Lack of revenue puts strain on inspections
Angela Lopez remembers when her home was making her child sick.
Lopez, a transplant from Mexico and mother of three, said she spent two years scrubbing mold her in small rental house in northeast Portland with Clorox and soap. But somehow the black fuzz always seemed to grow back on the walls and ceilings of the kitchen and bedrooms.
Her 5-year-old son’s asthma, which had been dormant, came roaring back from the mold, according to Lopez. She said she complained to her landlord, who put a lamp-sized ventilation hole in the living room ceiling covered with metal grating, which she said made the dwelling frosty during the colder months.
After what she described as a fruitless back-and-forth with her landlord, who she claimed repeatedly painted over the mold, she called the housing inspector and left several messages that she said weren’t returned. Her final phone call was met with an automated voice telling her the message box was full, according to Lopez.
The heat only worked in her bedroom, she said, and the fluctuations between hot and cold exacerbated her child’s condition. The staff at a local clinic told her that her house, which she shared with her husband, two other children, mother and father-in-law, was affecting her child’s health. After much hand-wringing, she and her husband decided to break the lease with her landlord, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
Contention has often marked relations between landlords and tenants, who occupy about 42 percent of Portland’s housing. But as the Great Recession persists conflicts between the two have grown pricklier as money for housing inspectors has dried up.
As revenues have dropped off for the Bureau of Development Services, the city agency has had to lay off building inspectors who keep dwellings inhabitable by enforcing the city’s building code.
According to bureau spokesperson Ross Caron, housing inspectors have been reduced to five (about half) as a result of the cuts.
“We have experienced a slow down in our response time,” said Caron.
He explained that the bureau has prioritized complaints it receives. For instance, a tenant who complains about a serious problem, like a lack of heat or a broken refrigerator would receive more immediate attention than other types of complaints.
However, complaints that are somewhere in between in severity will be responded to in five to 10 days, he said. A landlord will have 30 days to correct the problems. If they don’t they will be assessed a fine that, depending on how many units are in the building, could be as high as $500 a month, which doubles after three months.
It’s difficult to get a snapshot of the state of Portland housing, but according to the U.S. Census over 70 percent of housing in Portland was built before 1970, which are more likely to be in disrepair.
According to Bureau of Development Services numbers, between July 1 and Aug. 27 it received 240 housing complaints, 65 percent of which came from rental properties.
“We get quite a few phone calls about [tenants having problems],” said Matt Kinshella, external relations coordinator for 211Info, a referral service that helps people navigate community and health services.
211Info received 616 calls regarding landlord/tenant issues so far for the current fiscal year, slightly up from last year. The zip code that generated the most calls was 97233, which encompasses part of outer southeast Portland and Gresham, which generated 78 calls. The next zip code was 97205, which encompasses part of downtown. It generated 50 calls.
Housing inspectors haven’t been the only ones inundated with calls for help. The Oregon Community Alliance of Tenants, a nonprofit that advises renters of their rights and responsibilities, also its hands full.
Housed in the basement of the St. Augustana Lutheran Church in northeast Portland, the alliance gets about 40 messages a day from distressed renters, which sometimes overwhelms its voicemail system according to Cristina Palacios, the safe housing coordinator for the organization.
At the alliance office, Palacios spends quite a bit of time on the phone fielding and responding to complaints.
She often gives tenants the number to the housing inspector, but said that’s seldom a straight-forward solution. The short-staffed bureau is having a hard time keeping up with complaints, said Palacios, and she suspects that landlords are aware of the situation and are using it to their advantage.
“It’s not a working system,” said Palacios of the remedies available to tenants.
Palacios said that housing advocates often encounter landlords who place their bottom line above the inhabitability of their properties, and put in the bare minimum maintenance on their rentals. Tenants who complain, said Palacios, are met with a common refrain: “If you don’t like it, leave.”
She described one mother who called whose daughter was hospitalized twice from mold, only to be told to leave by her landlord. Another mother would send her children to school without taking showers due to a lack of hot water. A diabetic man called in after his year’s supply of insulin spoiled from a broken refrigerator.
“My concern is how many tenants are going through this,” said Palacios.
Palacios said that there is gulf between landlords, who typically have more money and resources, and tenants, who may not even be aware of their rights, and may worry about retaliation if they exercise them.
Portland City Council has taken note of the issue, and taken some actions.
In 2008, City Council voted to accept the recommendations of the Quality Rental Housing Workgroup- a panel of landlords, tenant advocates, and government officials charged with examining the issue.
Their recommendations included clarifying portions of the city’s building code, upping penalties for bad landlords, establishing more proactive inspection practices, stabilizing funding for housing inspectors, and better educating both sides about their rights and responsibilities.
Since accepting the recommendations in principle, the City Council has followed up on some. Fines have been upped on landlords who drag their feet on repairs. The Bureau of Development Services also launched a housing inspections pilot program, where if inspectors saw enough code violations at a multi-dwelling complex, they would knock on other tenants’ doors to see if they wanted an inspection.
Caron explained that the idea behind this program is that it takes the pressure off tenants who might worry about provoking the ire of their landlord by initiating a complaint.
One recommendation that hasn’t been followed up on is a plan to stabilize funding for housing inspectors at the bureau.
The Quality Rental Housing Workgroup had initially called for a surcharge on each rental unit to be paid by the landlord to help keep building inspectors at the bureau. However, the idea stalled as the economy collapsed, according to Ty Kovatch- chief of staff to Commissioner Randy Leonard, who has been outspoken on the issue.
“It’s just not a good time to add more fees,” he said.