Tree of Heaven: A slow-growing menace

Special Reports

Portland homeowner frustrated while trying to protect his property

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s called the Tree of Heaven, but most people think it comes from the opposite place. An invasive predator from below: a tree a local man did not plant is damaging his home, a tree that he believes is not on his property caused him to face repair costs of tens of thousands of dollars.

“I am very frustrated because this is all I have,” said homeowner Reggie Williams. “I’ve put my whole life and soul into this.”

The Portland resident said through the years he experienced problems with the tree causing damage to his roof. The city required Williams to fix the sidewalk at the base of the tree, but he did not see the underground threat coming to his home’s foundation.

An undated photo of a root from a Tree of Heaven causing significant damage to Reggie Williams’ home in Northeast Portland (Courtesy: Reggie Williams)

His situation can now serve as a warning about something growing in neighborhoods all over the area. It can cause destruction which leaves homeowners on the hook for thousands.

It’s been nearly 2 years since Williams realized something was wrong in the basement of his Northeast Portland home.

“The cracks run all the way to the back,” he said. “When the engineer got here, she said she seen enough.”

According to a February engineer’s report, 2 foundation walls have “cracking that is likely causing the structure to become unstable.” The culprit? The engineer said it is the tree inbetween Williams’ house and the neighbors.

The roots come from what’s known as a “Tree of Heaven” — but don’t let that name fool you. The City of Portland described it as an “alien plant invader.” The Tree of Heaven is on the city’s list of nuisance trees , and there was even a government-backed local group called “Tree-of-Heaven Eradication Now” that declared, “these trees have cracked foundations, shifted pipe, and caused an untold amount of damage.”

Reggie Williams, July 2019 (KOIN)

When KOIN 6 News spoke with Williams at his house in July, he said the city wouldn’t give him a permit to take the tree down.

“They said I can’t cut the tree because it’s not on my property line,” said Williams.

In 2017, the neighbors got a tree cutting permit, but the owners’ adult daughter told KOIN 6 News off-camera, “Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away, and we had to go back to Africa. My family is very big and it cost a lot.”

The woman also said the situation is, “Frustrating. It isn’t just our property, it’s also Habitat for Humanity is involved.”

The family got the house through Habitat for Humanity. However, the organization told KOIN 6 News, “the tree is not the responsibility of Habitat for Humanity… to remove or maintain because we are the lender. It is the homeowner’s responsibility.”

“I do have homeowner’s insurance,” said Williams. “But they’re not covering this type of incident here.”

Photos show massive roots, including one that runs along the foundation of Williams home:

One estimate shows the damage to his home will cost $36-38,000.

Over the summer, KOIN 6 News contacted the City of Portland’s Parks and Recreation Bureau, which handles tree problems. The city looked into the situation and determined it is a civil issue between the neighbors.

To protect his house, Williams cut the roots in his yard. Then, in September, the city again sent out an inspector who determined, “The tree is now unstable and will die, so it will be posted as dangerous and must be removed.” The city fined Williams $350 for cutting the roots.

The inspector also said there was a surveyor’s stake in the ground and decided, “the tree was jointly owned by both properties. It straddles the property line.”

The Tree of Heaven sits between two homes in Northeast Portland. July 2019 (KOIN)

KOIN 6 News’ attempts to figure out who is responsible for the survey stake have been unsuccessful. It is not there now, and a recent survey has not been registered with the county. Williams believes the city inspector is wrong—that his own new survey shows the tree did not straddle his property line.

Ironically, the violation combined with the city’s property line opinion finally gave Williams the right to take down the tree. He paid to have the tree removed last month, but the damage to his home remains. Williams has a new lawyer, and hoping he won’t have to file a lawsuit.

“I don’t know what more to do,” said Williams.

If you’re a property owner, you should look around because damage to your home caused by tree roots is not covered by homeowner’s insurance. KOIN 6 News spoke with the state agency that regulates insurance companies about this case.

“Unfortunately, there’s things that happen over time that we don’t see,” said Brad Hilliard, spokesman for the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation. “And unfortunately, it’s just one of those things that’s not covered by insurance.”

A crack in the foundation of Reggie Williams’ home is visible from the outside. July 2019 (KOIN)

He said tree root damage isn’t typically covered by homeowners insurance, the same way a slow drip from a leaking pipe inside a wall wouldn’t be covered—both are considered normal wear and tear.

The Portland Parks Bureau points out that a lot of trees can cause problems, not just trees on the nuisance list.

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