High rents push people out of East Multnomah County

"My wages haven't gone up like my rent has"

Ian Lenon gazes out into a parking lot off Northeast Burnside Road in Gresham. (Zane Sparling/Gresham Outlook)

GRESHAM, Ore. (GRESHAM OUTLOOK) — Ian Lenon describes his apartment building as simply “a multi-tiered shoebox.”

A flyer that was distributed at the Capitol by Portland Tenants United. (Paris Achen/ The Portland Tribune)

About 1,000 people live in the complex, divided into a dozen-plus buildings on a large lot near Gresham’s business district.

Fenced balconies square off above parking stalls and drive aisles. The off-gray exterior is made of concrete shingles. Each building eyes its twin.

“My wages haven’t gone up like my rent has,” says Lenon, who works in auto finance. “I hate renting.”

At his request, The Outlook is not naming Lenon’s specific landlord, though his story resonates across the hundreds of multi-family housing projects that crowd East Multnomah County.

The complex

The Dumpsters at Lenon’s complex reach capacity and trash piles up on the ground.

Homeless people and the elderly pick through for glass and plastic. Break-ins are not unheard of in the shared parking lot. Outside the complex, men and women spend the night in their cars.

Lenon, a single parent, has sole custody over his seven-year-old daughter. He’s too worried about the area to let her play outside without supervision.

“It’s hard on families,” he notes. “You worry about hanging a picture on the wall, because you didn’t fill the nail hole. You don’t have a sense of belonging when you’re renting. You’re borrowing.”

The 41-year-old articulates complaints familiar to many apartment dwellers. But the real problem is the money.

Rent for Lenon’s 900-square-foot, two-bedroom unit starts at $1,290 monthly. Water, sewage and waste pickup is another flat fee, about $70 a month.

Lenon and his daughter have two tabby cats, Midge and Mr. Magoo. Pet rent is $50 a month each. A private parking spot is another billed luxury, as is the garage he rents to store excess furniture and boxes of belongings. Lenon was given a no-cause eviction several years ago while living in Sandy, and now pays more money for less space. All told, he’s paying about $1,500 a month. In July, he’ll switch to a month-to-month rent as he mulls a possible move and new job in central Oregon.

In the meantime, his base rent will climb only $50, but the cost of the “add-ons” will almost double. Lenon expects to shell out roughly $1,850 a month until he fixes on a plan.

“I would like to have someone on my side for a change,” he says. “I can’t afford a lobbyist. They can.”

The Capitol

At the State Capitol, lawmakers and special interest groups are lining up to do battle on Lenon’s behalf.

At stake is House Bill 2004, the legislative vehicle for a variety of tenant protections, including a ban on no-cause evictions. Rent increases would be limited to once per year, and landlords with more than five tenants would be required to fork more than one month’s rent if an eviction is prompted by renovation, demolition or other new building uses.

The bill has roused strong arguments from both sides.

Sue O’Halloran, a well-known principal real estate broker in Gresham, says the measure, if passed, will decrease investment in rental properties statewide.

“Frankly, there are tenants who can be very disruptive and cause a lot of angst and anxiety, (but) don’t quite fit the measure of the for-cause (eviction),” she explains. “It’s hard to understand why there is not a more moderate approach being taken.”

Her comments were echoed by Rental Housing Alliance of Oregon President Ron Garcia, who says it is unfair to force landlords to pay moving costs for people who are evicted.

“That essentially subsidizes bad behavior from tenants that are creating instability in the neighborhood and should be removed,” Garcia testified in March.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, shepherded House Bill 2004 through the House of Representatives in April, though the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Committee members cut the bill in half in May, removing a controversial provision that would have allowed cities to create localized rent-control programs.

Even liberal enconomists view rent-control programs with skepticism.

“Rent stabilization programs alone cannot prevent undesirable social dynamics we are experiencing,” said Robin Hahnel, a retired American University economist who will teach at Willamette University in Salem. “They do not provide the long-run answer, because they do not increase the supply of new affordable units.”

But Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, said the current housing situation is broken. She glommed onto the bill early and is one of its chief sponsors.

“People are paying more than half — and over half — of their income on housing. That’s tough,” she argues. “It’s people like you and me that are being displaced, and they’re good people.”

A retired public health nurse, Monnes Anderson once lived in half of the Gresham duplex she now rents out.

Since purchasing the property in 1986, she’s used no-cause evictions twice, and once went through the court system to remove a tenant. She admits to preferring no-cause evictions to the court system. But that experience hasn’t swayed her mind.

In public testimony, landlords have offered up a litany of reasons to evict without cause: tenants who stole from communal laundry rooms, kept dogs that barked all night or dealt drugs out of their abode.

Alison McIntosh, a policy director for housing nonprofit Neighborhood Partnerships, says that list of causes can already be adjudicated by the court system. In her telling, the courts can order an eviction in 24 to 62 hours, or up to 10 days in most cases.

She doesn’t understand why a landlord would issue a no-cause eviction with a 30- or 60-day waiting period, especially if a tenant is truly that terrible.

Currently, House Bill 2004 is stuck in the Senate, where it lacks the 16 votes needed to send the bill to Gov. Kate Brown.

Home is home

How does Ian Lenon handle the property managers who can raise his rent or show him the door?

“I try to play dumb,” he explains. “You make them feel superior, like they’re doing you a favor.”

Lenon is full of stories to share during a two-hour meeting at a local coffee joint.

There’s the tenant who was evicted after the valve inside their toilet broke and the apartment flooded. The time five guys rented a one-bedroom unit.

It’s a large development, and someone’s always coming or going. Moving vans dominate the parking lot every weekend, though there are only about 30 spots available for guests.

Lenon remembers the time the battle for parking got so bad, one resident got down on the ground rather than give up an open space. The man remained on the pavement until police took him away.

Born in Gresham, Lenon’s parents still live in the Southeast Portland home where he was raised. He describes it as a modest middle-class upbringing.

In his 20s, he rented an apartment in Beaverton for about $700. When he was married, he owned his own home. A messy divorce wiped everything out.

In Sandy, he lived in a three-bedroom place with a two-car garage. There were lots of young kids around, and living on a dead-end street meant Lenon never worried about traffic.

Then a no-cause notice came, and he and most of his neighbors were evicted. Private owners bought the homes for about $144,000, then flipped them for roughly $220,000.

Though it’s still unfinalized, Lenon feels hopeful the move to Central Oregon will change things. The schools are better, he notes.

“My job is to provide my daughter with the best life possible. You keep your head down and keep focused, that’s what I’m going to do,” he says.

Still he’s sad to leave.

Home is home. Lenon just can’t afford it anymore.

The Gresham Outlook is a KOIN media partner.