Leaking roofs. Busted doors and windows. Meth labs next door. Welcome to Portland's new slum -- the no-tell motel.

Denise Muggli knows a dump when she sees one.

She grew up in campgrounds and trailer parks, picking fruit with family in the fields and orchards of Oregon and Washington.

Muggli, 46, has lived in some of the most abysmal habitats in America. She thought she'd seen the worst. Then, in late December, she landed at the All States Motel at 11814 NE Sandy Blvd. Now that was a dump.

Sitting in the sun on a crumbling front stoop she's adorned with store-bought flowers, Muggli surveys the motel complex where she and some 60 to 70 others live.

Muggli lives with her boyfriend, Carey Trabue, in a unit where the door and windows can't be properly secured, because they're so old and because they've been forced open more than once. The roof leaks when it rains, causing damage that she and Trabue finally repaired themselves. The air in the dimly lit unit is stale, so on days like this you'll find her outside.

The rutted dirt driveway that runs past her unit is speckled with broken glass, bolts, screws and other shiny bits of jagged metal. "There's something foul underneath that dirt," she says. "I can smell it."

Some of the units at All States have roofs that come complete with a garden--of moss, several inches thick in some spots. The landlord, Georgia Hoffman, has draped plastic sheets over many of the roofs--her answer to tenants' complaints about water pouring in. There aren't any gutters or downspouts to redirect the water, either.

At other units, doors sag on their hinges, windows are either cracked or boarded up, and the stench of feces and urine wafts past. Rusted-out and busted-up autos and piles of unidentifiable junk complete the external environment of All States Motel.

Muggli gets up and walks inside. She ducks to avoid strangling herself on her clothesline, strung through the unit and peppered with socks, mostly, and other well-used garments. She's trying to dry them after rinsing them out in the sink, which has little water pressure. She has a refrigerator, for which she is grateful. It was a huge selling point for plunking down $139 for a week at All States. She cooks in an electric wok.

She sits, shakes her head. "This has got to be the worst motel in Portland," Muggli says with disgust.

Oddly enough, Muggli's landlord agrees.

"All States is the worst motel around," owner Hoffman readily admitted to WW. "I know I should just tear it down, and I will eventually. But I just can't bring myself to do it until there's a place for all those people to go. I don't know where else they can afford to live if I throw them out."

Besides, Hoffman and her husband, Jack, are collecting, by WW's estimate, $150,000 a year in rental revenue from the tenants at All States. And it has undoubtedly helped them maintain their own residence, a home on Goodtime Road in Molalla that, according to the Clackamas County assessor's office, has a market value of $690,379.

Big cities like Portland all have slums and probably always will. But in the past few years, a disturbing trend has developed in Portland. Slum housing has been replaced by slum motels--establishments that attract the poorest of the poor because they demand neither a security deposit nor reference or credit checks. And because of a legal loophole and a city inspector's office that appears to be less than diligent, these motels operate almost outside the law. To make matters worse, some of them are subsidized with tax dollars.

With the jails full, the mental institutions shut down, shelters jammed and low-income housing in critically short supply in the city, these motels are the dumping grounds for the dregs of our society: drug addicts, sex offenders, drifters, prostitutes and hardened criminals. Toss into the mix the increasing number of families for whom the no-tell motel represents the only option short of a doorway, and these places become "the breeding ground for our next generation of criminals," says Cassandra Garrison, public policy director for the Oregon Food Bank, which includes motels in its hunger outreach work.

According to advocates for the working poor, there are approximately 50 hotels in the city of Portland that are functioning as apartments, and they house, on any given night, at least 2,000 people.

The All States and its peers are the motels that were built decades ago, before the highway they fronted became a byway, no longer used by the tourists and business travelers. They tend to cluster together in pockets. You'll find them along Sandy Boulevard, up on Interstate, along McLoughlin Boulevard between Oregon City and Milwaukie, out on Powell Boulevard east of 39th Avenue, and all along 82nd Avenue. They have names from another era: the Siesta, Carolina, the Nordic, the Unicorn Inn, Del Rancho and Golden Knights.

The original owners of the motels have long since moved on. The new owners, many of whom are recent immigrants, have found new uses for the rooms, "repurposing" the aging properties to house people who've been dealt the nightmare version of the American dream. They were not constructed as housing for the working poor. Most do not meet the basic expectations of permanent housing, although they are supposed to meet the same building standards as apartment buildings, according to Portland city code. And few of them contain what one would expect in an apartment. For example, many of these rooms have no kitchen facilities.

The 250 square feet of living space typically offers a queen-sized bed, a few sticks of worn furniture, a shower and maybe a microwave. It comes with something else: a trademark stench of tobacco, sweat, mildew and industrial-strength cleaners.

Surprisingly, these motels aren't cheap, when you compare their charges with living in an apartment. Tenants pay anywhere from $139 a week at the All States to $330 a week elsewhere for the right to exist in these decaying dwellings. Classified ads in this newspaper, for example, list several apartments in desirable parts of town for less money on a monthly basis.

Tammy Speckman and her fiancé, Dion Little, lived in the Unicorn Motel on Southeast 82nd Avenue for two years with their two teenaged children. They paid $210 a week, or $840 a month, for the L-shaped unit. Little has a full-time job driving a truck that pays $9.50 an hour. It is barely a living wage, but it is enough to get them into a cheap apartment. Unfortunately, both he and Speckman have checkered pasts and poor credit, the sort of non-economic "barriers" that most landlords can use to disqualify them as renters.

These four people shared a tiny bathroom. Bedding for the family covered most of the room's floor space. They had no kitchenette or major appliances of any type. Last month, a Human Solutions caseworker was able to help the family find an apartment so they could leave the Unicorn. But such success stories are rare, according to housing advocates.

In some cases, tenants at these motels are without the protection of Oregon's landlord-tenant act. The act says that a landlord must give a renter 24 hours' written notice before entering the tenant's premises, that he cannot begin an eviction proceeding based upon unpaid rent until the rent is six days past due, and that he must then give a tenant 72 hours' notice of eviction in writing. The tenant can appeal the eviction in state court.

But only people who rent for more than 30 days consecutively enjoy the full protection of Oregon's landlord-tenant act. That's why a number of no-tell motels say they require tenants to move out of their units for one night after four weeks. They can return the following day.

This allows these motels to "avoid being covered by the state's landlord-tenant act," says lawyer Craig Colby, one of Portland's leading experts on the act. "It's easier to threaten people with a lockout if you're not covered by the act. Also, you can enter freely."

The manager of Your Host Motel on McLoughlin Road in Milwaukie Heights, who identified himself only as "Rod," was among those who told WW guests had to leave for a single night after 28 days. That policy protects both the owner and the other guests by making sure guests aren't covered by the landlord-tenant law, Rod says. "That way we can remove an undesirable guest without a hassle."

In Portland, inspections of living spaces are performed by the Neighborhood Inspections section of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. According to Mitch McKee, one of the office's 10 inspectors, the office never does routine inspections. All are complaint-driven.

As a consequence, substandard motels can often operate for years without notice of violation, as motel tenants, who may live in fear of being evicted and having their possessions confiscated or thrown away, are less likely to file complaints.

"People who live in motels are the most fearful [tenants] of all," says the Food Bank's Garrison. "If they complain and the landlord finds out, they're out on the street with no belongings in the blink of an eye."

When asked whether some motels have gone years between visits by an inspector, McKee responded, "It's very possible."

Even those motels that have been visited and cited don't feel a lot of pressure to fix obvious code violations.

The city of Portland has inspected All States Motel on several occasions and found it in violation of city code. In fact, as recently as April 2003, inspector McKee filled 12 pages of his report citing hundreds of violations, included everything from broken windows and damaged downspouts to cockroach infestations, holes in the kitchen floor, leaky roofs and a toilet "not adequately secured to the floor."

Since 1994, the city has levied fines in excess of $70,961 against All States for failing to make the necessary repairs. "That's a big number," says city collections supervisor Frank DuFay. "They've never paid a dime."

Georgia Hoffman concedes that few of the violations have been fixed.

McKee says that the units would have to pose an immediate life-threatening condition for the city to take stronger measures, such as forcing the owner to move all the tenants out. He says he hasn't thought All States merited such an extreme step.

The city did tell the Hoffmans after its last inspection that if any of their units were vacated, they could not be occupied again until the code violations were addressed. However, an inspection of Muggli's unit was done in the spring of 2003, at least eight months before she moved in. The violations cited in the report are still visible, yet there she is.

Hoffman says she doesn't want to spend any more money on repairs at All States because she plans to demolish all but a few of the 40 remaining units within the next six months. "My plan is to gradually move everyone out and tear it down."

Given the severe shortage of affordable housing, the no-tell motels fill a critical need for poor families in crisis. Even the most outspoken critics of the low-end motels wouldn't want to see them disappear overnight. While the Portland inspectors may be less than aggressive when it comes to monitoring motels, the social-service industry actively subsidizes a number of these establishments.

Approximately 40 agencies in Multnomah County are authorized to issue housing vouchers, a temporary subsidy issued to homeless people to tide them over until they find permanent housing. Each agency maintains a list of hotels, motels and shelters that are acceptable. The issuing agency pays the motel or hotel when it submits the voucher after it is used. While some no-tell motels, like All States, are not on the list, others, like the Viking and the Palms on North Interstate Avenue, are.

While the conditions of Portland's hotels may appear to be an intractable problem, some officials don't think so.

Mike Dixon runs the Lakewood, Wash., initiative called Clean and Safe Hotels and Motels. He was surprised that Portland hasn't formally addressed this problem. In Lakewood, slum motels motivated police and City Hall to pressure motel owners to clean up both their client base and their properties. The result has been a drastic reduction in crime in the city and a huge improvement in the condition of the motels. Dixon finds it hard to understand why Portland officials haven't flagged this as a top priority, especially with families now in the motel mix. "Our approach absolutely works, it absolutely reduces crime and makes families safer," he says. "Any city can follow this program, and in our experience, it does not put the motel owners out of business if they all come to the table."

The Food Bank's Garrison says Oregon's entire bureaucratic and political system has long turned a blind eye to the motel dweller's situation. Garrison challenges Portland housing and building inspectors to take on the motels instead of hiding behind the "complaint-response" system that triggers inspections.

With the number of families living in motels reaching record levels, efforts to make the city's motels safer may be gaining traction. A coalition of groups plans to survey the no-tell motels in May to arrive at an estimate of how many families are living in motels in Portland. City Commissioners Erik Sten, who oversees affordable-housing programs, and Randy Leonard, who oversees the building department, both expressed anger at the conditions WW identified in some of the city's motels and have vowed to improve conditions there.

Help can't arrive too soon for Denise Muggli and her fellow tenants at All States. If Georgia Hoffman made good on her threat to tear down the units there, Muggli and the rest would be hard-pressed to find another place to live. "I know we're poor and we've made some bad decisions along the way," Muggli says as she strolls past a unit shut down due to spilled methamphetamine ingredients within. "But we're still human. We shouldn't have to live this way. Not in America."

This story is a joint investigation by Northwest News Channel 8 and

Willamette Week


"Housing for the poor just doesn't pencil out," says Jean DeMaster, executive director of nonprofit Human Solutions. "There's a huge gap in housing for people who live at zero to 30 percent of median income."

Agencies that distribute taxpayer-funded vouchers so poor people can stay in motels try to "assess" the motels before sending families to them. But the assessment usually isn't more than a walk-through.

Average household income in the Portland area is up 42 percent since 1970. But housing costs have almost doubled since then, says a City Club of Portland report.

The number of households bringing in less than $12,300 (30 percent of Multnomah County's median income) increased from 44,655 in 1990 to 55,549 in 1999, the City Club reported. Then the recession hit.

Meth-lab operators prefer motels to almost any other location because of the anonymity of the motels, says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Meth labs seriously pollute the motel rooms and threaten the health of anyone in or around them.

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