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Tenant Takes on Landlord Over Maintenance Issues

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Renae Armstrong moved into her SE Portland apartment almost two years ago, in January 2005. She immediately noted a long list of minor repairs in the circa-1964 unit that needed attention, like a small hole in the bathroom wall where a towel rack was moved, a broken tub drain stopper, missing molding in the kitchen, and a broken light fixture over her back door—items, she says, that the Madrone/Acacia Apartments manager at the time agreed to address promptly.

As of September—over a year and a half after she moved in—those items were still not fixed. One thing that the management did address—a leaky shower pipe—is still leaking. And a much larger problem opened up in her bathroom last month—literally.

On September 21, Armstrong's foot sank through the floor in her bathroom, next to the toilet— underneath the vinyl flooring, the wood had rotted away, exposing the dirt-floor crawl space beneath. To make matters worse, mold had infested the underside of the floor—the mold is so overpowering, Armstrong says she has to keep the bathroom door closed at all times.

In the weeks since the hole opened up, Armstrong has complained to the city's Bureau of Development Services, which sent out two inspectors. The inspectors found 15 property maintenance code violations, seven of which were so severe—like open-ground electrical outlets in the laundry room, and Armstrong's bathroom floor hole—they were tagged as "Fire Life Safety" violations in an October 12 notice.

And a September 6 Housing Authority of Portland annual inspection report on the unit—Armstrong rents with a Section 8 voucher—is marked "Fail," with notes on things like a lack of smoke alarms in the bedrooms, and the bathroom floor problems (at the time of the inspection, the floor was "soft").

Armstrong found an attorney, and did not pay her rent on October 1, in protest. She also tried to start a tenants' union. "I've got a lot of union organizing experience," she says. She posted flyers around the apartment complex, inviting her neighbors to join: "Are you waiting for Madrone/Acacia Apartments to do repairs?" the flyer asked. "Join a new Tenants' Union... Together we can make a difference." Four tenants joined the union, Armstrong says. (Meanwhile, another neighbor sent her a note about his positive experience as a tenant, explaining that he'd sent the manager a list of 16 needed repairs, "and a large number of them have been resolved.")

But her landlord's attorney, in an October 10 letter to Armstrong's legal counsel, immediately criticized Armstrong's unionizing efforts.

"Renae Armstrong has been soliciting tenants to join a tenants' union," the letter states. "While that may be permissible, some of Armstrong's conduct may be construed as intentional interference with business relations and/or prospective advantage. Accordingly, such activity should cease immediately."

Incensed, Armstrong shot back: "I shall never stop any union activity. Now, I am going to increase my soliciting of tenants." She put another notice on tenants' doors: "Join the new tenants' union. Together we can make it better for everyone. Fair rent for a clean place to live. Fair rent for an apartment that does not require repairs."

Armstrong's landlord—via attorney—did not return requests for comment. The apartment manager did not reply, either. But the attorney's October 10 letter indicates that the landlord would like "to enter Renae Armstrong's premises in order to make repairs," and alleges that Armstrong "has unequivocally refused to allow access without written permission." (Indeed, Armstrong has a note on her door, alerting people to ask permission before entering; she says, however, that she's let the manager and repair people in nine times out of 10, even on short notice.)

A September 27 letter from the manager outlines her efforts to make repairs to Armstrong's unit, which include an inspection in July, and efforts to get bids to repair the dry rot. "There has not been a lapse in attention from my part," the manager wrote. "But we have to fit into the schedules of companies that service not only [our] properties, but have work generating from the entire Portland metro area."

Armstrong, however, doesn't plan to wait around for her floor to get fixed: This past week, she's been packing up her belongings. She's lined up a new Section 8 voucher and relocation assistance funds, and found a new apartment in Gresham.

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