Tenants of the Marquette Manor apartments at NW 16th and Burnside weren't very happy when they received an official notice from their landlord in mid-April: The building—like many other old apartment buildings in Portland, especially in the downtown core—was going to be converted into condos.
Within days, construction began on the vacant units and common areas of the five-story vintage brick building.
It didn't take long for tenants to start complaining about the noise and mess of living in a construction zone. "They did pipe work, and in my closet there were pipes coming through the ceiling, so there are chunks of plaster all over my stuff," says Andrew Hemelstrand.
Another tenant, Tony Cameron, has a laundry list of problems, and even filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
"The elevator constantly didn't work, they'd get there really early in the morning and would be banging on the wall behind my bed, [plus] they were working on apartments where people lived on the other side of the wall," he says.
Like Cameron, many of the tenants have already moved out—many got a 30-day no-cause eviction notice this past month. But one tenant, Christine Benson, says she hasn't received an official notice yet, and is currently scrambling to find a new apartment.
Though a few tenants, like Cameron, allege that construction workers entered their apartment without giving notice, their other complaints don't point to wrongdoing on the part of the developer. Instead, they amount to huge frustrations.
The developer, Jeff Mincheff, is aware that living amid construction is no fun: "It is a construction zone, and I sympathize with anyone who has to live with that."
For his part, he says that any complaints that have been brought to his attention are immediately dealt with, including those about notices.
"I'm always saying, keep it clean, people are living here," he says. "We want to make it as painless as possible."
Mincheff says his company has been "working with people who say, 'Hey, I need extra time [to move].' We're pretty accommodating. We want to make sure that they don't get left behind and they have somewhere to go." He adds that his company has helped tenants move to vacant units in their other properties. And, Mincheff says, the tenants have the first shot at the new condos—which, starting at $119,000 for a studio, are more affordable than most downtown Portland condos, he points out.
The issues at Marquette Manor highlight the larger issue of condo conversions in Portland—given the hot real estate market, converting an old apartment building to condos is a smart move for developers (converting is cheaper and faster than building new condos), and conversions have proliferated in the past few years. The state agency that tracks condo conversions did not return calls by press time. But in December, the Oregonian reported that 120 buildings in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties have been converted to condominiums since 1998, affecting about 4,000 households.
"As conversions have picked up pace, there's more attention being paid to it recently," says Ian Slingerland, director of the Community Alliance of Tenants. There are several concerns surrounding conversions, Slingerland points out, including tenants' protections, and the preservation of affordable housing.
When it comes to tenants' rights, developers have to give 120 days notice of a conversion—but the law isn't clear on whether landlords can issue no-cause evictions to tenants without a lease (such as those in Marquette Manor).
"Its our position that the 120-day notice gives people 'for cause eviction' protections," says Slingerland. In other words, the Alliance believes tenants shouldn't have to leave before the 120 days are up, but recommends that tenants consult with an attorney.
Meanwhile, a statewide housing alliance is looking to the upcoming legislative session to find ways to use "the hot conversion market to generate some resources to replace the housing that's been lost," Slingerland says.
Daniel Ledezma, at Portland's Bureau of Housing and Community Development, says the city is keeping an eye on the housing alliance's agenda. "[Conversions] are a risk being posed to affordable housing," she says. "Barring a permanent stable source of funds for affordable housing, we're really kind of fighting a market that's going crazy."