Five months ago, the landlord at a Southeast Portland apartment complex deployed an extraordinary tactic to try to dislodge low-income renters: offering them cash to leave.
Now the tenants who remain have voted to use a radical strategy to fight back: a rent strike, when they withhold monthly payments until the landlord meets their demands.
As many as 21 renters at the Holgate Manor complex have signed on to stop paying their landlord beginning Aug. 1, tenant leaders say. Another six are considering whether to join.
It's the largest and most significant rent strike in Portland in decades.
Organizers of the strike say the tenant protections passed by the City Council last year are inadequate and extreme measures are needed. Renters at Holgate Manor say they now live in a construction zone for the new, richer tenants the owner hopes to woo.
"I'm just so disgusted," says tenant Sara Brassfield, 35. "There's still cockroaches and rats. There's nails everywhere."
Gallatin Public Relations spokeswoman Jill Eiland, who is representing the landlord and property manager, said she could not respond to specific questions by press deadlines.
"The Princeton Property Management team remains focused on addressing the needs of its current residents and is dealing directly with each tenant as questions arise or requests are made," says Eiland. "Upgrades to the units that will benefit residents continue on schedule at Holgate Manor."
Holgate Manor, in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, was the first major complex in Portland to launch a buildingwide effort to push tenants to leave after the city instituted landmark tenant protections, which require landlords to pay tenants' moving costs under some circumstances ("Sold Out," WW, March 28, 2018).
The campaign started after a California investor bought the 82-unit complex in January from a local family who'd kept the rent low for decades. The apartment complex was filled with refugee families who'd fled war and religious persecution to live in Portland.
The investor, Fred Kleinbub, offered an incentive for tenants to get out while apartments were rehabbed: He'd give tenants up to $5,200 to leave. (His company didn't say that most of the payments would be required anyway in the event of no-cause evictions.) Kleinbub's property managers volunteered to pay tenants the money required by city rules, plus a bit more for moving out quickly.
The property manager followed up the carrot with a stick: a 9.9 percent rent increase.
Now 29 units are vacant, tenant advocates say.
Meanwhile, the occupied units are in a construction zone as the landlord overhauls old units. The construction feels like one more way the landlord is encouraging tenants to leave, say the tenants.
"We need rent abatement while this construction is going on," says Brassfield. "It's a very intentional play. They don't want us to live here."
Brassfield, who works as a Lyft driver, says her earnings have been cut in half because she can't sleep during the day due to construction noise and therefore can't work at night. "If I get four hours of sleep, I can't stay up late into the night without compromising my safety or the person I'm with."
On July 30, Portland Tenants United organized a vote among the remaining Holgate Manor tenants. It wanted enough tenants to sign on to make an economic impact on the landlord.
PTU says it got the votes of 21 of the remaining 53 households in the complex.
Brassfield voted July 30 to join the rent strike, and delivered a letter to the property manager July 31.
The strike hinges in part on another allegation of the tenants: that repairs haven't been made to the apartments where tenants are still living, despite repeated complaints.
The city's Bureau of Development Services backs up those tenants' claims. A letter from the bureau documents at least six fire, life or safety violations and seven health and sanitation problems, including exposed wiring and mold on windows.
"None of this is new to the landlord," says Portland Tenants United organizer Margot Black. "It's what New York landlords, like the president's son-in-law, do. They make life miserable and people move out." (She's referring to an investigation of Jared Kushner, who's accused of pushing rent-control tenants out of New York City buildings with construction noise.)
Landlord-tenant law in Oregon gives Holgate Manor residents a means to fight back.
It allows tenants to withhold rent when repairs aren't made. But that's a risky move in a state with few other protections for tenants—there's no ban on no-cause evictions, for example.
A handbook from the Legal Aid Society of Oregon says four times in all-capital letters: "YOU SHOULD NOT WITHHOLD RENT UNLESS ADVISED TO DO SO BY A LAW OFFICE!"
Legal Aid didn't respond to a request for comment. But PTU organizers say tenants aren't at risk of an eviction if they follow some carefully defined rules.
State law allows tenants to stop paying rent to a landlord if there are housing code violations in their apartment—as long as they are prepared to pay their monthly rent into a court account.
That happens, but rarely. Multnomah County counts eight such cases in the past two years.
But a buildingwide strike is virtually unheard of. Holgate Manor could exceed the number of recently recorded cases in just one building.
Longtime Portland tenant lawyer Craig Colby says the only local rent strike he's heard of dates from a 1988 appeals court case.
"The particular tenant withheld her rent because of a rental increase but didn't have claims against the landlord," he says. "She got evicted, and she owed attorney fees. I discourage people from withholding rent if they don't have habitability or other complaints against their landlord."
Vera Kozavich, 78, who receives a Section 8 housing voucher and plans to withhold her portion of the rent, says she was planning to move to a new apartment within the complex, but even an apartment with more recent renovations failed to pass the inspection required for Section 8 vouchers.
"I don't want my rent increased with such poor conditions," she says. "I want them to fix my apartment."