Study: Property complaints higher among BIPOC neighborhoods

Multnomah County

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A study from the Portland City Auditor’s Office indicates that residents in racially diverse and gentrified areas disproportionately receive more property maintenance complaints compared to other Portland neighborhoods.

The Ombudsman’s Office, a division of the Portland City Auditor’s Office, analyzed maintenance complaints from 2013 to 2018 on owner-occupied properties. Between these years, properties received 15,227 complaints, approximately 2,500 complaints per year, according to the Ombudsman’s Office.

Auditors determined neighborhoods that are more racially diverse and undergoing gentrification had the highest number of complaints.

“The results showed statistically significant disparate effects on communities of color, probably an unsurprising finding given the historical roots of complaint-driven enforcement,” the Ombudsman’s Office said.

The city auditor’s rules for home maintenance range from landscaping to objects placed in driveways. Despite the type of violation — whether it is based on aesthetics or public safety — all violations are fined the same amount, the Ombudsman’s Office said.

Property maintenance complaints to the Bureau of Development Services are investigated by a city inspector. If the inspector identifies a violation, they notify the property owner and provide a deadline to meet city compliance standards. If the standard is not met, the property owner is subject to a fine and a lien on the property — making the property more difficult to sell, refinance, or become eligible for a loan.

The report showed the impacts of liens, exemplified by one homeowner who ended up with nearly $30,000 in enforcement liens for not addressing neighbor’s complaints about peeling paint.

Another case showed a 79-year-old blind veteran who received more than $88,000 in enforcement liens after complaints about tall grass and storing a boat and vehicles on his property.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, homeowners across Portland currently owe $10.5 million in outstanding enforcement liens.

“It just got so bad that I just, I gave up because the fines were racking up so quickly, they were going to foreclose on me,” Northeast Portland resident Bruce Cushman said.

Cushman almost lost his home from fines that started over deteriorated siding and a broken window, which snowballed to $120,000.

Living off of less than $1,000 a month from Social Security, Cushman says he couldn’t afford to pay the fines and for a time and was physically unable to do the repairs.

After working with the city, Cushman was able to reduce his lien to around $6,000 and avoided foreclosure.

“It is almost exclusively a complaint-driven system, with neighbors and passersby filing confidential reports that are investigated by City inspectors,” Portland City Auditor Mary Hull-Caballero said.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, community members and city inspectors have “raised concern,” over the complaint-based enforcement system as it has shown to disproportionately affect what they call “Portland’s most economically vulnerable property owners,” and communities of color.

The city’s report claims that of the 94 neighborhoods analyzed in the study, these 10 had the highest complaint rates:

Woodland Park
Mt. Scott-Arleta
Vernon
Lents
Brentwood-Darlington
Foster-Powell
Boise
Portsmouth
Kenton
Buckman Community

City auditors explain that these findings counter Portland’s equity goals which aim to eliminate “racial disparities in government,” the Ombudsman’s Office said.

“This is an example of an enforcement system that seems fair on the surface but ends up burdening some Portlanders more than others,” Hull-Caballero said.

Hull-Caballero also pointed out Oregon’s historical roots in housing discrimination, saying “the City must be vigilant about analyzing outcomes and eliminating laws put in place long ago to favor wealthier white property owners.”

The report also shows that areas where these complaints are more heavily enforced, are also disproportionately impacted by climate change, poorer health outcomes, and do not benefit from government subsidies.

The Ombudsman’s Office recommends that Development Services eliminates the complaint-based policy and should engage with the affected communities “to seek their recommendations on changes to the property maintenance code and identify an equitable enforcement mechanism and appropriate funding source that does not rely on fines and liens,” Hull-Caballero said.

Commissioner Dan Ryan and the office of Development Services say they are working to implement the office’s recommendations. “We are committed to equitable outcomes and dismantling systemic racism in its systems, processes and services, including our property maintenance code and systems for enforcing this code,” Ryan said.

In a letter to city commissioners and Hull-Caballero, the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights said that the report “illustrates one facet of a systemically oppressed structure connected to homeownership,” and also agreed with city auditor’s recommendations, citing EHR’s commitment to implement “anti-racist strategies.”

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