Artists Feel Chill at Milepost 5, an Affordable Housing Complex in East Portland

Tenants have demanded changes after saying the new owner, Community Development Partners, has caused conditions to deteriorate.

One of Portland’s oldest “grandfathered” walls is Lewis Harris’ 1984 mural on Northeast 17th Avenue at Alberta Street. (Christine Dong)

When Robert Brown moved into his newly renovated unit at Milepost 5 earlier this fall, there was just one problem.

The small window for his single-room occupancy room was open—and painted to stay that way, he says.

He let management know, he says, but it wasn't fixed. Still that didn't pose much of a problem until this recent cold spell, with heat in the building on the fritz.

Brown, 25, has lived for a few years in the East Portland affordable housing complex for artists, and he called the property manager over the weekend before Thanksgiving when it got cold in his room.

The voicemail response from the on-site property manager questioned why he would wait so long to report and ended in a long sigh, according to the recording provided to WW.

But still, the window didn't fix itself. And on Monday of last week, he went in again to formally file a maintenance request, Brown tells WW. It still hadn't been fixed as of Sunday, Brown said.

"I thought about going to the warming shelter," he tells WW. (The city and Multnomah County opened the shelters on Wednesday and Thursday to help people living outside in the extreme weather.)

Milepost 5 (Credit Evan Wellington)

Instead, Brown stuffed his window with a pillow and towels and cut open a plastic bag to tape over the makeshift insulation. A neighbor lent him a space heater.

"I was just kind of shocked," says Brown. "We've grown accustomed to the landlord, but they knew the temperature was dropping below freezing and they knew there was a problem with the boiler and the radiator, and they just shrugged me off. It seems like a job that would take five minutes to do."

He says he decided not to attempt the repair job himself, for fear of what would happen if he made the situation worse.

A representative for the owner says problems will be addressed with individual tenants.

"We are responding to each individual's concerns, tenants should put in a maintenance request so management and ownership can track tenant complaints and resolutions," says Jessica Woodruff, CDP's development director.

CDP bought the complex with ideas of renovating the building and preserving it as an affordable housing complex. But what tenants say they've experienced doesn't exactly align with the lofty goals.

Last week, residents of Milepost 5, an affordable housing complex for artists, complained they have been suffering from heat outages. And that's just the latest in a string of problems at the complex as the property has changed ownership. The litany of outrages has turned Milepost 5 from an artists' oasis into the latest battleground between residents of affordable housing and their landlords.

Frustrations have sparked residents to form a tenants union and demand changes and compensation, specifically refunds of their rent checks for various problems.

Community Development Partners, an affordable housing developer that has owned the complex since last year, has already offered tenants in 27 of the apartments repayments, for failing to notify them before entering units as required under state housing law.

They're also offering all tenants compensation for janitorial, security and maintenance issues, after tenants demanded it. (In Oct. 8 email to one tenant, the management company initially said it would not provide it.)

The tenants union has rejected the provisions of the settlement agreement that require confidentiality—and that require them to waive their rights to pursue claims not specifically covered by the agreement, including future ones.

"We do not agree," reads a letter from the tenants union, to waive any claims except "pertaining to unlawful entry and reduced rental value" for September and October.

The management company disputes that their settlement was intended to preclude future complaints. "All of our settlements cover the matter addressed in the agreements," says Woodruff. "None of them, including this one, preclude bringing future claims that arise related to another matter."

In the case of heat, the complex's management company has blamed "someone in the building" for "tampering with the flow valves that control the boiler," according to a Nov. 22 letter to tenants.

Tenants are skeptical of the claim because the property manager has blamed tenants for problems in the past—and, according to Amber Cook, one of the tenants, the plumber fixing the heat in her apartment took responsibility, saying the problems stemmed from a previous project he'd worked on.

"This is the norm now," Cook says. "Things they send out are outrageous. Nothing is ever their fault."

(A Sept. 27 email to tenants, for example, had included the line, "You are all adults," urging tenants to clean up the place.)

Twice, a year apart, CDP insisted it would not need to provide relocation assistance as required under Portland's tenant laws when the rent is raised 10 percent or more or tenants are forced out through no fault of their own. The developer only backtracked after contacts from WW both times.

Other recent problems the property manager acknowledged include failure to have an operable phone number for tenants to call, and unprofessional communication with tenants.

(Representatives of Virdian didn't respond to requests for comment this afternoon.)

One resident says such treatment was the final straw. Evan Wellington, who has lived in the building for a decade, accidentally paid $5 less than required on his November rent.

"Things have gotten so unnecessarily unpleasant where it concerns the treatment of residents by Viridian Management and by extension CDP, that tenants, instead of encountering what should be polite and civil interactions, are instead met with unnecessary hostility tinged with austere and unnecessary legalese," he wrote in a Nov. 19 email testimony to the city's Rental Services Commission.

Instead of accepting his rent and alerting him to the oversight, a lawyer for the property manager threatened to return the check, with the implied threat that he'd be evicted over $5.

"I have been a resident of Milepost 5 for nine years and never felt the need to organize until last year when Community Development Partners (CDP) acquired the building," he also wrote in testimony.

"This is very disturbing behavior for any outfit that should be taking its obligations to OHCS as an affordable housing facility seriously," he added. "CDP and Viridian should not be unnecessarily scaring and intimidating the most vulnerable who would be greatly helped by being able to live in affordable housing comfortably and securely."

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