On Monday, at least 21 residents of a Southeast Portland apartment complex pledged to withhold rent until their new landlord repaired their moldy, rodent-infested homes.
Now, Portland housing advocates and at least one state legislator have voiced their support of the Holgate Manor apartments rent strike, and are using the moment to demand local and state-level policy changes to improve tenant protections.
"Stop making excuses, stop dragging your heels," said Margot Black, spokesperson for Portland Tenants United (PTU), at a Wednesday press conference. "We demand you offer unqualified support to tenants, like those at Holgate Manor, until their landlord starts treating them like a community, not a commodity."
Holgate Manor residents aren't just protesting their poor living conditions. In April, Holgate residents learned that their apartment complex had been sold to a landlord named Fred Kleinbub, and new renovations would require all tenants relocate. Those who wanted to return would have to reapply through their new property management company, Princeton Property Management, and prove that they could pay hundreds more in rent. Holgate Manor residents—many of which have lived there for decades—were given $5,200 to move. Some renters took Princeton up on the offer. But 47 of the 82 apartments in the complex remain occupied, and many say the relocation money isn't enough to help them find a new home. Some elderly tenants fear a stressful move—especially one that tears them away from a community of support—could kill them.
In an April 2 press conference, Holgate Manor tenants asked Kleinbub for a moratorium on rent increases and the removal of "vermin, pests and mold." But, according to tenant Sara Brassfield, neither of those requests have been fulfilled. A city building inspection—which discovered several code violations—hasn’t prompted Kleinbub to improve the apartments, and tenant rents have since increased several hundred dollars. Kleinbub has not responded to any of their requests. Meanwhile, construction on Holgate Manor has begun.
"How is this legal? It's certainly not humane," Brassfield said at the press conference. "We refuse to pay while mold is making us sick. We refuse to pay as construction noise and debris turn our community into a war zone. We refuse to pay while Princeton continues to treat myself and my neighbors as a lesser class human being. We refuse to be put to the curb like an old couch."
Brassfield has joined at least 20 other tenants in vowing to withhold rent this month. Instead of paying Princeton, tenants have dropped their rent checks into an escrow account managed by a lawyer, to be used if a court case results in renters having to pay August rent. While she hopes this issue can be resolved outside of court, Brassfield said the city and Kleinbub have given Holgate Manor residents few other options.
"There's nowhere to go but eviction court at this point," Brassfield said. “They’ve pushed us to the edge.”
Housing advocates with PTU say these kind of issues could be avoided with an office of landlord-tenant affairs. Creating such an office was one of Mayor Ted Wheeler's campaign promises. While Wheeler has tacked on a "Renter Services Office" to the Portland Housing Bureau, it remains unstaffed, and relies on outside nonprofits to help connect tenants to legal aid.
At the moment, Black said, it is "literally no one's job to make sure landlords follow the law and are held accountable when they don't."
Oregon Representative Rob Nosse joined PTU’s press conference to support the tenant strike.
“I hope that the rent strike will force policymakers like myself to do the right thing and...pass laws so this stops happening to our community,” Nosse said. “We have the money to purchase these apartments from the owner...I hope we’ll figure out a way to do that.”
Cameron Herrington with Living Cully suggested the city establish a policy allowing tenants an opportunity to purchase their rental property before it’s put on the market. If a tenant can’t afford to buy the property, Herrington said they could ask advocacy groups like PTU or Living Cully for financial aid. While the change wouldn't help Holgate Manor tenants, it could keep future renters from having to relocate at their landlord's whim.
“The next one of these buildings [like Holgate Manor] is right around the corner,” Herrington said. “It’s time we call on city council to take action on this front.”