
It's also not clear whether Ramirez could sell before she falls behind in her monthly payments, because the cost of the repairs is making it next to impossible to attract buyers—a sort of Catch-22.
"I'm afraid the board of directors and the association will take away my condominium and I'll be homeless," she says. "Rents are very high."
As housing costs rise in Portland, renters typically look with envy at the secure lives of people who can afford a down payment on a condominium.
The price of condos can be extravagant: Last week, the all-timber high-rise Carbon12 on North Williams Avenue began offering units for nearly $1.5 million apiece.
But along the outer edges of the city, condos and townhouses—where owners pay homeowner association dues to maintain common property—can represent an affordable path to home ownership.
Condo ownership, however, carries risks of its own. An economic downturn can mean foreclosures. And when the market is hot, it creates incentives to improve condo developments like Westlake Village, which has offered its residents a toehold in Portland. But at Westlake Village, a small group of homeowners forming the association's board makes decisions about upkeep and so is forcing payments that the poorest owners can ill afford.
It's a new version of "economic eviction": one that hits homeowners, not just renters.
"We paid the mortgage, and we felt very secure," says Elos Cutter, 43, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has lived with his now-73-year-old mother at Westlake Village for 12 years. "The realization that that's not true hit hard. You feel like it can be taken away so easily."
"I had a mini-nervous breakdown watching that happen," says condo owner Barbara Guardino, 65, for whom the new payments would mean never being able to retire from her two part-time jobs. "I remember they tackled him to the ground. I started screaming, 'What are you doing? What are you'd doing? It's only a bunch of buildings!'"
The trouble started in June, with a letter from the condo association to owners. It announced a special assessment, and offered the option of a $6.4 million loan rather than charging condo owners their full share for the repairs immediately. The association described plans to redo the siding and insulation on buildings, and replace windows and doors as well as balconies.
That burden is felt unequally by the condo owners. More than 80 owners at Westlake Village don't live there and rent out their units as an investment or provide them for relatives. But for many of the residents—retirees, people with disabilities, or those barely scraping by—the cost of repairs may be too much to bear.
Members of the condo association's board are elected at annual meetings for terms of two years. It has the authority to make decisions about repairs without the support of a majority of homeowners.
The board argues the changes are necessary, that past plans to gradually maintain and repair the property were inadequate, and that the costs of the project will simply increase if it's delayed.
"All this board did was looking to the best financial way to finance this project," says board chairman Tony DuVoix.
DuVoix referred other questions to the board's attorney, who declined to answer WW's questions about of the impact of the repairs on lower-income neighbors.
Homeowners who have banded together as Save Westlake Village want to challenge the special assessment partly on technical grounds, saying the project constitutes an upgrade as opposed to repairs. In that case, a majority of owners would need to approve it.
Opponents count 84 votes from a close but failed effort to unseat the board, and they're trying again. They say they know repairs need to be made, but they question the scope of the project. There's been no independent assessment the work is necessary, they say.
Neighbors who can afford the improvements fear the renovations will continue with no end in sight. The current plan doesn't address other problems, including lead that's been found in the water. Others worry that if some owners can't pay, it will increase costs for those who can.
"If they cannot make their payment, my payment will go up and up and up," says Tatiana L., who has lived in Westlake Village for six years. "I have the potential of losing my property."
Westlake Village residents say they are shocked by the callousness of their neighbors—people who lived next door for years but are now prepared to toss them out. They say the condo association has ignored their pleas for answers at multiple meetings.
"You ask them a serious legitimate question that is relevant to the situation, it's ignored," says resident Sergey Lazarev, 42, speaking in Russian through a translator. "They're ready to discuss questions about landscaping and the duck pond, like how many ducks do we have? They can go for hours talking about that. I'm in complete disbelief this is happening."