By Midge Pierce
The human toll of the housing crisis is measured in the wizened face of 92-year-old Anna Lendya, an immigrant who has called Holgate Manor home since 1993. Her deepset eyes, looking every bit as ancient as her Ukrainian roots, brim with tears as she contemplates a 9.9% July rent increase she can’t afford.
Her neighbor Rakheliya Lewiskaya likewise worries that she can’t pay the rent increase without financial assistance. Her back is bad and she may be unable to continue working as a caretaker. If forced to move, she has no good options.
“These situations play out all of over Portland,” says Anthony Bencivengo of Portland Tenants United (PTU) which is partnering with the Holgate Manor Tenants Union to prevent tenant displacement. The 81-unit Creston-Kenilworth complex was long considered a welcoming haven for refugees hailing from many countries and speaking eight different languages. After it was sold to an out-of-state owner, PTU claims the new management company used a mixture of incentives and potentially misleading information to get tenants to sign contracts they did not understand. If they declined, they faced rent increases just below the 10% threshold requiring landlord’s pay move-out expenses.
Now PTU is attempting to counter the pressure to vacate that the many non-English speakers experienced, ostensibly so their homes could be remodeled. The catch, according to PTU, is that promises for tenants return are predicated on residents paying additional security deposits and undergoing re-screening, a process that caught two Cambodian refugees in a net Bencivengo calls “implied racism” resulting in permanent eviction. Those who signed move out agreements inadvertently signed away rights, he says. Those able to return faced increases for remodeled units much higher than 9.9%. “Taking advantage of residents, many of whom are elderly, on fixed incomes and don’t understand the language, is untenable,” he says.
To determine if fair housing rules are being violated, PTU is now connecting tenants with legal aid lawyers. They have also contacted the Mayor to see if the City would use some of a $258 million housing bond to buy the complex. Portland Housing Bureau spokesperson Martha Calhoon confirms the project would likely qualify but for the caveat that it can’t force the owner to sell. Instead, PHB staff will meet with Holgate Manor residents to pair them with housing assistance resources.
PTU has also sent a union letter to demand that owner Fred Kleinbub implement manageable tenancy terms, undertake maintenance that includes getting rid of vermin and provide translators for non-English speaking residents. (As of this writing, Holgate Manor’s Princeton Property Management had not responded to requests.) The outcome could establish a precedent for tenants citywide and establish PTU as a first defense against renter displacement. Last year, the group teamed with a coalition to pass, unsuccessfully, a bill banning no-cause evictions. The recent primary election defeat of Rod Monroe, the largest landlord in the state senate according to Bencivengo, clears the way to reintroduce the bill in the future.
Meanwhile, life at Holgate Manor is apparently no picnic. Listed as a four-star apartment on apartments.com, residents complain of mold, rodents and non-working appliances even after remodels.
For her part, Anna Lendya worries about the garden she tends with fruit, flowers, parsley and a plum tree – small comforts that remind her of a home she left long ago.
To sign the Holgate Manor petition: change.org/p/mayor-ted-wheeler-help-holgate-manor-tenants-stay-in-our-homes