Lords of the manor

Illustration by Fiona Kuzmack.

Students battle health violations, broken contracts and unresponsive landlords

By Caleb Diehl /// Editor-in-chief

In Rae Ekstrom’s (’15) house, the walls were made of paper. At the slightest touch, the soggy membrane that passed for drywall in her bedroom melted away. Even more horrifying was what the cavity revealed.

On July 3, Ekstrom was shooing a spider away from the baseboard in her room when she accidently smashed the bristles of her broom against a wall. It folded in on itself, revealing a one foot by five-inch hole dripping with mold.

The mold wasn’t her first complaint about her 1970s-era tri-level home, complete with a sauna and wraparound deck, known to Lewis & Clark students as “deck house.” With the shower leaking into the wall, the whole basement grew so dank, Ekstrom said, that “you could taste the mold.” She couldn’t air the space out. Opening the windows, bereft of screens, would have meant succumbing to swarms of spiders, ants and other denizens of Portland’s temperate rainforest. The patio was littered with nails. The house had no carbon monoxide detector, leaving the tenants vulnerable to the colorless, odorless gas that can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, tissue damage or death.

“As a college student, you feel like you can’t do anything,” Ekstrom said. “You don’t have the experience to make demands.”

Ekstrom’s landlord, 31-year-old AJ Shepard, owns both a construction company and Uptown Properties, a property management firm that he runs with his brother.

The only issue he had fixed in the “deck house” was the upstairs toilet the tenants found leaking through the ceiling. He put that off for a month.

It folded in on itself, revealing a one foot by five-inch hole dripping with mold.

Fearing for her safety after the wall fell open, Ekstrom informed Shepard of Oregon law: landlords get 48 hours to fix an immediate health issue like mold. She sent Shepard texts, emails, photos and handwritten notes. He said he would send someone the next day, but instead, he took until July 28. Ekstrom couldn’t think of a reason for the delay—besides owning a construction company, Shepard lives on the floor above her.

Finally, on Aug. 14, Ekstrom sent Shepard a list of repairs she needed him to complete, accompanied by quotes from Oregon law. She concluded with an ultimatum threatening to move out or order a health inspection. If she called in a health inspector, Ekstrom said, “that inspector would burn the place down.”

The Problem on the Hill

Throughout the Collins View neighborhood, landlords consistently ignore Oregon law governing landlord-tenant relations. They rely on the assumption that college students’ packed schedules will prevent them from pulling together legal documents, arguments for small claims court or even assertive emails.  When students do contact landlords, the landlords are unresponsive. And when face-to-face meetings finally come to pass, landlords too often belittle the charges or blame the tenants.

Over spring break last semester, Joseph Arzt (’15) lost somewhere between $700 and $1,000. While he was out of town, the basement of the house he was renting on SW 21 (just off of I-5) flooded. Two to five inches of water engulfed the Art and Philosophy double major’s plaster, wood, paint, pens, pencils, electric drill and circular saw.

When Arzt’s landlord, Susan Anderson, returned, she blamed him for the damage. She said he didn’t plug in a pump that would have drained the water. Arzt countered that he never touched the pump.

For the rest of the semester, Arzt couch-surfed until he found a living situation on campus. His landlord pumped out the water and sucked the moisture away with a dehumidifier, but Arzt never moved back into the house. His landlord withheld his security deposit and accused him of missing a month’s rent.

Arzt isn’t alone. With the help of her parents, Marissa Burke (’15) is still struggling to get her landlord to return the bulk of her security deposit. When she moved in last summer, Evelyn Eayrs, her landlord, agreed to pay the water and trash bills. Burke returned home several times to find a red sign on the door handle stating that they had three days to pay the water bill. The trash didn’t get picked up. When neighbors complained, the tenants piled black garbage bags in the backyard.

Though landlords are required by Oregon law to return security deposits within a month, Earys didn’t get around to it until a month and a half after Burke moved out. Even then, only $500 of the $2,000 came back with no explanation. Burke later learned that Earys charged her $300 for cleaning fees, $450 for refurbishing a shower that had sustained normal wear-and-tear and $200 for dumping charges, even though Earys was responsible for getting the house cleaned and paying for trash removal.

Rory Hoffmeister (’15) is still waiting for the itemized list of expenses that, per Oregon law, was due to him with his former Sellwood home’s $360 security deposit on Oct. 1. He said he hasn’t had time to call his landlord (whom he only identified by her first name, Ellen) to ask what happened.

“I don’t want to get into a conflict with her,” he said. “I just don’t have the energy.”

As a college student, you feel like you can’t do anything.”

Another student, who asked not to be identified by name, reported that her landlord appears at her house without giving 24 hours notice, a violation of an Oregon Law designed to safeguard tenants’ privacy.

The month before he moved out, Hoffmeister lost all of his privacy in a cacophony of paint scrapers, footsteps and hammers. Ellen arranged for work to be done on the house before Hoffmeister’s lease was up.

Conflict Resolution

On Aug. 15, the day after receiving Ekstrom’s list, Shepard at last agreed to a face-to-face meeting. He showed up with a dehumidifier as a peace offering. Soon after the meeting, he overhauled the house. He tore out and replaced the entire bathroom, installed a new toilet, pulled the ivy in the yard and picked up his nails. The work was finished on Sept. 1.

Shepard recently departed for Mexico and could only be reached through email. He didn’t respond to a message with questions about the deck house situation.

“We are the first students he’s had stand up to him,” Ekstrom said. She urges students who are feeling powerless to research landlord-tenant relations online. The Oregon Bar Association, for one, gives a readable and concise explanation of tenant rights.  “If you can quote these things, you no longer sound like a college student,” Ekstrom said. “You can take them to small claims court. Nobody wants to get sued.”

But that might not be an option for cash-strapped students. “Landlords have one advantage: They can afford to go to court with the rent they get from us,” Arzt said. “Most students don’t have the same financial means.”

Still, maybe the threat of court action is all it takes.

“Everyone thinks it’s incredible,” Ekstrom said, “but it took us two weeks.” By far, the most time consuming part was waiting for Shepard to show up.

Drafting the document took ten minutes. Google Oregon tenant rights. Cut and paste.

Photo by Hanna Grannis.
Photo by Hanna Grannis.

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