Illustration by Sarah Mirk

JOE PIERCE, a 58-year-old resident at the Biltmore Hotel, says he shaves his head to keep bedbugs from nesting in his hair and burrowing under his skin.

The Biltmore, at NW 6th and Everett in Old Town, is run by Central City Concern (CCC), a large and respected nonprofit that offers housing and social services to those in the city unable to support themselves. But some tenants at the Biltmore, one of 20 properties CCC owns, have lately taken to calling the nonprofit "Central City Unconcern."

Biltmore tenants are organizing a union in association with the Tenant Rights Project—an initiative of Portland State University's Progressive Student Union—in reaction to alleged chronic issues with pest infestations, drug dealing and prostitution inside the building, and CCC's alleged callous response.

At two recent meetings in the lobby of the Biltmore, four tenants told the Mercury that the building has a serious problem with cockroaches and bedbugs. They say that CCC has been slow to respond and its efforts to spray for insects have been utterly inept, even claiming that one exterminator was shooting up on the job and lost the building's master key.

 "You'd rather live underneath the bridge," says Dennis Priebe, a 58-year-old resident who's lived at the Biltmore for the better part of a year. He says he's thrown out many of his possessions because they were crawling with insects.

Anthony Anderson, a 45-year-old tenant, says he has taken to sleeping with the lights on so cockroaches won't crawl over him in the dark.

"You start scratching or jumping around even when you're not sure it's there," he says, as cockroaches scuttle around his shoes.

There is currently a complaint filed with the city's Bureau of Development Services about the bugs, but they're not the only concern. Tenants also allege that drug dealers and prostitutes regularly operate in the Biltmore, and violence sometimes erupts in the building as a result.

"There are predators in this building," says Anderson.

The four tenants interviewed claim a man was thrown three stories to the ground after a drug deal went bad about two years ago. Two tenants told the Mercury they have been physically threatened by other tenants for complaining about crime to management.

Ron Peterson, a 48-year-old resident, says there have been times when he has feared for his physical safety.

Portland Police Bureau records show there were 18 incidents at the Biltmore in 2008. The Housing Authority of Portland declined a request for complaint records, citing a law that protects tenants' privacy.

Leslie Foren, the director of operations for Elders in Action, says issues raised at the Biltmore are typical with low-income housing, and her organization receives similar complaints frequently. But according to Priebe, getting a response is difficult.

"You almost got to walk up and kick them in the balls to get them to do anything," says Priebe. "We're all interchangeable."

"I'm taking this very seriously," says Ed Blackburn, CCC's executive director. Blackburn explains that the Biltmore is an extremely difficult property to run and houses tenants who wouldn't be taken in anywhere else. He adds that CCC errs on the side of keeping tenants in the building, even when they may have hygiene problems, since booting them may make them homeless.

"I'm not going to say that we've never had drug dealing in one of our buildings," says Blackburn. He also admits that CCC has gotten behind in dealing with bug infestations. Blackburn says that building staffers deal with most problems, and very few have escalated to the point where he deals with them.

Blackburn also adds that CCC has started having quarterly meetings with tenants to address their concerns. Blackburn stresses that most tenants living in the Biltmore are good people and worries they'll be stigmatized by the actions of a few troublemakers.

CCC doesn't allow its tenants or the public to attend its board meetings—even though it received over $10 million in government grants in the 2006 fiscal year, according to its most recent set of publicly available tax documents.

Last Wednesday, March 25, the tenants took their concerns before city council. In response, Housing Commissioner Nick Fish promised to address code and safety issues at the Biltmore, offered bug inspections by the Bureau of Development Services, and encouraged tenants to continue raising their grievances.

"I appreciate the issues being brought forward," said Fish. "We take your concerns very seriously."