Since the Howard family moved into a two-story house on NE Emerson Court in July, the cops estimate up to 16 of their neighbors on the small cul-de-sac have tried to move out. "They're holding the neighborhood hostage," says Northeast Precinct Commander Bret Smith.
Before sunrise on Wednesday morning, November 1, more than 30 cops from the northeast precinct surrounded the house to exercise a search warrant following a two-month investigation of neighbors' complaints, including allegations of drug use. Sergeant Stephanie Lourenco, who has headed up the investigation, has a photograph of a woman apparently smoking crack in a car in the driveway, and the cops say they found 17 people in the home when they came to call.
But there were no drugs—at least, not the quantity the police were expecting.
"They told us they knew we were coming," says Smith. "They cleaned everything out, is my guess." Nevertheless, Smith says officers from NE's Special Emergency Response Team found enough drug-related paraphernalia to "justify their presence."
Samuel Dowd Howard—who shares the $285,000 house with his wife, Elizabeth—has a history of controlled substance possession convictions dating back to 1986. According to Multnomah County court records, in 2000 he was sentenced to 25 months in jail for delivery of a controlled substance, and served a further week in jail in 2004 for violating his parole.
Based on neighbors' complaints, the cops believe he and his family may be involved in drug activity again.
Many neighbors are reluctant to speak about the Howards—citing fear of retaliation or a reluctance to get involved. But some did talk to the Mercury.
"I've lived there for 16 years," said one neighbor. "And since they moved in, everything went crazy. All the people in and out—it just runs 24 hours a day. It gets scary."
The police say neighbors have been barraged with loud music at all hours, and have seen multiple cars parked poorly outside the property. They have seen donuts performed in the cul-de-sac and watched drug exchanges happening in the driveway. Others allege that they've seen gang signs flashed back and forth between people visiting the house, and one neighbor says he witnessed a "near riot" a few weeks ago, with 25 teenagers and adults in the street at 3:30 in the morning, yelling profanities and throwing punches.
Since the Howards moved in, "the whole aura of the cul-de-sac is completely different," another neighbor said. "There's just a really bad feeling and everybody is scared."
Despite the cops' failure to find enough drugs in the house last week to file delivery of controlled substance charges, Commander Smith says he'll now be pushing the city attorney's office to close the house under the "chronic nuisance" legislation in Title 14 of the city's code and charter. Title 14 states that if the police have "probable cause that possession, manufacture, or delivery of a controlled substance" are occurring in a home, they can ask the mayor for permission to evict the occupants for up to a year.
City Attorney David Woboril—who got the mayor to agree to the closure of a nuisance house in NE Portland two years ago, after a long history of nuisance complaints—says it could take awhile to have a home declared a chronic nuisance.
"First, we need to establish that the property meets the criteria, then a judge has a range of remedies to choose from," he says—adding, "We do get worried when a house affects the resale value of neighboring houses, or when people have been driven out by a problem house."
Last Friday, the Mercury counted four homes with for sale signs on the cul-de-sac, and another house that directly backs against the Howard's, on NE 49th, is also for sale. Two more houses, one on NE Emerson Court and another on NE 49th, have sold since July.
It's unclear if the resale value of nearby homes has been impacted by any nuisance on NE Emerson Court: One house, which originally went on the market in May, has dropped in price from $324,000 to $289,000 since the Howards moved in. The other unsold houses have not dropped their prices. Meanwhile, the average house price in NE Emerson Court's zip code has gone up by $20,000 in that time, according to Portland's Regional Multiple Listings Service (RMLS).
Howard, 54, refutes the police's side of the story. He says he and his wife won $2.3 million in the Oregon State Lottery in October 2005, and bought the house with their winnings. "Why would I need to deal drugs?" he asks.
He says the multiple cars are parked outside "because I own seven cars and I don't always have somewhere to park them," and denies his family or visitors have waved gang signs about. He says no one has done drugs in the house, it's unlikely anybody would have smoked crack outside the house, and that he "would like to see the cops' photographs, if there are any."
Meanwhile, Howard's wife, Elizabeth, says the paraphernalia the police found belonged to her brother-in-law, whose laundry she does "to help him out."
The Howards have consulted a civil rights attorney, and say they intend to sue the police for harassment. Elizabeth Howard says there were not 17, but 22 people in the house on November 1, mainly her grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, who were there for a Halloween party.
"The police have the nerve to say those children are in danger," she says, "when they are the ones who smashed windows with their rubber bullets—they're lucky nobody got killed." The police have not commented on these allegations by press time.
The Howards say many of the other houses on the cul-de-sac were for sale before they moved in—and that some of their neighbors have even asked if they would like to buy their homes with some of their lottery winnings. (According to RMLS records, only one neighboring home was listed for sale when the family bought their house on NE Emerson Court. After the Howards moved in, four or five additional homes have been put on the market. But at least one neighbor who's selling her home says she's not moving because of the Howards.)
The Howards say they believe the police would not have used such excessive force in searching their home if the family was not African American. Sergeant Lourenco, however, says she arranged for a TriMet bus to park on the cul-de-sac to keep all the teenagers warm while the cops conducted their search, and that extra care was taken to ensure sensitivity to the family's needs.
Commander Smith says he'd encourage the Howards to speak to a civil rights attorney if they feel they are being harassed, but insists attention has been drawn to the house "because of the nature of the activity that has been going on there," and nothing else.