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Slumlord's Revenge

When it Rains Inside, Is it Okay to Stop Paying Rent?

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TWO NEIGHBORS in Tigard are fighting the same landlord. And their cases? They bear a striking resemblance. Both illustrate an all-too-common dilemma for Oregon renters: Sometimes, demanding basic repairs can mean risking the roof over your head.

The residents at 8980 SW Oak are all too happy to give a tour of everything that's wrong with their house. The front door can't lock; the roof resembles a forest floor, sprouting with moss and ferns; water leaks into the living room; the back wall is buckling (push hard, and it moves); the back porch is a mess of rotten planks; and the house is full of rodents.

"I've never actually seen a round hole chewed in the wall before," says renter Chory Ferguson, pointing to a hole gnawed in the hallway. "It's like Tom and Jerry in here."

The house, like many on the block, is rented out by Aetna Properties, a property management company whose website touts 30 years of experience in Oregon. Aetna did not return requests for comment on this story, but their online reviews paint an alarming portrait.

They have one star on Yelp and one star on Citysearch. And reviews on owner Paul Williamson's profile on incredibleagents.com describe him either as "unprofessional, corrupt, possibly criminal" or just plain "shady." Six complaints against Aetna were filed with the Better Business Bureau in 2010.

A sizable pile of rubble sits in Ferguson's front yard from the last time Aetna "fixed" his roof, back in 2007. But it still leaks. He says he requested repairs via phone and in writing this September, when the roof went unfixed and the rain started coming. In November, Ferguson and his roommate stopped paying their rent, some $995 a month. Aetna slapped them with an eviction notice, and the two hired a lawyer, Troy Pickard, who is countersuing for $13,000 for retaliatory eviction and for renting an uninhabitable home at above fair-market value.

"Whatever the fair value of this house is as a fungal experiment is the fair value," says Pickard.

The lease is month to month, but Ferguson wants to stick it out until February, when he'll move into a house he's buying. With that timeline, it doesn't make sense to move out and start a new one- or two-year lease.

Refusing to do repairs is the single most common complaint heard on Portland's renters-rights hotline, says Ari Rapkin, director of the nonprofit Community Alliance of Tenants, which runs the free hotline. "It's one that unfortunately doesn't have a lot of robust protections under state law," says Rapkin, noting that things have gotten much worse since the city cut its housing inspector roster from 10 down to five in 2009 because of budget cuts.

Withholding rent for repairs can work, says Rapkin, but it's a big risk.

"It's gambling the roof over your head on needing repairs," he says. "It's a quick way to wind up homeless."

Instead, renters rights advocates recommend requesting repairs in writing, stating a deadline, banding together with neighbors who have the same landlord, and, eventually, hiring a lawyer.

Down the street, Mary Lou Devora had the same problems with the same company—Aetna refused to fix a stove that was so broken it sent off electrical sparks, leading Devora to live for three weeks without an oven or stove. This October, she went door to door, asking her neighbors who they rent from and whether they'd had similar problems. Out of the six neighbors on the block who rent from Aetna, she says, three were considering lawsuits. Devora won her own suit last week, netting $1,418.

"It wasn't a lot, but the purpose was to do something," says Devora. "I knew they'd just rent this house again in the same shape to someone if I don't do something."

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