By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer
All is quiet in the West Hotel.
The two-dozen residents of the Old Town single resident occupancy (SRO) hotel are, for the first time in 27 years, no longer kept awake until one in the morning by the cacophonic punk rock sounds that would drift upwards from the iconic rock nightclub Satyricon two floors below.
The building is quiet to the point of eeriness. Entering the West through a black painted door on Northwest 6th Avenue, walking across the small lobby crowded by two recycling bins stored along one wall and up the steep stairs to a heavy wooden door opening to the first floor, a tenant hears nothing but the sounds of his own footsteps.
But there is something else now keeping the West’s residents awake at night: the possibility that they will become homeless if they don’t find new housing and move to it by Dec. 1.
The Macdonald Center, a Catholic-inspired assisted living facility and social-service agency, gave 60-day eviction-without-cause notices to the tenants on Oct. 1.
The MacDonald Center is nationally recognized for its innovative assisted-living facility, the Maybelle Clark Macdonald Residence, which provides assisted living and nursing care for 54 low-income or homeless people with chronic medical illnesses, physical impairments or disabilities.
The Macdonald Center has owned the West Hotel since October 2008. Executive director Pat Janik says the plan was originally to renovate the West. Built in 1905 and in need of extensive repairs, the West is, to use the words of Northwest Pilot Project’s housing consultant Bobby Weinstock, an “old, tired hotel that has outlived its usefulness.”
But Janik says renovation would have been more expensive than building a new building, which the Macdonald Center is now moving forward on.
The West Hotel will be demolished in January, and a new, seven-story building will replace it. The first floor will house the MacDonald Center’s outreach and support services, which will expand. The six floors will have 42 studio apartments affordable for people with incomes at or below 45 percent of median family income.
The project cost is just over $10 million dollars, funded by state tax credits, the Oregon Housing Trust Fund and private money raised by the Macdonald Center.
A Sept. 27 letter from Janik told the West tenants of the change of plans. The letter also told them that in three days, on Oct. 1, they would receive 60-day eviction notices.
“Everybody here was upset,” says a 68-year old tenant only wanting to be identified as John. “Everybody believed we would have until the summer.”
Janik says all residents received a letter in Dec. 8, 2008, saying they would have to move out during the renovation, which would begin in approximately 18 months, which would be about August 2010.
Despite the prior letter, the eviction notices were upsetting to many of the residents who said they thought they had until summer of 2011 to find new homes.
“I was panicked,” says David, 44, a resident who did not want to give his last name). “I was scared.”
Scared that he will become homeless.
Among the West’s tenants are people who have little or no income, and multiple high barriers to finding housing: bad credit histories, mental illnesses and criminal histories that include felonies and sexual-related offenses. Four tenants are listed on Oregon’s Sex Offender Registry.
“All those things just make it less likely that folks will be successful in finding other housing, and it makes it more likely that they can end up homeless,” says Weinstock. “It’s a very alarming situation.”
That the Macdonald Center is actually creating new low-income rental housing is a story not often heard in Portland. Northwest Pilot Project, a social-service agency serving the low-income elderly, has tracked the loss of affordable housing in downtown Portland since 1994. Its latest affordable housing inventory, published this summer, shows that the downtown area has lost 1,239 units of affordable housing over the last 16 years.
The building was eyed by a Tacoma developer for the site of a new boutique hotel, but the Macdonald Center had first right-of-refusal on the property.
The Macdonald Center, by increasing the amount of affordable housing in Portland, is acting on good intentions and according to its mission “to help the struggling poor stay in their housing and off the street.”
Some tenants have found housing, but the Macdonald Center cannot ensure that the rest of the West’s current tenants will find housing before their eviction date comes due.
“This is an example of how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” says Martha Gies, a writer and housing advocate, who has done multiple relocations.
The Macdonald Center is not legally required to provide relocation services to the West’s tenants.
In cases where housing developers receive federal money — either Community Development Block Grant funds and HOME investment funds — they are legally required by the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act to help the tenants find housing and pay for their relocation.
The law was passed by Congress in 1970, and mandates that agencies using federal funds for projects that will possibly displace low-income people pay for their relocation to new homes. In essence, the law aims to prevent people from needlessly becoming homeless.
The Macdonald Center was approved for Community Development Block Grants to renovate the West, but when it decided to demolish and rebuild, the Macdonald Center told the Portland Housing Bureau that it would not need the money and no grant was given.
Although there is no legal requirement, advocates and social providers say the Macdonald Center does have a moral obligation.
“If your goal is to help people with their housing, it seems like you need to take care of those tenants at the West,” says Micky Ryan, a former Oregon Law Center attorney and housing advocate.
Janik says the Macdonald Center is committed to making sure everyone at the West finds housing. “We have no obligation to relocate anybody,” Janik says. “[But] we want to do everything we can to help the people who live there.”
The Macdonald Center, which has never done a relocation before, has asked the West Hotel’s property manager, Kirsten Kuppenbender, to help the tenants find new housing.
Kuppenbender, likewise, has no prior experience in helping tenants relocate.
Janik says the Macdonald Center did not consider hiring someone with past relocation experience.
“I just didn’t think we needed to hire yet another person to be working on this,” Janik says.
Weinstock, Ryan, and others say that was a mistake.
“It’s going to take a very talented relocation specialist to offer people something, and prevent them from becoming homeless,” he says. “I’m not sure the Macdonald Center understood how many barriers these people had and how many barriers there would be to offer them comparable housing.”
Janik would not give Street Roots access to Kuppenbender for an interview.
Janik says Kuppenbender is communicating with the tenants in writing and in person, is at the West Hotel every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to meet with tenants, and is working with the social service agencies Transition Projects (TPI), Central City Concern (CCC), and Northwest Pilot Project.
“She is going around and knocking on doors. She is going to see people and saying, ‘How is it coming? Are you having luck?’ We’re sending letters and putting them in mailboxes. They all have her phone number,” Janik says.
Bobby Weinstock first learned about the evictions at the West when two tenants came to Northwest Pilot Project asking for help in finding housing.
“We’re having a very difficult time finding options for them,” Weinstock says. “These evictions don’t leave enough time for folks.”
Although the tenants were told by the Macdonald Center that TPI would help all the tenants, they have found out that TPI is working only with the seven people with whom it has prior case-working relationships.
And Traci Manning, Central City Concern’s chief operating officer, says that only two West residents are working with Central City Concern.
John says Kuppenbender held a meeting with all the tenants in early October to let them know of her availability. And early last week, he says she went with him to four separate affordable housing complexes to inquire availability.
“I got three or four places that told me ‘maybe,’” John says.
Kuppenbender also provided each tenant a list of low-income and SRO buildings downtown, and encouraged them to contact their parole or probation officer for help, and to look for shared housing on Craigslist.
David Slack, 55, has contacted every SRO building on the list Kuppenbender provided. All but three or four buildings are crossed off —either because there were no vacancies, the rents were too high, the buildings do not accept people with past felonies, or because there is a requirement that tenants have experienced homelessness within the last two years.
John has run into the same problems. “There’s a lot of places where you can’t move,” he says.
“They hear ‘SO’ (sexual offender), and they shut the door,” says Don Harvey, 52, who describes his chances of finding housing as slim to none. “I’m ready to give up.”
Slack also put himself on TPI’s shelter waiting list. There are 250 people currently on the list.
As time has gone on, the West’s tenants fear that they will become homeless is becoming ever more real as their search for housing has led to nothing.
“It’s getting down to the wire,” David says. “I would like to be in a situation where I knew where I was going to move.”
“Several of them are going to wind up on the street,” Slack thinks. “I can’t rule out the possibility of that (for myself). It scares the hell out of me.”
Slack and other tenants interviewed for this article said they wished they had more time to find housing, and that there was a clear agreement that The Macdonald Center would pay for their moving costs.
The Macdonald Center submitted a relocation plan to the Oregon Housing and Community Services department (OCHS) when it applied for the Housing Trust funds and tax credits. Betty Markey, the department’s policy adviser, says that OCHS does not consider the relocation plan a binding agreement, but does want to know that state funds are not being used in a way that permanently displaces people.
Only after making a public records request did OCHS provide Street Roots with the relocation plan. And after OCHS contacted the Macdonald Center regarding Street Roots’ request, Janik also e-mailed the plan to Street Roots.
That document shows that the Macdonald Center made a number of clear commitments to financially help the West tenants. “The moves will be managed and financed by the Macdonald Center,” it says.
The document goes on to say that the Macdonald Center will “pay for all relocation expense, and if an increase of rent results, to provide compensation to tenants for the increase,” and that the “Macdonald Center agrees to pay tenant moving costs, utility and communication reconnection costs, and other out-of pocket expenses incurred as a result of the move.”
The document also says that “Macdonald Center agrees to provide a minimum of 180 days notice of relocations,” when it, in fact, only gave 60. However, Janik says that when they bought the building, they sent a letter to all residents that they would eventually have to move, but it did not specify a date.
That the Macdonald Center is willing to help tenants financially is also reflected in a Nov. 1 letter to the tenants. Janik wrote that “If you locate housing, and payment of the application fee and/or the required deposits are a barrier for you securing housing, the Macdonald Center can assist you with those payments… the MacDonald Center will help you.”
However, what the Macdonald Center told OCHS it would do differs starkly from what the tenants have experienced.
“They’ll help pay for our application fee,” Slack says.
Janik says the Macdonald Center has reserved a certain amount of money to pay for the costs of relocation, but when asked, she refused to say how much.
She also said that it was “unreasonable” for the Macdonald Center to pay first and last month’s rent in advance, on top of the security deposit and application fees that landlords typically require.
“We might be able to work it out with the facility that it doesn’t have to be paid that way,” Janik said, explaining that the Macdonald Center would negotiate with landlords and housing providers about those costs.
“We might even get a facility to waive the application fee,” she says.
Janik was clear that the Macdonald Center will not pay to help the tenants physically move their belongings from the West to wherever they find housing. That contradicts the pledge to pay for moving costs in the agreement with the OCHS.
“No one (of the residents) has asked us about that, either,” she continued.
Slacks says he does not know how he will get his possessions to his new home, or to storage if he becomes homeless.
And Don Harvey says he is the only one living at the West with a car.
Moreover, many of the tenants have serious medical problems. “We’re falling apart,” Harvey almost jokes. John is 68 years old, has emphysema, and uses oxygen tanks. He cannot lift heavy objects. Slack has nine medication bottles in his room for a brain tumor and epilepsy.
The Macdonald Center has obvious, well-intentioned efforts to help the West tenants. But what makes it “maddening,” as Weinstock puts it, is the lack of clear communication to help the tenants with what they need.
Writer and housing advocate Martha Gies has done every major relocation in downtown Portland for the last 15 years: the Roosevelt Apartments in 1997, Western Rooms in 2001, the St. Francis Apartments in 2001; the old Ace Hotel in 2006; and, just recently, the Admiral Apartments.
In 1998, Gies also helped some of the tenants left homeless when the Clifford Hotel burned, formerly at Southeast Sixth and Morrison.
Gies points out that neither the Clifford nor the Ace was required by law to find housing for the tenants. A consortium of government agencies funded the relocation of the fire victims; and at the Ace, the owners acted out of a sense of moral responsibility when they paid to relocate all the tenants who otherwise would have been homeless.
In all the relocations Gies has done, none of the residents involved became homeless. That track record has earned her the reputation of an expert among housing providers and advocates.
“You want folks that have that level of experience,” Weinstock says, when trying to relocate people with high barriers.
The first step for Gies in any relocation she undertakes is a building-wide tenant meeting, where she introduces herself, explains her role, and what the tenants can expect in terms of services and of timing. “A huge part of this work is keeping people calm so they can function,” Gies says. “Because it’s very scary to lose your housing.”
Next is intake. “We meet with each tenant individually to learn their needs and their challenges,” says Gies, who has always recruited volunteers to help with relocating tenants. “Where would they like to live? What are their special needs? We get to know them,” she says.
It is sometimes necessary to learn “very private” things about tenants in order to overcome housing challenges, like bad credit or criminal records.
Relocation is a “step-by-step-by-step process.” Gies identifies affordable housing units in Portland, tracks upcoming vacancies, stays in daily contact with managers, and provides help filling out applications.
“If an application gets refused, and we think the apartment would be a good match, we see if management would be open to receiving an appeal. I’ve written a lot of appeals,” Gies says.
When told about the situation at the West Hotel, Gies suggested that the Macdonald Center may not realize how much work it takes to reach out to people who are vulnerable, marginalized and don’t necessarily know how to go about finding an affordable apartment in a tight rental market.
“Some of these people may be mentally ill. We had a guy at the Roosevelt who barricaded himself in his room. His case worker at Mental Health Services West — this was back in the day when we had mental health care — she talked to him through the door until he finally calmed down enough to open it. Her help was invaluable. You can’t just say ‘Hey, I’m here, if someone wants an apartment.’
You have to go to them. They are frightened. You have to help them understand that you can help and you will help. You have to earn their trust. You have to be proactive,” Gies says.
“They have to understand that their plight is the most important thing in your life right now,” she says.
It took Gies 10 months to relocate the 37 tenants of the Admiral Apartments, many of whom were elderly, frail or mentally ill. “It takes weeks, months,” Gies says.
Weinstock says he sent a proposal to the Portland Housing Bureau, suggesting that a policy be put in place that would require relocation services when agencies use money given to them by the Housing Bureau.
“I hope this triggers a new public policy,” Weinstock says.
To use public money for an affordable housing project that causes some people to become homeless, Weinstock thinks, is not only bad public policy, but hypocritical.
“We can’t be funding homelessness at the same time that we’re trying to end homelessness,” Weinstock says.
“I guess I kind of fault the people at (the Oregon Housing and Community Services department),” Weinstock continues. “If they’re funding the new building, then I think they have to be sure that the current tenants are taken care of.”
Janik said the problem lies in the lack of affordable housing available, particularly with people who have felonies or other complicating issues.
“I don’t think it’s so much relocation, as housing — and housing for all populations,” Janik says. “And we don’t have that. That’s not The Macdonald Center’s fault, that’s a systemwide problem in the community.”
Margaret Van Vliet, the director of the Portland Housing Bureau, says putting such a relocation policy in place “is worth considering,” but also says it is not likely.
The reason for that, she says, is money. Van Vliet expects the Housing Bureau’s budget to be cut next year, due to the continuing recession and revenue losses at the city level. Relocation, she says, “is expensive.”
Van Vliet also believes the situation the West tenants are facing is so peculiar that it’s not clear “we’re ever going to face this situation down the road.”
And if some of the West tenants become homeless?
“We are hoping that they fall into the safety net and get stable housing,” Van Vliet says.
She did not specify what safety net she has in mind.