Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from Transition Projects Inc.

In 2020, the Argyle Gardens apartment complex was lauded as a model for transitional housing. The 72-unit building in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood, opened by Transition Projects Inc. (TPI), contains a mix of efficiency studios and single-room occupancy (SRO) units, all meant to house and support very low-income residents, and those moving out of homeless shelters. The site cost just under $12 million to build, almost entirely with public funding and tax credits.

Three years later, tenants report filthy conditions, assault, rampant theft, squatters, and unresponsive management that has led at least one resident to flee for safety, while others have gone back to homeless shelters.

Joel Leslie lives in one of the dozens of SROs at Argyle Gardens. Leslie’s 106-square-foot unit has no bathroom or kitchen. Instead, he and the five or six other residents on his floor share a common kitchen and two bathrooms. The building model was meant to provide affordability to tenants, many of whom are on fixed incomes, by dramatically reducing construction costs. It was pitched as a way to create community and allow for socialization among residents while giving them stable housing.

But some Argyle Gardens tenants say they’ve been victims of repeated theft and safety issues, while their shared kitchens and bathrooms are sometimes so filthy or neglected, they’re unusable.

On a morning in late July, dishes and cookware filled with discarded food lay piled in the sink of the only kitchen on Leslie’s floor. The sole refrigerator was filled with months-old, rotting food. A sign above the stove prohibits residents from using it to cook–though that rule has never been followed or enforced. The kitchen drawers are filled with bike parts, and one of Leslie’s neighbors is storing bike tires near the dining table. 

Leslie said he tried to keep food in the kitchen cupboards, only to have it stolen. He and a few other residents took to getting their own locks for the cabinets, but eventually those were cut and many of the cabinets now have no doors at all, leaving tenants with no secure way to store food.

In a different building onsite, the kitchen is in slightly better condition, except for the half dozen dead flies on the counter and overflowing trash cans.

Joel Leslie reviews his lease agreement from a shared kitchen at
Argyle Gardens apartments in North Portland. Leslie now avoids staying
at his own apartment due to habitability and safety issues. Courtney Vaughn

The kitchens and hallways are dotted with numerous signs reminding tenants to clean up after themselves, but that rarely happens. Conflicts over the common areas have led to fights. At one point, Leslie was attacked by a neighbor and had to get a restraining order against her.

Another tenant in an adjacent building reported fending off a neighbor wielding a baseball bat in the kitchen.

“It’s very stressful to try to live in that place,” Leslie said. “People are at each other’s throats, rather than community, which was what was promised.”

Leslie said the kitchen is one of a myriad of issues he’s asked the property management company, Quantum Residential about, to no avail. Emails from Leslie about overdue building maintenance and theft of personal items have gone repeatedly unanswered.

Quantum Residential did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Mercury.

In videos recorded by Argyle Gardens tenants, property managers have insisted it’s the tenants’ job to keep the kitchens and bathrooms clean. They include the same language in lease agreements. But for some of the residents, it’s been years since they lived indoors, or had to maintain any kind of premises.

Furthermore, TPI, which owns the apartment complex as a limited partnership and serves as the services provider, said Quantum Residential is supposed to provide regular janitorial services. Tenants say that hasn’t happened in more than six months. 

“As part of our role as the service provider, we’ve added two staff in the past 30 days to better support the residents and address behavioral issues,” RJ DeMello, a communications and community development manager for TPI, said back in early August. DeMello said buildings are “cleaned by janitorial staff twice per week.” DeMello also said locking cabinets would be added in the kitchen.

Two months after that email, none of that has happened.

Kitchens at Argyle Gardens apartments are shared among six tenants. 
Left: a refrigerator full of rotting food in the kitchen on Joel Leslie's floor in July.
Top right: a filthy stove and floor in Dan Hagan's building in July.
Bottom right: a pile of discarded clothing, food and trash near a sink in September.

Leslie said a maintenance worker, not a janitorial company, was eventually tasked with cleaning common areas. The fridge has since been cleared of rotting food, but kitchen drawers are still filled with bike parts, and piles of trash are still common. Leslie said the common areas rarely get cleaned on a regular basis, raising questions about whether the near-new complex is meeting its basic requirements for habitability. 

Many of the residents at Argyle Gardens have behavioral health or addiction issues. One of Leslie’s neighbors screams incessantly during sleeping hours. Others aren’t his neighbors at all. 

In a unit across the hall from Leslie’s apartment, two people come and go, but Leslie says neither is the person on the lease. A person named Alex who emerged from the apartment says the tenant who’s supposed to be living there is “gone for a while.” 

Each building requires a key fob for entry, but lately, the door to his building has been propped open by a garden hose and a CD jewel case wedged near the door jamb.

Leslie, 59, was among the first tenants to move into Argyle Gardens. He was offered a unit there while he was staying at a downtown sober living men’s shelter called Doreen’s Place. 

Leslie said he ended up in the shelter after he and his girlfriend split and he didn’t have enough money for his own place. “I never slept outside,” he said, noting he was lucky enough to find shelter at different places.

For a while, he had a job working security at the MODA Center, but was laid off during the pandemic and hasn’t worked since. He’s been living on a meager disability income after being struck by a car and injured a few years ago while crossing the road near Doreen’s Place.

He was excited at the prospect of getting his own place, especially for cheap. Leslie pays just $425 a month for his SRO unit. But many of the amenities promised for residents–a community room with computers, secure bike storage, a designated kitchen, socialization, and community– quickly evaporated or were never offered at all.

“I thought there would be 12-Step meetings in the lobby for residents or something,” Leslie noted. “Management talks a lot about ‘community’ spaces here. How am I supposed to have community with people who are so out of their minds, they're ripping up the wall?”

In recent months, Leslie has taken to staying with friends when he can, to avoid the chaos and tight quarters of his tiny apartment. 

“I felt safer when I was living at the shelter,” Leslie said.

On a weekday in July, Leslie stopped by to check his mail and pick up a large food delivery box. A flier in the hall noted a new resident services coordinator–the third since Leslie arrived in 2020. Resident services coordinators aren’t property managers, rather, social services coordinators hired by TPI to help connect residents with behavioral health resources, or other services that help ensure residents are likely to maintain stable housing.

The new coordinator, Nick Walker, informed Leslie he brought his food box from the main office to his front door, as a courtesy. Leslie thanked him. Fifteen minutes later, the box in front of Leslie’s apartment door was gone, likely stolen by someone on his floor.

Walker admitted there are challenges to coordinating services for residents at Argyle Gardens. He cited “communication” from management as the biggest hurdle he’s encountered.

“I’m used to opening up a folder and seeing everyone who lives here, but here, I didn’t get that,” Walker said.

Argyle Gardens is supposed to provide support services to its residents, but turnover in the resident services coordinator position has left many in the dark about where to turn. Leslie said when he briefed the previous service coordinator about persistent habitability issues at the complex, the coordinator recommended he consult an attorney.

At one point, Leslie turned to a tenants’ rights organization, but instead of forcing TPI and Quantum to fix some of the issues, they just paid Leslie’s rent for several months.

While some residents of Argyle Gardens say they’re content with their housing, others report issues similar to what Leslie has repeatedly brought up to management. 

Dan Hagan took to posting videos on YouTube, showing unkempt conditions, and his tense interactions with property managers when confronting them about unaddressed maintenance and cleaning.

Hagan also struggled to get help addressing bed bug outbreaks in his and neighboring units. Eventually, management hired a company to fix the issue, but like Leslie, Hagan said the shared kitchen and bathrooms on his floor never get cleaned.

“When we all signed our leases, they had a cleaning crew once a week,” Hagan said in July. “I’m paying rent and charged for services that aren’t being provided.”

At the time, Hagan wasn’t paying rent. He started withholding rent while documenting repeated bed bug infestations and other habitability issues. Court records show he was given eviction notices back in February and March. 

Hagan filed his own small claims suit against Quantum Residential, but has since been evicted. Management cited an incident back in January, in which Hagan got into a fight with a neighbor, as cause for booting Hagan. Hagan claims the fight ensued after a neighbor came into the kitchen while he was cooking, swinging a bat at him. Before moving into Argyle Gardens, Hagan was convicted of attempted assault and sentenced to probation. He says the conviction affected his ability to find housing.

Quantum Residential paid $2,900 to Hagan for him to move out, court records show. His small claims case remains open.

“It’s basically just a free-for-all out here,” Hagan said of the property. He and at least one other neighbor are now back to living in a shelter.

Current and former residents who spoke to the Mercury suspect many tenants at Argyle Gardens aren’t likely to complain or confront their landlords, for fear of eviction or because they’ve got other issues. Others, like Leslie and Hagan, say that’s what makes the place ripe for abuse.

The city’s Bureau of Development Services has at least one open complaint about Argyle Gardens, but not even a city inspector can get the property’s management company or its owner to answer the phone.  

“I have tried calling everybody in Transition Projects,” Jeff Brown, a housing inspector with the city, told Leslie in a voicemail message last month. “I have tried the management company and they’re all dead ends. It’s just unbelievable.”

In a follow-up response, TPI refuted some of the Mercury's reporting, noting the code enforcement complaint has been resolved. Still, the bed bug issue persists.

TPI said it's an issue the company is "actively addressing."

Public funding, praise ushered in Argyle Gardens

With the help of public funding and housing tax credits, Argyle Gardens was built using a co-living design that was praised as being sustainable and easy to replicate. Metro kicked in $340,000 toward the project, calling it a “highly adaptable modular approach to design.”

At the time, Metro Councilor Sam Chase called the project “remarkable” for its low cost and high number of units. 

“That’s something that’s very important for us to do as we try to really maximize the efficiency of our tax dollars that are going into housing projects,” Chase said in a 2020 announcement about Metro’s funding of the project.

In addition to the money kicked in by Metro, the deeply affordable housing complex- dubbed Low Income Single Adult Housing (LISAH) was paid for with roughly $1.4 million in public funding, the bulk of which came from Oregon Housing & Community Services (OHCS). Aside from a $726,000 loan, TPI relied on about $9 million in OHCS low income tax credits and a combination of other tax credits. TPI pays no property taxes on the site, city records show.

While some of the issues reported by tenants at Argyle Gardens stem from neglect by management, others stem from the building’s model. Experts say SROs require careful, intentional management to work. 

“SRO housing can provide more units in limited space, which can help address the chronic underproduction of housing across the state,” said James Kwasnik, a communications coordinator for OHCS, the state agency that provided the bulk of the funding for Argyle Gardens. “This strategy can allow for hotels and other non-permanent housing structures to be acquired and rehabilitated for permanent housing in a more cost-effective approach by limiting new kitchens and bathrooms needed. 

The disadvantages include sharing communal spaces, which can lead to conflict. This is true for any living situations but can be particularly noticeable when a development includes high acuity tenants. The property management must be more engaged (housekeeping, cleanliness in the shared spaces). There are some safety concerns. Often, these should be treated like dormitories.”

Kwasnik said for those reasons, OHCS doesn’t recommend or allow the use of SROs in certain properties it funds. 

Other attempts to save money on construction costs have left the buildings hard to cool during summer months. 

Side panels on some of the buildings at Argyle Gardens were built using Plexiglass greenhouse material rather than traditional drywall. The material lets in natural light, but it also traps heat in areas of the buildings, which only supply one air conditioning unit per floor. 

Nowhere to turn

Over the past decade, Oregon has bolstered its resources for tenants, even providing public funding for organizations assisting with landlord-tenant disputes, but local and state rules regarding SROs are scant. Portland city code dictates that cooking appliances be provided, either in-unit or in a shared kitchen, and be hard-wired and permanently affixed (meaning, no electric hot plates in lieu of a stove).

State landlord-tenant rules require shared spaces to be kept clean.

Emily Rena-Dozier is an attorney with the Oregon Law Center, an organization that often provides legal aid to people living in poverty. 

Rena-Dozier points to a subsection of Oregon’s residential landlord-tenant laws, which dictate that areas on a rental property that are under control of a landlord must be “clean, sanitary and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin.” 

“That means the landlord has no obligation to maintain the cleanliness of the dwelling unit, but any common area that is not under the exclusive use of the tenant, the landlord has responsibility to maintain those standards,” Rena-Dozier said.

TPI acknowledged maintenance issues and conflicts stemming from the site's SRO model, noting the company is working to address those aspects.

"At Transition Projects, we understand that many residents in the property are grappling with diverse challenges. Living in shared spaces requires a collective effort to maintain a harmonious environment," TPI said in a statement responding to the Mercury's reporting. "While aspects such as cleaning dishes and managing food are part of communal living and ultimately the responsibility of each resident, we also recognize the importance of offering guidance and tools to our residents. Our primary aim is to set expectations and collaboratively foster an atmosphere where residents can comfortably meet them. We are enhancing our residents’ access to supportive services, aiding them in building essential skills for living harmoniously within community spaces."