AT PLAZA TOWNHOMES, a Section 8 housing complex in North Portland with a troubled history, both tenants and the manager are doing some dirty work: Last week, residents threatened with eviction called in upstart organizers from Portland Coalition Against Poverty (PCAP) to help them dig through dense housing code. Meanwhile, the manager has been digging through tenants' trash.
"This is a retributive eviction," says Patrick Lamson, a PCAP organizer who sat through four days of what he says were "hostile and antagonistic" meetings with the Plaza's site manager, Rachel Smith.
The problems began with a dispute between Smith and resident Ashley Price over the proper paperwork to report income, and spiraled into an eviction notice. Lamson says the dispute is just a pretext for Smith to force out a resident involved in the Plaza's tenants' union.
Meanwhile, Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) is also pursuing the eviction of another Plaza tenant organizer, Sylvia Evans.
"This manager started her onslaught on me a year ago," says Evans, who has received two eviction notices in 2008 for suspected unreported income and unauthorized guests.
At the heart of the conflict is the complicated relationship between public housing residents and on-site managers. Managers are supposed to be the primary point of communication between tenants and HAP, but they are also tasked with doggedly pursuing lease violations, which often means poking into personal affairs.
Tenant-manager relationships at the Plaza have been turbulent in the past. After reports of poor air quality and poisonous mold at the complex surfaced in 2006, HAP, which owns Plaza Townhomes, tried to engage the angry residents in mediation but couldn't get tenants to come to the table.
"The quality of life at a place is dependent on the temperament and abilities of the on-site manager," says Ian Slingerland, director of the renters' rights group Community Alliance of Tenants. "How adept are they at responding to concerns and managing the personalities involved?"
According to residents threatened with eviction, Smith hasn't been managing their concerns well.
"This manager goes beyond harassment," says Plaza resident Terri Patterson. Patterson says site manager Smith swears at her frequently and says she once received five eviction notices in one day. Another time, Patterson says Smith threatened her with eviction for filing the wrong pet-owning paperwork after her dog died. Patterson received the most serious notice of potential eviction for having her husband live at her apartment without legal clearance. The evidence of her husband living there was a photocopy of a letter addressed to him at the Plaza. Patterson had put the letter in the garbage, where apparently Smith had found it.
Smith directed the Mercury to HAP Public Affairs Director Shelley Marchesi, who says Smith adamantly denies using profanity. She adds that other residents and Smith's supervisors at Cascade Management are happy with her performance.
"In this case we have a manager who doesn't look the other way," says Marchesi, who approves of Smith's persistent pursuit of potential lease violations. Since leaving trash outside the Plaza's trash compactor is a violation of the complex's rules, Marchesi says Smith is completely justified in looking through the bags and utilizing whatever she finds.