Occupying nearly a block along W Burnside at SW 4th, the Grove Hotel is a crumbling reminder of a bygone era in Old Town's history—a building that, despite its size, has flown under the city's radar for decades as a place where the rooms come cheap and no questions are asked.
Currently, it's home to dozens of tenants, paying $550 a month for a single room—most of that money comes from Social Security or public assistance. It's also home to mice, cockroaches, crumbling walls, piles of trash, broken plumbing, alleged criminal conduct, and numerous fire, health, and safety code violations. Months ago, it became the fifth target of an ad hoc taskforce set up by Commissioner Randy Leonard, consisting of police, fire, and building inspectors, which aims to reform buildings with egregious violations and criminal activity.
Building and fire inspectors began slapping the building's owner, Morris Hasson, with fines, and eventually began "orange tagging" rooms as soon as they became vacant, keeping them from being rented again until the building's problems were fixed. At last count, around 40 of the Grove's 70 rooms were tagged, and therefore vacant.
"With my time at the fire bureau, I thought I'd seen the worst of the worst," says Leonard. "But this was just amazing. And when you add up the numbers—$550 by 70 rooms—he was making $38,500 per month, and not putting a single cent into repairs. It's a situation you wouldn't even let an animal live in."
But here's the rub—city agencies are reluctant to shut down buildings like the Grove out of fear that they'll be pushing a vulnerable population onto the street.
Hasson, who couldn't be reached for comment, had a choice: Bring the building up to code, or sell it and get out of the flophouse business. He chose the latter, and as soon as the building went on the market, Leonard and Commissioner Erik Sten shot off a letter to the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP), asking them to make an offer, which the city would later reimburse.
HAP offered $1.8 million (the Grove's assessed market value was $1.08 million in 2006), and Hasson accepted. Within 60 days, the city, through the housing agency, could be the new landlords of the Grove Hotel.
"There was no effort on my part to get [Hasson] to sell the building, but to bring it up to code so the people who live there can live in humane conditions," Leonard says.
It's an interesting, if expensive, solution to the problem—by buying the property, the city can make sure that it remains available to people who need very cheap housing. They'll only need to be relocated if, or when, the entire building is fumigated to kill off the bustling mouse population. Easing the fears of housing advocates, Leonard has pledged to put up money for rooms elsewhere—"even the Benson Hotel, if need be"—to make sure no one ends up on the street.
After the necessary repairs are made to make it livable, HAP plans to partner with a social service agency to staff the building and provide services to the tenants. For now, anyway. HAP Director Steve Rudman believes that in three to five years, the Grove will be redeveloped into "something else" that will be in line with the redevelopment of Old Town.
In the meantime, the Grove will get the facelift it needs, though the price tag on those repairs is still up in the air. One thing is certain; it's not going to be cheap.