Through the "Eviction Mill"

Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Thacher Schmid
Portland Mercury

WHEN ELENORE WILLIAMS' family of seven moved into a new apartment in 2013 and found it infested with fleas, she says, management’s response was to give her a bottle of Hot Shot insect killer spray.

“The landlord did not make repairs,” Williams wrote in court documents. “[The] dishwasher hasn’t worked [in] over a year, my son caught a skin disease called PLEVA from the fleas biting him... Mold in [the] bathroom has not gotten done, which caused my son to [begin] taking a steroid inhaler.”

The squalid conditions didn’t matter when Williams’ landlord decided they wanted her out for nonpayment of rent. After vacating La Tourelle Village—her 80-unit East Portland apartment complex—on September 13, Williams’ family is now homeless. They’ve been sleeping in their car and crashing on a family member’s floor after money ran out for motel rooms. Williams says she’s afraid she’ll lose her job. (La Tourelle Village managers did not return the Mercury’s calls.)

It took less than a month—between the eviction case’s July 22 filing and August 16 resolution—for Williams’ family to find themselves homeless. Their case played out in a legal system that gets little scrutiny amid the city’s rent crisis: an evictions court that tenant attorneys and advocates call a streamlined, landlord-friendly “eviction mill.”

Williams plans to sue, but attorneys say she’ll have to follow the normal civil court process, which can take months or years. Landlords, meanwhile, can act with alarming speed. Advocates say a lack of tenant protections makes evictions court an uneven playing field for Oregon’s 1.4 million renters.

A new campaign hopes to change that.

On Thursday, September 22, the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) and others will launch Secure Homes for Oregon Families, a statewide campaign to add “just-cause” tenant protections and end a state ban on rent stabilization, which limits how much a landlord can raise rent. There will be a rally on the capitol steps that day. The Portland Tenants United (PTU) organized a similar rally of roughly 200 at Portland City Hall last Saturday.

And it’s not just activists calling for change. Key lawmakers including Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler have voiced support.

The flurry of activity, coming nearly a year after Portland City Council declared a housing “state of emergency,” amounts to the strongest momentum Portland’s seen for reforming the imbalanced relationship between renters and landlords.

For thousands of struggling renters in Portland and beyond, help can’t come soon enough.

“The way Oregon landlord-tenant law is written, it is heavily favorable to landlords,” CAT Interim Executive Director Katrina Holland says. “Even if you’ve paid rent on time. Somebody can just say, ‘Hmm, you don’t have a place to live anymore.’”

PROPERTY MANAGEMENT organizations argue that any solutions to the city’s housing crisis should be market-based. A spring 2016 apartment report released by landlord trade group Multifamily NW boasts that “Portland’s current development pipeline includes an impressive 21,600 proposed units.”

“More housing is the solution, and our priorities are to help increase supply and educate politicians on the fact that simply adding fees and making business harder has the reverse effect on the problem they want to solve,” Multifamily NW Executive Director Deborah Imse wrote in an email.

The regional housing crisis of the last year has brought a wave of new housing construction, along with tepid first steps into inclusionary zoning, a statewide rule requiring 90-day notices for rent increases after a year of tenancy and, in Portland, a 90-day notice requirement for no-cause evictions.

It’s also brought new homeless camps citywide, and unprecedented outcry over the camps along the Springwater Corridor.

Amid the chaos, so-called Forcible Entry and Detainer (FED) eviction courts—like the one in room 210 of the Multnomah County Courthouse—have escaped scrutiny. Yet advocates say the process for legally tossing people from their homes is contributing to the city’s woes, and that the impact is felt most keenly by low-income and minority renters.

“The [Oregon] landlord-tenant law requires a trial within two weeks of your appearance in eviction court,” says attorney Ann Witte, who has represented Portland-area tenants for 40 years. “It’s treated like... the biggest emergency. And that raises issues of due process of law.”

Witte isn’t the only one saying this.

“The landlord is given a very advantageous scenario—they get to have their case heard very quickly,” says attorney Peter Fels.

AT 9 AM on a recent Friday, landlords’ attorneys in room 210 start calling names.

“Is Dominique here? Phyllis? Michael? Gregory?”

Crickets. One third of renters on the docket do not appear, leaving an eviction on their record that can torpedo rental applications for years—particularly in a market that has among the lowest vacancy rates in the nation.

Those who do show listen to Judge Julia Philbrook’s admonishments to work out deals. Most go out to the hallway and confer with landlords’ attorneys in hushed tones, then return—some with red, teary eyes or dazed looks.

A landlords’ attorney returns at one point, sits, then wipes his pen with hand sanitizer.

It’s easy for a landlord to call a tenant before a judge in Oregon for a lease violation or nonpayment of rent. Only landlords can bring a case in FED court. (With no-cause evictions, landlords typically don’t even need to take tenants to court: They serve the notice, and the tenant moves out.)

Tenants frequently don’t show, and when they do, they often don’t have a lawyer, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond finds in his 2016 book, Evicted. The book argues evictions are a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

“Courts have shown little interest in addressing the fact that the majority of tenants facing eviction never show up,” Desmond writes. “The principle of due process has been replaced by mere process: pushing cases through. Tenant lawyers would change that.”

In Portland, neither the Legal Aid Society of Oregon nor St. Andrew Legal Clinic fights evictions as a regular service. Low-cost legal services like these are stretched so thin they can only help one in 10 who need it, Fels says. Tenants can contact CAT, if they even know about it. Fels, who has represented tenants in Oregon and Washington, says Clark County, Washington, outshines Multnomah in this area.

“The judge will say, for anybody who’s a low-income tenant, ‘You want to talk to a lawyer, [a] lawyer’s available,’” Fels says.

And advocates say Portland’s streamlined eviction court hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

“I find that most of my clients are poor, and not well educated, and far more likely to be nonwhite than the population would lead you to expect,” Witte says.

Recalling a Multnomah County judge who used the word “renters” as an epithet, and a Clackamas County judge who called her a “bottom feeder,” Witte says eviction court is so demarcated by class that winning can seem like a myth to renters.

“The idea of tenants really being able to win is still a dream, a hope,” she says.

Rachel McCarthy, a spokesperson for the Multnomah County Courts, emphasizes that evictions court prioritizes meeting statutory requirements and being fair. She notes the court is considering new assistance for tenants—an idea that echoes Wheeler’s proposal for an “Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs.”

“We recognize the importance of eviction cases and that many of the tenants appearing in FED court are unrepresented,” McCarthy wrote in an email. “We are looking at ways to assist people in better navigating the FED system, including having more orientation for the process.”

COURT DATA suggests something most people entrenched in the city’s rental crisis wouldn’t expect: It appears eviction numbers are actually down.

McCarthy shared court data (see graph, this page) showing a significant reduction in total Multnomah County evictions court cases over the last decade—from 7,603 in 2007 to 5,493 last year. Obtaining good data from before 2014 can be tricky, she notes, due to a former court computer system “which did not distinguish” between types of court judgments.

There’s a pronounced absence of substantive studies on local evictions, but one thing is clear: While cases going through the courthouse appear to have decreased, activists on the ground say they’re seeing a frenzy of eviction activity.

“The business of renting housing is kind of the Wild West,” says PTU member Gabriel Erbs. “Landlords don’t need permits to rent, so it makes tracking data very difficult.”

Erbs and the PTU asked Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury earlier this year to mandate that landlords file all eviction notices with the county, not just ones that go to court. County spokesman David Austin says the county’s charter doesn’t allow such a move.

Holland says CAT’s renter hotline is “swamped,” and the small nonprofit has struggled to keep up with demand.

Multifamily NW’s Imse, on the other hand, sees no evil. “In 2013 a Multnomah County report found very few no-cause evictions,” she said in an email.

Ironically, Imse’s assertion is drawn from a Multnomah County Health Department study that favors just-cause protections.

The paragraph Imse refers to reads: “Out of 2,166 evictions over a four-month period, 4.7 percent filed in Multnomah County courts were no-cause evictions. However, data collected from a recent survey by the local tenant advocacy organization, Community Alliance of Tenants, demonstrates that 89 percent of callers who received a no-cause eviction reported that they did not receive a FED notice, and 86 percent of those callers did not believe their no-cause eviction was justified.”

The Health Department study, while narrowly focused, echoes other research showing that renter displacement and homelessness have enormous societal costs. Not only that, Witte says, they burn a hole in the safety net.

“I just feel like [in] every one of my cases, we have people who are being assisted by other units of the community... that help people get the money together to move in, and offer classes on how to be a good tenant, and all of the nonprofit community working really hard on homelessness,” Witte says. “And then what does the court do? Not a thing. Evict. Evict.”

Imse says no cause evictions remain an important tool landlords need to protect renters from one another.

“‘No cause’ notices are a rarely used tool that function to protect the other (good) residents from crime, unruly neighbors, etc.,” Imse wrote. “In reality, ‘no cause’ notices don’t exist; there is always a cause. However, in the event of gang activity or other outrageous behavior that other residents would be unwilling to testify against, it is an important tool.”

CHARLES ORELLI is a Vietnam War veteran who has lived at the Unicorn Inn on SE 82nd for a decade. The Unicorn rents by the week, but Orelli says he pays monthly. Things were fine until he and landlord Mike Wang disagreed over repairing an air conditioner unit.

“I’m a hairy Italian guy, and I got to have air, because you can’t breathe in here,” says Orelli. “I woke up sweating on that pillow. [The landlord] got pissed off, next thing I know it was an eviction notice being handed to me.”

Court records show the case against Orelli was filed as a “10-day notice for a pet violation, a repeat violation with stated cause, or without stated cause in a week-to-week tenancy”—a catch-all category. It was dismissed without prejudice, perhaps due to Orelli’s “singing like a canary” to CAT.

Orelli says Wang then raised his rent from $822 to $888—the bulk of Orelli’s $1,072 monthly Army pension.

“I have nine grandkids,” says Orelli, 59. “I can’t even give them a Snickers.”

Wang says Orelli’s account is fiction, that he’s bent over backwards to help the man, and that the rent increase had nothing to do with the air conditioner.

“I would say one rent increase in almost 10 years is very generous,” Wang adds.

Wang says he doesn’t want to see people homeless, but due to his own health issues and Orelli’s lack of cooperation, Wang “didn’t want to leave my brother dealing with somebody like this.”

Wang says Orelli’s account is fiction, that he’s bent over backwards to help the man, and that the rent increase had nothing to do with the air conditioner.

“I would say one rent increase in almost 10 years is very generous,” Wang adds.

Wang says he doesn’t want to see people homeless, but due to his own health issues and Orelli’s lack of cooperation, Wang “didn’t want to leave my brother dealing with somebody like this.”

“The fact that [Orelli’s] talked to you, it’s given me something to think about,” Wang said.

Another recent case shows just how complex landlord-tenant conflicts can get.

Concordia University student Tyler Gadd says he lost his $750-per-month room in North Portland after receiving a 90-day no-cause notice—followed three days later by a restraining order from his landlord, Clester Johnson.

Gadd, who called CAT, says he’s now “about to be homeless” and that the restraining order was a trick to get him out of his home.

Reached by phone, Johnson declined comment.

“He’s on a restraining order for a senior citizen, so you can stop talking and hang up,” she said, hanging up herself.

Gadd insists the restraining order’s allegations are totally fabricated. A court description filled out by Johnson or her advocate says, “[Gadd] walked up to my chair with both of his middle fingers saying touch me bitch and I will poke your fucking eyes. ... He is constantly calling me bitches, whores.”

“It’s crazy,” Gadd says. “I didn’t do any of this.”

It’s hard to know what to believe, but attorneys say landlords have been known to use restraining orders to speed evictions. Witte says she’s seeing more restraining orders used to circumvent the city’s new 90-day no-cause notice rule, passed last October.

“We are seeing an increase in the use and abuse of all kinds of restraining orders in landlord-tenant cases” in recent months, she says.

A locally distributed 1999 reference book, Landlord and Tenant Law, by Portland attorney Craig Colby, states that “obviously, these restraining order statutes offer a major opportunity for abuse.” Colby says he added a line in 2014 indicating “the problem seems to have gone away.”

“It’s interesting to hear that maybe it’s coming back,” Colby now says.

Gadd says he decided to vacate after an attorney quoted him $3,000 to fight the restraining order. “My friends said, ‘Dude, don’t even bother.’”

Sheriff’s deputies showed up to evict Gadd, he says, looking “super pissed.” Court staff said the restraining order was never served.

IN A WATERSHED moment in the battle for tenants’ rights, House Speaker Tina Kotek spoke forcefully in a September 12 address that assailed “developers and property owners [who] are excessively benefitting from this crisis.”

“Our housing crisis is a man-made emergency that demands bold action,” Kotek said at Oregon Opportunity Network’s annual dinner, parroting an argument CAT and the PTU had made for a year. “We need to reset the scales and pass policies that will help prevent homelessness, protect tenants, preserve the affordable housing we have, and increase the housing stock going forward.”

Mayor-elect Wheeler supports a just-cause eviction standard modeled after Seattle’s, says spokesperson Michael Cox.

“Ending no-cause evictions is part of the puzzle,” Cox says. “The other is doing something for renters receiving significant rent increases, which effectively serve as an eviction notice for those who can’t afford the rent increase.”

Advocates for change expect significant opposition at both the city and state level from landlord lobbies, which say new laws hamstring market forces and hurt landlords by allowing bad tenants to remain.

Advocates say “just-cause” measures still give landlords plenty of leverage to evict. Under Seattle’s ordinance, for example, landlords have 18 reasons to evict tenants including nonpayment, damages, and criminal acts.

Kotek, Wheeler, Holland, and a growing chorus of voices say something similar, tailored to Oregon’s needs, is fair.

“We must be uncomfortable and be willing to take on these big fights,” Kotek said, “because we want Oregon to be a place where everyone can succeed.”

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