Exploring Lents ‘Zombie Houses’

Find out why the Mayor, and a large contingent of neighbors and officials, toured five ‘living-but-dead’ residences in outer East Portland …

The Lents “Zombie House” tour begins at 4118 SE 91st Avenue, location of a long-time problem house on the block, plagued with squatters – and a drug overdose death.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

A sizable caravan of City of Portland officials, with a large contingent of reporters tagging along, zigzagged through the Lents neighborhood on the morning of June 10 in what they called a “Zombie House Tour”.

The vacant houses on this tour, often occupied by squatters – whether in foreclosure, or left empty and neglected by an owner – often rack up thousands of dollars in unpaid nuisance abatement charges and fines, and accumulate substantial liens against their titles.

But more than this, these neglected homes degrade the quality of life in an area, neighbors attest.

Lents neighborhood activist, and life resident, Ray Hites talks with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales about the proposal to foreclose on zombie houses.

Ray Hites, a life-long resident of the Lents neighborhood, and long-involved with his neighborhood association, was one of those on the tour.

“As a neighborhood activist who has gone door-to-door, talking to folks since the late 1980s, these kind of homes have negatively impacted our neighborhood for decades,” Hites told East Portland News.

“In the cases where a property owner finally fixed up the place and rented it or sold it, those homes have become wonderful features of our neighborhood,” Hites added.

Looking at the first house in the stop, at 4118 SE 91st Avenue, Hites commented, “This house is an example of a ‘bad neighbor’. We need people to step up, and support each other, and work to make the neighborhood more live livable and better.”

Saying he “woke up” about this issue about a year ago, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales tells of the city’s plans to bring zombie houses back to life.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales held a brief conference at the first zombie house.

“What we’re proposing is important, because these houses are toxic for neighborhoods,” Hales told East Portland News.

“The effects of this house, and hundreds like them, are not confined to the interior of the house,” Hales noted. “They affect the whole neighborhood.

“We have neighbors here, and neighborhood activists here, who’ve been begging the city to get going on the solution,” Hales went on.

As he walks away from the first house on the tour, Hales talks with neighbors about the city’s foreclosure plan.

“It’s obvious as soon as you see one, or talk to a neighbor about how toxic these houses are, and how they degrade their street and area,” Hales added. “The city has not foreclosed on a house in 50 years; and now, it’s about time.”

Working with City attorneys, Hales explained they’re “dusting off” a mechanism that allows foreclosure on houses that are owned by individuals, corporations, or banks, but left abandoned and disheveled.

“It’s taken a while for us to dust off this ‘tool’, and get it working again – 50 years is a long time to not use a tool,” Hales announced. “So, [metaphorically speaking] we’ve cleaned off the rust, squirted some oil on it and kicked it a couple times, and now it is working and we will be using it – we will be foreclosing on these kind of properties.”

At the second stop, the group gathers in the yard of 9720 Holgate Boulevard – mere blocks from Lent Elementary School.

Hales warned property speculators: “If you own property in this condition, and you expect that the city will be your ‘unpaid property manager’ while you wait for the value to go up – and in the process you are going to dump the problems that it creates on the neighbors and on the community – you are done; finished.

“We will send you the bill,” Hales continued. “If you don’t pay the bill we will foreclose on you under the authority of the law given to local government. It sounds simple, and in a way it is; we have this authority, and we are finally using it.”

On the tour, Chad Stover, Livability Project Manager with Mayor Charlie Hales office, listens while Portland Bureau of Developmental Services Enforcement Program Manager Mike Liefeld tallies up the costs of “maintaining” one of the Lents zombie houses.

City of Portland Bureau of Developmental Services Enforcement Program Manager Mike Liefeld said that city has spent $105,000 on board-ups and nuisance abatements on this one property alone.

Hales said he “woke up on this issue” a little over a year ago on a ride-along with Portland Police Bureau (PPB) East Precinct Officer Aaron Schmautz. “He knew every single house in his patrol district that looks like this. Unfortunately there are hundreds of these residences like this in our city; each one is a tragedy.”

City of Portland Crime Prevention Program Manager Stephanie Reynolds talks with PPB Neighborhood Response Team officers at a house beset with squatters and arson fires at 9809 SE Holgate Boulevard.

The mayor remarked that the first house on the tour had both an expensive and heart-rending past.

“This one is especially a tragedy, because a 27-year-old woman died in this house of a heroin overdose; that’s terrible,” said Hales. “It is an outrage that we have houses like this that are a blight on our neighborhoods.

Another outrage, Hales observed, is the number of blighted, falling-apart houses in the city during a housing shortage. “We’re struggling to find housing for people. This is one solution; I’m very happy about that.”

Policing zombie houses drains department resources, says PPB East Precinct Commander Dave Hendrie.

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Dave Hendrie, along with his Neighborhood Response Team officers, was also on the tour.

“What [the Portland City Council] proposes is a good first step to manage this type of distressed and ‘zombie’ homes that are very difficult to deal with, from a policing standpoint,” Hendrie told East Portland News.

Even in the computer and Internet age, finding the “person in charge” of a zombie house is challenging, the precinct commander pointed out.

“Without their approval and cooperation, we can’t effectively start addressing the trespassing, the vandalism, and the criminal activity that’s going on in and around them,” Hendrie said. “Ultimately these abandoned houses become crime hubs, and cause a lot of issues for the neighbors.”

Neighborhood Response Team officers tell visitors to “watch their step, and walk carefully” around this zombie house at 5222 SE 97th Avenue.

In a city with an under-staffed police force, dealing with thefts, theft of property, theft of utilities, drug sale and use, and all the associated crimes, saps police resources.

“Daily, our officers are responding to calls about houses that are in disrepair, where the owner is not taking any step toward securing the property. So, our officers are out responding to these calls,” Hendrie said.

With her children around her, Lents neighbor Sally Bowman expresses hope that blighted houses will soon be gone from their streets.

“It’s really good that the Mayor and his office is doing something about this; I am very pleased,” neighbor Sally Bowman told East Portland News.

“The most important thing about this today is that this is the catalyst to start things and make things move forward, and hopefully get some initiative and take care of these houses that are a blight on the neighborhoods, and on society,” Bowman added.

This house, at 5908 SE 86th Avenue, looks okay from the front, but is full of garbage and partially burned.

On June 15, the Portland City Council voted to start foreclosing on five abandoned homes – doing so for the first time in 50 years – saying it is part of a long-term plan to free up housing in an overheated market, while clearing out squatters who have plagued outer East Portland neighborhoods for decades.

Don’t expect immediate action, officials warn. The foreclosure process usually takes about a year to run is course.

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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