Marion County

California owners evict low-income Salem renters

SALEM, Ore. (KOIN)  -- It's an Oregon city where rents are rising, homelessness is high, and nearly every house or apartment is already occupied – and it's not Portland. 

Salem is now struggling with its own affordability issues, made worse by the fact that so many people are getting squeezed out of Portland. And to date, Salem hasn't experienced the type of development boom seen in Portland, either. 

With this backdrop, it would stand to reason that any new affordable-housing development coming to Salem would be welcomed. Like many things when it comes to real estate, however, the reality is much more complicated. 

"It feels like the roof is falling down"

The residents of a low-cost apartment complex in an industrial area of Salem started getting nervous when they learned the property was going to be sold to new owners this spring. 

"They didn't come right out and say, 'You're going to keep your place,'" Marie Barham said. "They came out and said, 'You don't have anything to worry about.'" 

The residents' instincts, however, were correct. They say that two days after they paid rent to the new owners, who are based in southern California, they found eviction notices posted to their doors. 

The evictions weren't due to non-payment, or the types of behavioral problems that drive landlords to want to evict tenants. In this case, the residents – many of them senior citizens or people living with chronic illnesses or disabilities – had done nothing wrong.  

The reason for termination was written on the notice in bubbly handwriting: "Owner is remodeling all units." Tenants would have 60 days to leave. 

KOIN 6 News tracked down the new owners through their Oregon-based property manager. They agreed to answer emailed questions under the condition of anonymity.  

"One of our goals is to help address this shortage [of affordable housing] by making available high-quality apartments that are friendly to affordable housing needs," they wrote. They said the plan was to convert the 13-unit complex into a property with as many as 20 units. 

The irony is not lost on the current tenants. While the remodel could be a boon to other low- and fixed-income Salem residents – and potentially even a greater number of people, if the additional units are completed – the eviction has the men and women presently living in the complex staring down the prospect of homelessness.  

"[The eviction notices] put us all in a panic," Barham said. "If we're not disabled, we're low-income … We don't want to be part of [the homeless population]. But it's going in that direction." 

Scott Gates said he had been living in the complex for about a year. Prior to moving in, he had been on the streets for a decade and a half. His rent - $550 per month – is paid with the assistance of a local agency. 

"It feels like the roof is falling down," he said.  

Another resident, Ernie Fromherz, said he and his wife find themselves at a loss figuring out where to go next. 

"We're contemplating just getting a tent," said Fromherz, who said he survives on a pension from the VA, having served in the Vietnam War.  "We'll live out like everybody else in that position." 

"It's a very common event" 

The problems facing the complex's tenants, and many renters across Salem and the state, are twofold. 

They often don't have enough money saved to pay for a deposit and first month's rent. And even if they did have the cash on hand, there simply aren't enough affordable apartments or houses available.  

"We have a 2% vacancy rate," Salem Housing Authority Client Services Manager Kellie Battaglia said. 

The low vacancy rate compounds the problem. The high demand for housing enables landlords to raise rental rates even higher, making units that much less affordable. 

"It's a very common event," ARCHES director Jimmy Jones said. "We have individuals on fixed incomes, and their rents have gone up $200 to $300. What they could have afforded three years ago, they can no longer afford, so they become homeless as a product of that." 

ARCHES, which is part of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, provides rental and deposit assistance to people who are homeless or facing homelessness. In some cases, the organization will pay up to $2,000 to cover a client's deposit, and as much as two to three months' worth of rent. 

Unlike Salem, Portland now has in place a mandatory rental relocation assistance policy, designed to help victims of no-cause evictions. Under the policy, renters served with no-cause eviction notices are entitled to assistance ranging from $2,900 to $4,500, depending on the size of the unit. Landlords also must provide at least 90 days' notice.  

Barham said monetary assistance or additional time would have been helpful. She says she makes $784 a month in disability payments, and her rent is $900. She said she affords the unit through the help of her son, and when he can't pitch in, she says her church covers the balance. 

"I think 60 days is too short a time to give anyone on a set income time to move out," she said. "When you take their entire income to pay for rent, you cannot expect them to get out in that time." 

A bill introduced in the Oregon House of Representatives in 2017 aimed to create similar protections for renters as the Portland policy. Representative Karin Power, a Democrat from Oregon's district 41, helped push forward the bill, which passed the House but eventually died in the Senate. She said a revised bill will be put forward in the 2019 session. 

 "I had one woman who was probably in her 70s … who had been no-cause evicted three times in a year and a half," Power said. "They had to figure out how to dip into savings even further to pay for first month's rent and deposit – that kind of stress was untenable." 

The sums that could help renters pay to get into housing, however, is dwarfed by the amount of money needed to build more units. And that, according to people working on affordability and homelessness issues, is perhaps an even greater, more intractable problem. 

"Salem Housing Authority is one of the only affordable housing developers in the area," Battaglia said. "We can't acquire and build enough units to get out of this challenge [fast enough]." 

Battaglia said her agency has 3,500 housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). All 3,500 are being used, and an additional 4,000 people remain on the agency's waitlist. 

With the current demand, it takes people 3 to 4 years to get off the waitlist. Finally getting a housing voucher, however, is not the same as being able to find housing. 

"When people come to the top of the list and are issued their voucher, they struggle to find an apartment they can afford," Battaglia said.  

Rental relocation assistance isn't necessarily a silver bullet, but from a renter's perspective, it can be better than receiving nothing. While Battaglia said she appreciates the complex's new owners wanting to upgrade a property, she added, "There's some sense of obligation of the property owner." She said the agency does pay relocation fees to tenants in the event the agency has to evict a tenant in order to complete renovations, though Salem Housing Authority is a public entity and not a private developer,  

"I think the end result is positive if the property is maintained, and if it's affordable, having upgrades would be excellent, but there's obviously negative impacts to the tenants in the meantime," she said.  

In their email, the new owners of the complex wrote, "[D]ue to the high costs of the project, we cannot afford to offer relocation assistance as part of this effort." They said they do intend to return full security deposits to the tenants, barring "extenuating circumstances or intentional efforts to damage the property." 

Figuring out the next move 

Two weeks after initially speaking with the tenants, KOIN 6 News returned to the north Salem complex. There were signs pointing to a "Moving Sale," and used furniture was stacked outside the units.  

Fromherz, the Vietnam veteran, said he and his wife still hadn't figured out where to go. He was hoping he'd be able to find a place in time. 

Barham, meanwhile, wasn't home. Her son, Allan Kline, was walking around the for-sale items outside the unit. He said she and the residents had set up a GoFundMe page to help with moving expenses. Twenty dollars had been raised, out of a $26,000 goal. 

While they were focusing on finding a place, Kline said they had larger, more pressing concerns, showing a photo on his phone of his mother hooked up to tubes in a hospital bed in Salem Hospital.  

In a text message, he wrote, "Mom has a lung infection, COPD, congestive heart failure … pneumonia and is extremely stressed out." He said the doctors told her that stress weakened her. 

The stress, he wrote, "is compounding everything." 

Gates, the resident who had been chronically homeless, was nowhere to be seen, either. Kline said he was struggling under the stress.  

Earlier in May, Gates had spoken at length about how he finally felt like he could focus on the future. 

"I'm living – not just having to survive. Living and enjoying life," he said. 

He showed off the small unit he lived in. It was dark and disorganized, and water filled the sink. In the email from the new owners, they wrote that the buildings had been built in 1934 and were in poor condition. 

"The units need complete remodeling, including electrical, plumbing, drywall, flooring, cabinets, roofing, siding, windows, etc.," they wrote.  

Gates, however, wasn't rattling off a laundry list of problems with the unit. For him, it was a home – which was more than he could say for the 15 years he was living on the streets. 

"It's really scary, because homelessness is the hardest thing to get out of," he said. "You think you're secure. Then, all of a sudden, boom." 

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