One Portland homeowner amassed $30,000 in liens after a neighbor reported peeling paint on the exterior of her home to city regulators. A blind veteran racked up $88,000 in debt due to a complaint about unruly grass and unsightly vehicles outside his home. A senior with a severe brain injury almost had his home foreclosed on after a neighbor reported vehicles in his yard and an unfinished remodeling project.

A withering report out Wednesday from the city Ombudsman’s Office keyed in on how Portland enforces its lengthy list of property maintenance rules. The report found the city’s system regularly allows minor eyesores to snowball into financial ruin for homeowners. Those living in gentrifying areas of the city are hit the hardest.

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

The numbers suggest a troubling trend: wealthy, white residents moving into racially diverse neighborhoods are weaponizing the city’s complaint system to change the area’s aesthetics. In the process, they are forcing longtime residents of color into debt.

“This is an incredibly damaging system,” said city Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the Ombudsman’s Office.

The Ombudsman Office acts as the watchdog within City Hall, taking in complaints from those who say they have been harmed 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 program’s big flaws is that it relies entirely on complaints. City inspectors with the Bureau of Development Services do not monitor homes themselves for rule violations. Instead, they rely on Portlanders to file confidential complaints. Inspectors look into complaints and, if warranted, notify property owners about any violations. If the homeowner doesn’t fix a problem, the bureau will issue a fine and place a lien on the property, which allows the city to collect the fee when the property is sold.

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

Auditors found that the complaint-driven nature of the enforcement meant inspectors were not necessarily focused on neighborhoods with the most violations. Instead, they were likely concentrating on areas where Portlanders were feeling the most sensitive to the condition of their neighbors’ homes.

$120,000 in fines

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Bruce Cushman, a longtime resident of Northeast Portland’s King neighborhood, was fined twice: once in 2008 for a broken window and missing trim paint and siding and again in 2010 for doing renovations without a permit, according to the auditor’s office. Cushman’s fines eventually hit $120,000, an unpayable debt for the 69-year-old, who said his sole source of income is a monthly social security payment of less than $1,000.

“This is all tied up with gentrification,” said Cushman, noting the complaints started rolling in when property 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 to the right sold for $450,000.

“It’s not a derelict of the neighborhood,” he said of his home. “I couldn’t understand why the city kept coming after me.”

After the city ombudsman got involved in Cushman’s case, he said the fine was reduced to about $6,000.

According to the ombudsman’s analysis, Cushman’s neighborhood of King has about 15 complaints per 100 households. Northeast Portland’s Woodland Park had 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 wealthiest areas of the city, had zero complaints as did the Lloyd neighborhood and Old Town Chinatown. (These are also areas with far fewer single family homes, which could contribute to the low number of complaints.)

A system rooted in racism?

In their report, auditors argue the inequitable outcomes of the city’s complaint-driven system can be traced back to the overtly racist era in which it was created.

The city began relying on complaints to enforce property maintenance in 1914, a time in which lawmakers were actively trying to prohibit Black Oregonians from owning property. Five years after the code enforcement program was created, the report notes, Oregon real estate agents were banned from selling homes to people “whose race would greatly depreciate, in the public mind, surrounding property values.” Two years after that, the mayor and Portland’s police chief met with the Ku Klux Klan “to publicly demonstrate the Klan’s close relationship with policy makers.”

In a letter to the council responding to the report, Dr. Markisha Webster, the head of the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, said she viewed the inequities identified in it as “one facet of a systemically oppressed structure connected to homeownership.”

“For longer than our history accurately documents, Black, Indigenous, and communities of color have experienced disparate impacts of racist policies and practices threatening their safety and well-being,” she wrote. “Homeownership for communities of color has been fraught with oppressive barriers; this dream is then often meet with additional complexities.”

One possible reason the city program has remained unchanged for so long: The program does not take any money from the city’s general fund and relies on the fines to cover costs of operating the program. If the bureau cut back on fines, the program would potentially have to shrink.

Bureau of Development Services Director Rebecca Esau and Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the bureau, wrote in a joint response that they overwhelmingly agreed with the report’s findings. Esau and Ryan wrote that they are exploring how to move away from a system driven by complaints and to stop relying on fees and liens 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 liens, and we agree with the Ombudsman’s recommendation for change in this area,” the letter stated.

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