Titan Manor in North Portland has been Julio Lopez Hernandez’s home for as long as he can remember.
“It’s become part of who I am,” Lopez Hernandez, 18, said.
The St. Johns apartment complex is in his earliest memories — the rosebush and little lawn in the courtyard outside his unit and breathless games of tag with his neighbors.
“This is where I learned how to ride a bike, ride a scooter, ride a skateboard,” Lopez Hernandez said.
Lopez Hernandez is now a freshman at George Fox University and the first person in his family to attend college.
His parents and his younger brother and sister still live in the unit he grew up in, at least for a few more weeks.
On Nov. 1, 2017, while Lopez Hernandez was in class, 30 families — including his — received no-cause eviction notices.
It was their second eviction notice in a year and the latest blow in the families’ long struggle to remain in their homes.
Nineteen of the families announced Friday they are suing their landlords.
A group of property developers purchased the Titan Manor in October 2016 for $8.3 million and renamed it “The Melrose.”
The buildings, which date to 1975, had suffered serious neglect and deferred maintenance under previous owners.
For decades, many of the units have been occupied by a tight community of families like Lopez Henandez’s, Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala.
In 2017, the new ownership group began to evict the tenants, renovate the units and raise the rents from around $850 for a one-bedroom to around $1,100.
After a public outcry over the dozens of children living in the building that were facing eviction, last February the owners rescinded the no-cause evictions for the remaining families who wished to stay in their units.
That is, until Nov. 1, when many of the same the families were again told they had to leave.
Friday’s lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Oregon Law Center, alleges that 19 of the families were evicted in retaliation for a letter they sent Oct. 2. That letter asked the owners to postpone a 9 percent rent increase until repairs were made to their units.
“Current residents describe living in substandard conditions surrounded by persistent mold, cockroaches and numerous other violations of local and state rental housing laws,” said Pamela Phan, an organizer with the Community Alliance of Tenants, which has been organizing in the complex for three years.
A website for the renamed Melrose apartments promises “luxury apartments and lavish benefits,” and on a recent visit, visible efforts have been made to fix it up.
The buildings have a fresh coat of gray paint. The pool, once clogged with trash and algae, looks cleaner.
But city records paint a grim picture of what many of the units look like on the inside.
After residents complained last February, city inspectors documented more than 400 individual housing code violations in dozens of occupied units at the Melrose. The problems include missing smoke detectors, mold and loose electrical outlets.
According to the Community Alliance of Tenants, the building has the most violations of any single property in Portland on record.
A housing inspections supervisor for the city said that due to “lack of progress” in correcting the violations, the city is issuing monthly fines and has asked the building’s new owners to sign a repairs agreement, prioritizing fire safety and health sanitation violations.
The tenant lawsuit seeks awards of roughly $2,000-$8,000 per tenant for the substandard conditions in the apartments and alleged violations of Oregon landlord-tenant law.
A spokesman for the apartment owners disputed that the no-cause evictions issued in November were a form of retaliation.
He said moving people out of the units was the only practical way to bring the apartments into compliance with city code after years of neglect by the building’s previous owners.
“Because of the significant investments that are being made, the apartments and homes will be significantly better, healthier, and safer than they were under the previous owners,” said spokesman Dan Lavey.
Lavey noted that the families that have been evicted have received relocation payments, required by the city of Portland in cases of no-cause evictions.
“While it was a difficult decision to impact 30 families, they are receiving $4,000 roughly in relocation assistance from the apartment owners,” he said.
Lavey said the owners have streamlined the application process and waived fees for residents who want to move out of a substandard unit into the complex and into one of the newly renovated units.
“It will result in a much better community, a healthier community, a safer community for the people involved, most particularly the people living there,” he said.
The tenants’ lawsuit disputes that the evictions were necessary in order to bring the units up to code and notes that four of the households that received no-cause eviction notices were living in units that had already been fully or partially renovated.
The argument that the evictions at the Melrose will improve the community is difficult to swallow for Lopez Hernandez, the first-generation college student whose family has to move.
In spite of its problems, Lopez Herandez said the apartment complex was a good place to grow up and a community where low-income families could support each other.
“Most of the families here are low income,” he said. “Growing up here, it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, to ask your neighbor, ‘Hey I’m short on food right now. Can you share something with my family?’”
Families are also concerned that they will have to pull their children out of the neighborhood’s public schools, including Cesar Chavez Elementary and Roosevelt High School, which offer a well-regarded dual language immersion program.
Lopez Hernandez said his parents have received a relocation payment from the Melrose’s owners, which he appreciates.
“It has financially helped them, I would say that, having to look for a new place to live,” he said. “It’s not something that is going to replace the communities that are being broken apart.”
His parents haven’t been able to find another unit they can afford in North Portland, and are looking at relocating to Vancouver, Washington.
Last year, the Portland Housing Bureau reported that the average Latino family could no longer afford to rent a home in any of Portland’s neighborhoods, based on the benchmark that families should spend 30 percent of their income or less on housing.
Lopez Hernandez said that while the renovated Melrose apartments may look nicer, people need to ask who is going to be able to enjoy them.
“The people who have been asking for this change,” he said “they don’t get to reap those benefits.”
His parents, he added, never missed a rent payment.