Homeowners of Color bear the brunt of Portland’s property maintenance program

A Portland homeowner raised $ 30,000 in liens after a neighbor reported peeling paint outside his home to city regulators. A blind veteran has racked up $ 88,000 in debt over a complaint about unruly grass and unsightly vehicles outside his home. A senior with a serious brain injury nearly had her home foreclosed after a neighbor reported vehicles in her yard and an unfinished renovation project.

A withered report released Wednesday by the city’s ombudsman’s office explained how Portland enforces its long list of property maintenance rules. The report found that the city’s system routinely allows minor horrors to turn into financial ruin for homeowners. The inhabitants of neighborhoods in the midst of gentrification of the city are the hardest hit.

Like most cities, Portland has property maintenance rules that cover everything from the height of a homeowner’s fence to the condition of their lawn. The system of enforcing these rules is entirely motivated by complaints from neighbors and passers-by. According to the bureau’s review of more than 15,000 complaints filed between 2013 and 2018, complaints were concentrated in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and have a higher percentage of people of color than the city as a whole.

The numbers suggest a disturbing trend: Wealthy white residents moving to racially diverse neighborhoods are militarizing the city’s complaint system to change the aesthetic of the region. In the process, they are forcing longtime residents of color into debt.

“It’s an incredibly damaging system,” said City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the ombudsman’s office.

The ombudsman’s office acts as a watchdog within city hall, receiving complaints from those who say they have been wronged by city policies. Hull Caballero said no other program has been the subject of more complaints than the city’s system for enforcing property maintenance rules.

Hull Caballero said one of the big flaws in the program is that it relies entirely on complaints. City inspectors from the Bureau of Development Services do not monitor the homes themselves for rule violations. Instead, they rely on Portlanders to file confidential complaints. Inspectors review complaints and, if warranted, notify owners of any violations. If the owner does not fix the problem, the office will issue a fine and place a lien on the property, allowing the city to collect the fee when the property is sold.

It doesn’t take long for these fines to skyrocket. According to the ombudsman’s report, a homeowner has up to four weeks to repair a violation, such as a loose gutter. If they don’t, the city will charge them $ 299 per month. After three months, the fines double.

Auditors found that the complaint-driven nature of the app meant inspectors weren’t necessarily focused on neighborhoods with the most violations. Instead, they probably focused on areas where Portlanders felt most sensitive to the condition of their neighbors’ homes.

$ 120,000 in fines

Bruce Cushman, a longtime resident of the King Ward of northeast Portland, was fined twice: once in 2008 for a broken window and missing trim and siding and another in 2010 for doing renovations without permits, according to the auditor’s office. Cushman’s fines eventually reached $ 120,000, an unpayable debt for the 69-year-old, who said his only source of income was a monthly Social Security payment of less than $ 1,000.

“This is all linked to gentrification,” Cushman said, noting that complaints started pouring in when house prices started to rise. They haven’t stopped. He bought his house in 1987 for $ 13,500. The house to his left recently sold for $ 350,000. The one on the right sold for $ 450,000.

“It’s not a neighborhood wreck,” he said of his house. “I couldn’t understand why the city kept chasing me. “

After the city’s ombudsman became involved in Cushman’s case, he said the fine had been reduced to around $ 6,000.

According to the ombudsman’s analysis, the King Ward of Cushman has approximately 15 complaints per 100 households. Northeast Portland’s Woodland Park recorded the highest rate with about 29 complaints per 100 households, followed by Southeast Portland’s Mount-Scott Arleta with 24 complaints. The Pearl District, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, has not received any complaints, as have the Lloyd District and Old Town Chinatown. (These are also areas with significantly fewer single-family homes, which could contribute to the low number of complaints.)

A system rooted in racism?

In their report, the auditors argue that the unfair results of the city’s complaints system date back to the blatantly racist era in which it was created.

The city began relying on complaints to enforce property maintenance in 1914, a time when lawmakers were actively trying to ban black Oregon from owning property. Five years after the code enforcement program was created, the report notes, Oregon real estate agents have been banned from selling homes to people “whose race would seriously demean the public in value. surrounding properties “. Two years later, Portland’s mayor and police chief met with the Ku Klux Klan “to publicly demonstrate the Klan’s close relationship with policymakers.”

In a letter to the council in response to the report, Dr Markisha Webster, head of the city’s Equity and Human Rights Office, said she viewed the identified inequalities as “one facet of a systematically oppressed structure linked to home ownership ”.

“For longer than our history accurately documents, Black, Indigenous and Colored communities have suffered disparate impacts from racist policies and practices threatening their safety and well-being,” she wrote. “Home ownership for communities of color has been fraught with oppressive barriers; this dream then often comes up against additional complexities.

One of the possible reasons the city’s program has remained unchanged for so long: the program takes no money from the city’s general fund and relies on fines to cover the costs of running the program. If the bureau reduced fines, the program would potentially have to decrease.

Director of the Office of Development Services, Rebecca Esau, and Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the office, wrote in a joint response that they overwhelmingly agreed with the report’s findings. Esau and Ryan wrote that they were exploring how to move away from a complaints-based system and stop relying on fees and privileges to pay for the program.

“BDS is keenly aware of the disparities and barriers created for marginalized members of our community through enforcement fees and privileges, and we agree with the Ombudsman’s recommendation for change in this area.” , indicates the letter.

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