Amber Cook couldn’t have been more thrilled to move into an apartment at Portland’s Milepost 5 in 2018.
Cook had just ended a relationship and was looking for her own place to rent, and the affordable housing complex for artists in the Montavilla neighborhood appeared to fit the bill. Cook, a professional writer, was already familiar with Milepost 5, as she had previously attended writing workshops and open mic nights in the building’s communal areas.
She applied for a studio apartment, and waited six months for a vacancy in the popular 95-unit complex. Her monthly rent, including utilities, came in at $665 – nearly half the median cost of a studio apartment in Portland at the time.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to live in an artist community, that’s fantastic!’” Cook said.
Cook’s enthusiasm has since dimmed.
Five years later, Milepost 5 sits almost half vacant, with several of its apartments home to squatters. Maintenance requests go unanswered, leaving windows cracked, door locks broken, trash overflowing and communal bathrooms uncleaned for months at a time. The artist studio that renters are promised access to as part of their rent has been shuttered behind a deadbolt for a year. The hallways once decorated with residents’ artwork are bare. Several residents said they have been robbed and assaulted by trespassers, some say they’re afraid to ever leave their apartments. Cook and other tenants’ requests to management to address the growing list of problems have gone ignored for years.
So, Cook is taking the management company to court. In January, she signed on as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Guardian Management, the property management company responsible for running Milepost 5. The lawsuit accuses Guardian of failing to maintain a habitable dwelling, as required under Oregon law. The plaintiffs ask that Guardian return rent paid by all tenants who’ve lived at Milepost 5 within the past year, and demand a jury trial.
The lawsuit exemplifies how far Milepost 5 has fallen since the doors opened in 2010. It also offers a cautionary tale to local and state governments, as leaders look to address the region’s homelessness crisis by rapidly expanding affordable housing programs.
It started with a vision
Milepost 5 was a pet project of former mayor Sam Adams, meant to solve the burgeoning problem of Portland’s creative class being priced out of the city.
The former Baptist nursing home on Northeast 82nd Avenue was originally purchased and converted into a dorm-like residence in 2007 by Beam Development in partnership with an affordable housing trust. Adams, a newly-elected city commissioner at the time, saw an opportunity to follow through on his campaign promises to support Portland artists and helped see the deal through. By 2010, Milepost 5 had secured a $250,000 investment from the city and began moving in tenants.
Former tenant Evan Wellington recalls the early days of Milepost 5, when Adams would stop by tenant art shows on the complex’s ground floor with monied art patrons. For several years, Wellington said, the dream of Milepost 5 was a reality.
“We used to have theater productions in the courtyard, where families and neighbors would come out and watch,” Wellington said. “We were having gallery openings every few months, and people were supporting our work. We could afford to be artists and live in Portland. It was really surreal.”
But not long after Adams left office, Wellington felt the momentum behind Milepost 5′s success slowing.
“I had the direct experience of watching entropy set it on a societal level,” he said. “Like watching a ripe piece of fruit rot.”
In 2018, Beam sold the property to a California investment company called Community Development Partners, or CDP. A year later, CDP had filed a request with the Oregon Housing and Community Services to preserve Milepost 5 as an affordable housing complex for 30 years in exchange for federal tax credits.
The change in leadership was felt across the complex. CDP began pushing out renters who made too much money to live in government-subsidized apartments and attempted to skirt city requirements to pay tenants’ relocation costs in the process. Then, critical maintenance requests – like fixing a collapsed ceiling or a broken window – went unaddressed for months.
At the time, Wellington, Cook and other renters organized a Milepost 5 tenants union to advocate for their rights under new ownership. They saw one victory: In 2019, CDP agreed to fire the property management company overseeing Milepost 5 and replace it with a company called Guardian Management. But, the problems got worse.
Milepost 5′s apartments are reserved for low-income tenants, with rents determined by income level. A total of 45 units are set aside for people making 40% of the area median income, which in February 2023, would cap the monthly cost of a studio apartment at $749. The other apartments are slightly pricier, reaching up to $1,119 for a studio.
The relatively low cost of Milepost 5 rent goes beyond the price of a room – it also covers cleaning services in the building’s communal areas like the shared kitchens, bathrooms and studio spaces. Tenants say those janitorial services stopped in mid-2020, not long after the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Around the same time, three of the exterior doors to the building were broken and unable to lock. Tenants said they remained unrepaired for at least two years.
This neglected maintenance quickly made Milepost 5 a destination for unhoused people in the neighborhood who, according to tenants, began relying on the building’s communal spaces for warm showers and kitchen space. Tenants say several people broke into vacant units and took up permanent residence.
Milepost 5 has a main communal living area on the first floor, called the Art Haus, which used to serve as a social hub for tenants and occasionally operated as a coffee shop. In January, the space was vacant and cold. Some of the tables had gathered dust and the coffee shop counter held empty gardening pots. Cook said the space is now mostly frequented by non-residents as a place to escape from the elements and rest. Tenants often find the exterior door propped open to allow easy access.
Cook, like several other tenants, bought a fridge and toaster oven for her room after personal food and cooking utensils went missing in the communal kitchen. The building’s two kitchens, which used to host group dinners, currently sit vacant, dirty with old food residue and gutted of cooking tools.
“If things aren’t nailed down, they’re just stolen,” Cook said. “One of the great things about communal living is that you’re able to share things. That doesn’t happen here.”
While tenants say they’ve witnessed visitors selling illegal drugs in common areas and threatening renters in the halls, they struggle to get anyone to take action.
“Police always tell us the same thing,” said Sarah Gerhardt, who has lived in Milepost 5 since 2021. “They say that, unless the owner of the building tells the police that those people are excluded from being there, there is nothing they can do.”
When tenants report the squatters to Guardian and CDP, Cook said, they’re essentially told that “it’s really hard” to legally remove them.
Hollie Forsman, vice president of property operations for Guardian, expanded on this response in an interview with OPB.
“If you call the Portland police and say someone has trespassed on your property, no one [from the police bureau] comes,” Forsman said. “They are prioritizing elsewhere, I guess.”
Kevin Allen, a spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau, rejected this assumption. Allen said that officers have responded to 911 calls at Milepost 5 “many times,” but it’s common for officers to take a little longer to respond to the types of calls originating from that property.
“Trespasser calls are classified as lower priority than person crimes or emergency response calls,” Allen wrote in an email to OPB. “So it would not be unusual for a response to take some time, depending on what else was going on at the time.”
Allen said the bureau’s East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team has been focused on addressing crime in and around Milepost 5 for a while, whether that means expanding police patrols in the neighborhood or meeting with residents directly to help problem-solve ongoing issues. They also coordinate with Echelon Protective Services, a private security team CDP hired to monitor the complex 11 hours every day. Yet, Allen said, officers remained limited by laws and resources when it comes to resolving criminal issues on site.
“In addition,” he wrote, “we recognize that arrests do not always provide the most effective solution to a problem.”
The challenges posed by non-tenants are exacerbated by the building’s continued lack of maintenance.
In mid-January, one communal bathroom was permanently locked to tenants, with no explanation. Loose wires dangled from hallway ceilings and some ceiling panels were missing, exposing pipes and other electrical wires. A few residential windows were boarded up with plywood, exterior doors were dented and peeling, and several interior doors bore signs of attempted break-ins around their locks.
The building’s outdoor areas – including several patio spaces, a grassy courtyard and raised garden beds – were littered with garbage and overgrown with weeds. A tarp covered a portion of the roof, near a roof leak that tenants had reported to management months ago.
From exposed asbestos drooping from the ceiling in the building’s lobby to a cockroach infestation to clogged shared toilets, tenants say reported building problems commonly go unanswered by management.
“Do they not realize that this is our home?” said Rick Sjolin, who has lived in Milepost 5 since 2021. “It’s not just their place of business, but it’s our actual home. Would they want to live like this?”
After inaction by management, tenants began contacting Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state agency responsible for making sure CDP meets the requirements of a low-income housing provider.
Tenants say that the state agency regularly defers to CDP and Guardian’s claims that there are no maintenance problems, making tenants feel dismissed. Emails obtained by a Milepost 5 neighbor through a public records request illustrate this trend.
In May 2022, an Oregon Housing and Community Services compliance manager received a report about exposed asbestos in Milepost 5′s attic, a space management uses for storage and often broken into by squatters, and forwarded the concern to Guardian manager Kayla Jamieson. In response, Jamieson denied that the public had access to the attic and added that she didn’t recognize the photos of the exposed asbestos attached to the complaint. That was enough to convince the compliance manager to close the complaint.
“We feel abandoned,” Cook said. “By the state, by the property owners, by the city, by the community. No one’s looking out for us.”
In an email to OPB, OHCS spokesperson Delia Hernández explained that the sheer amount of concerns the state agency has been alerted to regarding Milepost 5 is uncommon.
“As the agency has a limited role with the affordable housing communities it funds, for the most part, tenant concerns are sent to the property owners and managers,” Hernández wrote.
OHCS is required to conduct physical site inspections of affordable housing it helps fund every three years. Due to the urgency of the concerns raised at Milepost 5, Hernández said the agency moved up that timeline to conduct a “more extensive review” recently.
The threat of the state agency’s inspection was felt across the apartment complex. Cook believes the inspection, which took place in late January, prompted Guardian to make some hasty maintenance fixes in anticipation. A week before the site visit, Cook said workers affixed keypads to two of four communal bathroom doors to keep trespassers out, repaired long-broken windows and stuck security cameras in the complex’s hallways, without any warning to tenants. Cook pointed out that management also affixed air fresheners to hallway walls to try to cover up the smell of mildew caused by recent ceiling water damage.
She said she appreciated the small updates, but lamented that tenants only see improvements when government authorities threaten a visit – never when renters file a complaint.
The results of OHCS’ inspection will be shared with the property owner and management company and not be made public, according to Hernández.
Proper property upkeep
Guardian’s Forsman refutes the accusations of neglect laid out in the lawsuit. She says that a janitorial service cleans Milepost 5′s communal areas for six hours each day and that broken doors, windows and other building fixtures are always repaired within a day.
“With any apartment community, management handles things as things happen,” said Forsman. “Milepost 5 is not unique. Every single day we do what is right by our residents.”
Property owners Community Development Partners declined to be interviewed by OPB for this story. But a CDP spokesperson forwarded a statement written by the company’s CEO, Eric Paine, explaining that, “If residents raise concerns, we are committed to finding solutions right away.”
“That is our approach at Milepost 5,” Paine continued, “despite neighborhood livability and law enforcement challenges that are beyond our control as property owners and were exacerbated by the pandemic.”
That isn’t the reality for Milepost 5 residents. The apartment complex’s environment is especially shocking to people who signed a lease expecting to be part of a supportive artist community.
When Gerhardt first visited Milepost 5, she recalls being given a tour from management down hallways lined with artwork. By the time she moved in, all of the artwork had been removed. Several other tenants told OPB that they experienced the same phenomenon over the past two years.
“It felt like false advertising,” Gerhardt said.
In late January, the halls of Milepost 5′s residences were void of artwork. Forsman, with Guardian, claims that this isn’t usually the case, and that art may currently be missing from the halls because tenants steal each other’s artwork.
Four different Milepost 5 residents said they haven’t seen art hanging in their halls for at least a year.
In September 2022, Gerhardt put her energy into curating a gallery show at Milepost 5 – something that used to be a common occurrence in the building’s gallery rooms. She says that management refused to let her use the communal gallery space or allow her space to store the artwork when it wasn’t on display, to prevent theft. Management offered no financial support to advertise the art show or host an event. To Gerhardt, it felt as if management was working directly against Milepost 5′s stated values to help low-income artists thrive.
CDP’s website advertising Milepost 5 notes that the apartment complex hosts monthly art openings, and that tenants have access to a workshop space for art projects. That workshop, which was touted as an amenity included in the price of rent, has been closed behind a padlock for more than a year, according to residents. Asked why this space has been shuttered, Guardian’s Forsman said that she wasn’t aware of this room’s existence and did not know why it was locked.
“We are not preventing people from using any space in the building,” she said.
Forsman noted that her company has also offered art classes to tenants at no cost. Gerhardt recalls management offering a rock painting class late last year.
“It was insulting,” said Gerhardt. “We’re working artists, not fifth graders.”
Residents who were attracted to Milepost 5 for its artistic offerings say that their capacity to make art has been depleted since moving in.
“I haven’t been able to write in a year and a half,” Cook said. “I’ve been too exhausted.”
Today, the majority of Cook’s writing comes in the form of long emails to OHCS, CDP and Guardian documenting the latest maintenance issue or criminal activity she’s witnessed at Milepost 5. Cook, who also works at a tax office, said she doesn’t have much time for anything else.
“It’s hard to find inspiration and feel creative when you’re spending all your energy fighting to feel safe in your home,” she said.
Yet taking Guardian to court was never Cook’s intention.
“We tried to handle it every other way,” she said. “But after three years of fighting, it’s clear that nothing else will really make a difference.”
Tenants vs. management
The lawsuit intends to represent all Milepost 5 tenants who have lived at the complex within the past year. The case specifically centers on Guardian’s neglect of the building’s shared living spaces, like the bathrooms, kitchens and community rooms.
Attorney Emily Templeton, who is representing the tenants, has experience fighting for renters’ rights in court. But she said this case stands out from past complaints for the sheer number of tenants impacted by the management company’s negligence.
“It’s not just in-unit violations we’re talking about,” Templeton said. “This impacts anyone in the building, which is why it was primed to be a class action case.”
Guardian has yet to respond to the initial legal complaint. On Feb. 7, Templeton’s office was notified that prominent trial attorney John DiLorenzo would be representing Guardian. DiLorenzo is known for using the courts to pursue local policy changes, like improving oversight on how the city’s water bureau uses taxpayer dollars or – more recently – pushing the city to enforce a sidewalk camping ban to adhere to the Americans with Disability Act.
His appointment could signal Guardian’s interest in using the case to establish a larger change in the standards property management companies must meet when overseeing low-income housing complexes. Whatever precedent this case sets, it has the potential to impact a new batch of affordable housing programs cropping up across the region: Both Gov. Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson have committed millions in the past month to developing new housing for low-income tenants at risk of homelessness.
“The more you learn about affordable housing, the more you realize it’s not about providing affordable housing for renters, it’s about making housing affordable for developers,” Cook said. “I can only hope our situation makes that clear.”
According to state records from 2022, Guardian manages and owns at least 38 different affordable housing apartment complexes that rely on government subsidies across Oregon. CDP owns seven.
The city’s initial investment in Milepost 5′s success has dwindled over the years. Tenants recently reached out to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office to help address some of the building’s issues by declaring the property a nuisance – a move that would require the property owners to immediately address chronic problems or face a civil lawsuit from the city. According to Wheeler’s office, the mayor has not initiated any nuisance proceedings regarding Milepost 5, but is “working closely with relevant partners to help address the concerns voiced by the tenants.”
With some last-minute fundraising, Gerhardt eventually managed to put on a gallery show at Milepost 5 in the fall. She hung the show in a communal gathering area and stored the artwork in her room between showings, to prevent theft. She and other tenants organized an open house, and welcomed the public into the space for the first time in months. Although it was a challenge to orchestrate without management’s support, Gerhardt says she’s going to try to continue coordinating gallery shows on site.
“It’s hard work, especially without any help,” Gerhardt said. “But, at the same time, this is why I moved in here. I keep feeling like if the tenants don’t fight to keep this space alive, then it will be forgotten.”