LOVENESS WESA stands in the living room of her small house, holding her nose and gesturing to the torn-out sheetrock and exposed wires that used to be a wall. The stench is unbearable.
"This is inhuman," says Wesa. "I feel disrespected."
Like many tenants in Portland, Zimbabwean immigrant and first-time renter Wesa learned the tough way that when things go rotten in a rental, help is hard to find.
Something started smelling a month ago in Wesa's one-bedroom house on NE 31st near Going, when some kind of animal—she suspects a rat—crawled through a hole in the roof and promptly died. Wesa opened all the windows, but four days later the home still reeked. So she called her landlord, John Hile, to come get rid of the thing.
According to Wesa, a handyman showed up a week later. She says he unplugged and moved her refrigerator, tore the sheetrock from the wall behind it, and then left, promising to return with another worker. That's the last Wesa saw of them. The food in her fridge has gone beyond rotten and that, along with the dead animal possibly still festering, fills the small home with a thick stench.
Wesa is an exuberant, fast-talking African dancer who rented the small house hoping it would be an easy place to stay while she transitioned through a divorce. But after a week of holing the kids up in the bedroom to escape the stink, Wesa had to ask her ex-husband to take care of the kids until the house was fixed. "Losing my kids like this is horrible," she says.
Under Oregon housing law, landlords have 30 days to make repairs, unless the situation "immediately threatens health and safety." In the meantime, renters are expected to still live in the home. That means enduring a bad situation or, as Wesa did, couch-surfing. By the last week in October, commuting to Gresham every night for a place to sleep and eating out at restaurants ruined her budget.
"Maybe the landlord thinks, 'This woman—she is no-thing, she can do nothing to me. This rent is just 700 bucks, maybe it is not worth it to repair,'" says Wesa.
Confronting a landlord requires navigating complex bureaucracy: Wesa called six places before learning that the first step should be to phone the city inspector. The inspector eventually found numerous violations in the little house and says landlord Hile agreed to fix the wall by Friday, October 24—but then he postponed the inspection indefinitely.
According to the city inspector, Hile claims the rat corpse has been removed. Hile, contacted by the Mercury, says he "does not talk to newspapers."