By Andrew Wilkins
Fred McNeil has big plans for his renovated bungalow in the Brooklyn neighborhood. His property backs up to the Willamette River, and he and his partner want to convert the shed into an Accessory Dwelling Unit. Adding a second story would take advantage of the stunning river views and sunsets over downtown.
McNeil says he enjoys the neighborhood, but in the four years since he bought his house, the neighborhood isn’t improving as fast as he expected. He thinks the city’s slow response to code complaints is part of the problem and lack of a strategic plan.
The house shares a driveway with an 102-year-old house that’s converted into a multi-plex. About ten people live there at one time, he said, and there’s frequent turn-over among the young residents.
They often leave discarded furniture and inoperable vehicles on the property, and the property was found to not have enough garbage storage. That problem was rectified by the owner.
Several attempts were made to communicate with the owner, who McNeil said is a prominent Portland business owner, but he has refused to cooperate.
The owner told him the house wasn’t his problem, and McNeil was told by him that he moved out of Brooklyn because it was a slum neighborhood.
The Brooklyn Action Corps local neighborhood association, invited the owner to a meeting to discuss the problem, but he didn’t show up. McNeil has talked with a lawyer, who said this kind of case can cost up to $10,000 to litigate.
Bureau of Development Services representatives told McNeil in an email there’s not enough staff to handle all the complaints. Health and safety hazard complaints are prioritized.
“The city is just really dragging behind, and they don’t enforce their own city codes,” McNeil said.
The struggle with his neighbor isn’t uncommon. City living brings conflicts in lifestyles and expectations, and Portland’s current growth spurt only adds fuel to the fire.
BDS receives over 20,000 code complaints annually, according to its website, with compliance reached in over 90 percent of cases.
Besides filing a complaint with the city, Portland residents have other choices when handling problems with neighbors, says John Dutt, program manager for the city’s Information and Referral Program.
IRP representatives can be reached at 503.823.4000 to refer residents to the right government department, but many are solved simply through communication between neighbors. Complaints can also be made at portlandoregon.gov.
“We encourage them to have a conversation,” Dutt said. “A lot of times they say they [their neighbor] aren’t willing to talk about it, or they tried and they are not reasonable. Some say ‘Yeah, I guess I should talk to them…’ I guess sometimes it’s easier to call and file a complaint than to talk to them.”
Of the complaints that require an agency referral, about 80 percent of them go to BDS, Dutt said. His program doesn’t track the number of complaints resolved and each agency keeps its own statistics.
McNeil said that timetable hasn’t been met for his complaints. “We don’t rely on city for much, but when we do have a problem, they can’t help us,” he said.
In an email response to his complaint, he learned that since 2009, the city has cut back services after a “sharp reduction” in inspection staff.
Complaints are put into three categories, and for the low-priority third category, no enforcement/compliance action will be taken. Priority 3 complaints include non-habitable structures without utilities, owner-occupied properties, residential stereos and car-related noise issues, disabled vehicles, and temporary activities like yard sales.
Calls to BDS officials were not returned before deadline. The owner of the property next door to McNeil didn’t respond to questions about the situation.
Residents can research problem houses through portlandmaps.com. Enter an address, and when the house file is retrieved, click the Permits/Cases link for a list of building permits and code complaints. The owner of the property’s name and address can be found through the Assessor link.
When there are problems between neighbors that aren’t addressed by the law, a no-cost mediation service called Resolutions NW is available to help resolve issues over untrimmed trees, loud animals, or help establish good neighbor agreements. www.resolutionsnorthwest.org.
In McNeil’s case, BDS representatives recently offered him a new option: if he was willing to waive his confidentiality, he could begin a new complaint process.
Three violations under this system would bring higher fines, they told him. He said has already made three complaints: one that was verified, one that he cleaned up, and a third that was gone because it took the inspectors three weeks to come by the property.
Why BDS is just now giving him this new option now is confusing to McNeil, but he’ll continue to follow up with the City.
He has invested six figures in the house in the past few years, but is holding back on doing more until he sees more improvement in the neighborhood.