IN JUNE, the rumors began wafting through the Stewart Apartments like the cigarette smoke that often clouds its halls.
The 55-unit building’s long-time manager had passed away on May 28. If no one stepped in to replace him, 66 residents would soon be looking for a place to live—with little hope of finding a suitable spot.
The first rumblings of a looming mass eviction came not long after apartment manager Mike Narver’s death. But by August 11—20 days before Narver’s lease to run the building was set to expire—no one was any clearer on their future.
“It’s so back and forth,” said Eddie Grant, a 62-year old resident who clerks the Stewart’s front desk, as he emptied a garbage bin in the building’s lobby last week. “Now I heard we might be out at by the end of the month, or next week.”
Marge Appling, a 20-year resident and the building’s on-site manager, had heard different. “I was told we had an extra six months, but it could be tomorrow for all we know,” she told the Mercury. “They’re not keeping us very well informed.”
In fact, no one knows what will become of the Stewart, a decrepit and dingy two-story warren above Mary’s Club, where a single room with a shared bathroom will run you between $560 and $600 a month. The building’s co-owner, Leon Drennan, says the apartments are in disrepair—an opinion backed up by city officials—and that everyone will have to leave if a new manager isn’t secured.
Meanwhile, the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) is scrambling to identify an organization qualified to step in and take over so that dozens of poor Portlanders don’t suddenly find themselves homeless in a city where rents are rising by the day. As of Monday, bureau Director Kurt Creager wouldn’t comment on possible leads.
“I think every option needs to be on the table,” Creager said in a separate interview last week. “The short-term interest is to stabilize the situation for the tenants.”
Drennan doesn’t appear optimistic.
“The ideal solution, of course, would be for a new entity to operate the apartments,” he wrote in an email. “Whether that can occur by August 31 is wishful thinking, at this point.”
If the Stewart’s cheap units do go away, it will be the latest development in one of Portland’s persistent trends.
In 2002, the central city was home to nearly 2,900 units of housing considered “market affordable” to households earning less than 60 percent of the area’s median income. In other words, they were affordable even without government subsidies or policies artificially lowering rents. By 2016, that number had dwindled to just 156, according to the PHB [PDF].
The trend flies in the face of a “no net loss” policy that directed Portland officials to preserve affordable housing in the city’s core—a policy Creager says he’ll uphold.
“Previous directors didn’t feel like they were empowered or resourced to deal with [the policy],” Creager says. In light of the city’s housing crisis, he says, “We have a mandate from [city] council and we have resources available.”
Officials are so adamant about keeping “low-barrier” housing options like the Stewart that last year the city struck a deal to purchase the Joyce Hotel, a flophouse at Southwest 11th and Stark, for $4.2 million.
But Narver’s death presents a hurdle to maintaining these kinds of resources. During decades of management that included battles with city code enforcers, Narver oversaw low-income apartments not only at the Stewart, but at two other nearby buildings: the Westwind and Home apartments.
Each of the three buildings house tenants that include people of limited means whose disabilities or other struggles have put other living options out of reach. And it appears the fate of the Westwind, which Narver owned, might also be in jeopardy.
Creager says he’s heard “entirely secondhand” that tenants could soon be evicted from the building, which sits at the intersection of Northwest Everett and 6th. Word has spread among local social workers that such an eviction is imminent.
But it’s tough to piece together exactly what’s going on. Rich Carlson, the Lake Oswego-based attorney for Narver’s business, didn’t return calls or emails from the Mercury. When finally reached by phone, he said he didn’t have permission to discuss the situation.
To be clear, it’s not that buildings like the Stewart or Westwind are particularly nice places to live. An afternoon visit to the Stewart’s hazy second-floor lobby turned up plenty of residents who offer a conflicted stance.
The building can be a chaotic mess, they say—just look to a March incident when a resident set fire to his closet, causing damage that’s being partly blamed for the upcoming closure of Tugboat Brewing on the building’s ground floor. But it’s also their chaos.
“It’s pretty run-down,” says 36-year-old resident Bryan Cole, who, moments later, adds, “I met some pretty cool people there.” Cole was homeless before landing a spot at the Stewart in 2015. He was attending one of the building’s twice-monthly Bible studies in 2015, he says, when he was offered an opportunity to move in.
And despite his qualms with building upkeep, Cole counts himself lucky. Not long ago, he says, building management said it was going to update plumbing in some rooms, but wound up tearing their sinks out. Cole’s room, at least, still has running water.
In fact, pretty much everyone you talk to at the Stewart offers some take on the building’s decrepitude.
Grant, the desk clerk, says the place would be strewn with trash without the intervention of on-site staff. People casually mention residents stealing communal garbage cans. Both Cole and Appling say Narver neglected the place.
“He was here for the money,” Appling says.
The building’s poor condition is reflected in a flood of code violations turned up by city inspectors in July. Among 21 individual violations listed in a July 26 letter [PDF] are details of unapproved electrical wiring, excessive use of extension cords, evidence of a cockroach infestation in the building’s common areas, and a lack of bathroom ventilation resulting in mold.
Drennan, the building owner, says the violations point to a “habitual 30-year refusal to protect our investment,” on Narver’s part. (Carlson, Narver’s attorney, didn’t offer a response to that accusation.)
“We are presuming all 55 units will need to be completely rewired, and that most water and sewer lines are in need of replacement or repair, given the age of the building,” says Drennan, who estimates renovations will cost a minimum of $250,000.
The neglect was bad enough, says Drennan, that he decided last year not to renew Narver’s lease to operate the apartments. But in light of the man’s death and the impending mass eviction, Drennan has since offered Narver’s family a three-month extension.
“Anyone on the premises after the [lease’s] expiry date will become guilty of trespassing and subject to arrest: not at all our desire,” Drennan writes.
There’s another reason why the landlord might want to keep tenants around. In February, the city passed a new law mandating relocation payments for renters who are issued no-cause evictions. Creager says that law will apply to each of the Stewart’s 55 units if people are forced out.
Stewart residents are aware of the law, but no one seems sure what payments could be. Grant heard a figure in the $50,000 range. Cole says he heard $4,500 was realistic.
Neither is correct. The Stewart rents out single room occupancy units, which under the relocation payment ordinance require a payment of $2,900 per unit.
That’s enough for more than five months’ rent at the Stewart. But of course, if the money comes, the Stewart won’t be there to accept it.
“I think most of us are in panic,” says Angela Crisman, a resident who says some of her health problems have re-emerged since she learned of a possible eviction. “It’s stressing me out. It’s bothering me.”