For years, the Coliseum Budget Inn on NE San Rafael—a few blocks from NE MLK—was better known to neighbors as a safe house for criminals. Drug deals, guests arguing in the streets, prostitution, and cars pulling up and leaving at all hours of the night were standard fare at the run-down motel.
Alan Sanchez, a Portland business owner and real estate agent, bought the prime inner-Northeast property a year ago. Sanchez—also head of the Gateway Area Business Association, and a member of the mayor's visionPDX committee—says he had no idea the hotel was such a sore spot for neighbors. Regardless, he says he started making improvements, renamed it the Portland Pensione, and let neighbors know about his plans to turn it into a nice neighborhood hotel.
But one year later, Sanchez seems to be the only person still claiming that change has come about for the hotel.
"That location, by my definition, and the city's definition, has been a chronic nuisance for decades," said Mike Warwick, land use chair of the Eliot Neighborhood Association. "We thought the new ownership would change that, but so far it hasn't. It's tough to have a neighborhood with all of that going on right in the middle of it."
Indeed, shortly after Sanchez bought the place in January 2006, Portland Police issued a warning, telling Sanchez his property was in danger of receiving an official chronic nuisance letter.
Sanchez responded to the warning by notifying the police that he planned to clean up the Pensione. But one year later, Officer Richard Deland of the NE Neighborhood Response Team concluded that Sanchez had done very little to improve the property. A chronic nuisance letter was issued on January 19, prompting Sanchez to call Deland.
"He told me the problems that existed in the beginning of the year no longer existed, then he called me by my first name, as he often does, and said, 'Rick, this place is a dream,'" Deland says. "I told him he was wrong. If neighbors and officers were telling me the same thing, we'd be done—but that's not the story we're getting." (The Pensione's immediate neighbors, who are reportedly considering legal action over the property, declined to comment for this story.)
The stories police were getting about the Pensione involved around-the-clock transactions of drug deals and prostitution. According to police, some neighbors living in the area for over 10 years claim that since Sanchez bought the place, crime at the hotel is even worse than before.
"[Sanchez] made a lot of promises, but we noticed right away that he also made a lot of excuses," said Deland. Meanwhile, Sanchez was kicked off the visionPDX committee, thanks to the Pensione's troubles.
Sanchez tells a different story, however. He says he's been trying to clean the place up since day one, and has admittedly struggled. For starters, he couldn't simply kick out problematic hotel guests; since most of the tenants at the Pensione had been residents for more than 30 days when he bought the hotel, Sanchez had to legally evict them—a lengthy process.
"The police could come in and arrest someone for selling drugs, then they could go to jail and come right back," said Sanchez.
Sanchez also opted to retain the original management staff. "We told him his staff was a huge part of the problem and that we were getting tips they were involved in the deals that were going on," said Deland. "He said everyone deserves another chance."
By September 2006, however, Sanchez says he realized the managers were stealing from him, and they were fired. After several months of court proceedings, he was finally able to evict the former managers just a few weeks ago. "I lost quite a bit of money, but it was a learning experience," said Sanchez. "I was too trusting and stuck with them too long."
Earlier this year, Sanchez and his attorney spent three months negotiating with the police. Sanchez finally signed an abatement agreement in late February.
The new agreement aims to rid the Pensione of problems before they start. Sanchez agreed to give police a list of people staying in the hotel, while police will give Sanchez a list that contains the names of people known for being involved in drug houses. Tenants who want to stay longer than 29 days must get a background check, and Sanchez and his new managers agreed to landlord training.
In the weeks since Sanchez signed the new agreement, Deland says things have improved, after Sanchez initially "got in over his head."
For his part, Sanchez is optimistic.
"I feel really, really good about the whole thing, I think we're finally turning the corner. It should take some time to prove that to the neighbors and only time will prove that," said Sanchez, who has also reclaimed his seat on the visionPDX committee. "But I'm patient."