Attorneys for a Southeast Portland tenant won a $20 million award May 18 by arguing a jury should force a California-based landlord to keep its renters safe.
The city certainly hadn't.
In February 2016, Robert Trebelhorn fell through a concrete walkway at his apartment complex, tearing the meniscus in his knee. The wood holding up the concrete had rotted out, according to his lawsuit against companies connected to Los Angeles-based real estate investor Prime Group.
Records show a city building inspector had visited the apartment complex on Southeast Colt Drive eight months before Trebelhorn injured his knee. A tenant showed the inspector various problems at the 600-unit complex, called Wimbledon Square and Gardens.
'The city's Bureau of Development Services issued a letter listing seven violations, including a leaking roof and an instance of the company doing work without a required permit. But it didn't prevent the walkway collapse.
Even after BDS was alerted to the collapse in February 2016 after Trebelhorn's injury, officials recorded no follow-up actions. Instead, bureau files show they closed the case and reduced the fines from $1,414.60 to $480.
It wasn't until a year after the accident that BDS inspectors came back and started a wider review of the property.
The case points to an ongoing systemic breakdown in the bureau's ability to keep tenants safe.
BDS inspections have long been shrugged off by landlords, but this case offers an unprecedented look inside the city's inspection program. WW's review of three years of documents suggests the bureau charged with housing code inspections missed serious dangers, in part because the city's rules restrict what it can inspect and force landlords to fix.
City officials now concede BDS is running a deeply flawed inspection program.
More than two years ago, WW reported that property inspections by the bureau were based on renter complaints—a system prone to break down when tenants didn't know how the program worked or were afraid to speak up ("Power Goes Out. Rent Goes Up," WW, Dec. 2, 2015). Since then, the city has instituted an "enhanced inspections" program that triggers closer scrutiny when a large number of violations are found at a single property.
Now, after the massive legal judgment against Prime, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's office is calling for further reforms. (She has overseen BDS since January 2017.)
Eudaly's office is working to propose a mandatory inspections program for rental housing, a process that begins with a registration program for all landlords that is currently being rolled out, says chief of staff Marshall Runkel.
"Our office is still gathering information about the specifics of this case, but there is ample evidence that our rental inspection system is inadequate," says Runkel. "It's complaint-driven, so tenants who fear retaliation from their landlords and/or any interactions with authorities don't report problems."
Runkel referred questions about the 2015 inspection to BDS. "This case was closed before [Eudaly] took office," he says.
BDS officials blame a former employee for missing the walkway collapse.
"Unfortunately, our records indicate that an additional complaint was improperly handled in early 2016 by an employee who is no longer working with the city of Portland," says BDS spokesman Thomas Ngo. "While we're still looking into the timeline of events to see how this could be prevented in the future, property owners are ultimately responsible for maintaining safe structures that adhere to current building codes."
The lawsuit painted a portrait of a complex where wood holding up walkways was rotten. Lawyers also uncovered evidence that fire sprinklers had been painted over and smoke detector batteries were from the '90s.
According to testimony during the trial, an executive working for Prime Group, which, according to the lawsuit, is a $7 billion company that owns and manages 16,000 units, acknowledged the shabby conditions during his 2017 visit.
He joked, according to testimony by a maintenance staffer at the complex, "'Well, this place is so dilapidated we need to throw a match and burn it to the ground.'
"And he sees me and laughs and said, 'No, no, we'll make sure you still have a job, though,'" the maintenance worker testified.
A city inspector had visited eight months before the accident.
The inspector came to address problems at one apartment—including a deck where the ceiling was "compromised" by "leakage of storm water"—but also spotted other issues around the complex.
The ceiling of the deck "has also been spray-painted," the inspector's June 12, 2015, notes read. "I didn't understand why until I was taken outside and given a tour of other places where squiggly lines had also been sprayed in what looked like an attempt to mark which beams and supports needed to be replaced."
The city issued violation notices and fines. But after Trebelhorn was injured in the walkway collapse in February 2016, files show the Bureau of Development Services closed the case and reduced the fines.
BDS officials say previous policies limited inspectors to focusing only on what tenants complained about—and prevented them from inspecting some other problems. "This old practice prioritized tenant privacy," says Ngo.
Almost exactly a year after the walkway collapse, the city stepped up its actions—but only after a chance run-in Trebelhorn had with an acquaintance.
Jason Sharp, a Portland Fire & Rescue inspector, knew Trebelhorn, then the Cleveland High School baseball coach, from his kids' sports teams. He noticed Trebelhorn's limp from the injury.
Sharp later testified in the lawsuit that he had found unsafe conditions he'd never seen before in an occupied building.
Wood holding up a walkway at the Wimbledon apartments was so rotten and had become so soft it was possible to push a pen through it, Sharp testified under oath. (The Fire Bureau fined Prime $8,750.10.)
Sharp also called BDS back to the complex in February 2017 to look at the "worst conditions he has seen in his three years inspecting," according to notes in the bureau file.
Even then, the city didn't shut the complex down.
"The homeless problem is already bad enough in Portland; we don't want to displace more people," Sharp testified. "Shutting places down doesn't really fit with what's going on in the city right now."
In March 2017, the Bureau of Development Services cited Wimbledon for 212 violations, including exposed wiring, a leaking roof, and deteriorated structural supports for walkways and stairwells. On paper, Prime owes the city $28,989.94, but so far those fines have been waived because the landlord has made the repairs.
"If you're being fined thousands of dollars and you're making close to a million dollars a month in rent, it's not a very big deterrent —and especially if these fines are negotiable," says attorney Jason Kafoury, who represents Trebelhorn. "We need to, depending on the scale and wealth of the defendant, have a tiered fine system that will actually lead to change."