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Sanctuary or slum?

McNamee residence: a case of she said, she said


by: JIM CLARK - Ethel 'Punki' McNamee maintains living conditions are 'perfect' in the house and outbuildings of her residence in the 200 block of Northeast Pierce Street.In the face of potentially hazardous living conditions within Estacada city limits, whose responsibility, if anyone's, is it to investigate and provide a solution?

What prompts this question?

One whopper of a sticky situation.

Across the street from Clackamas River Elementary rests a blue-gray house owned by Ethel “Punki” McNamee.

McNamee is no stranger to being in the news.

For years, McNamee has allowed the down-on-their luck to stay at her home.

Some paid rent, others traded chores or work or simply crashed there.

In 2012, an Estacada municipal judge ordered McNamee to evict the residents from buildings in her backyard.

The situation drew statewide headlines. Was McNamee a charitable woman sheltering the would-be homeless, or an opportunistic slumlord?

McNamee, along with various tenants and long-term visitors, said publicly that the evicted people would have nowhere to go. Especially without a nearby homeless shelter.

The city was concerned with code violations and the safety of structures people were living in on McNamee's property.

“Her claim has been that she is opening her heart to the homeless, but she certainly can't be renting out unsafe structures and then charging rent for them,” City Manager Bill Elliott told the Estacada News in March 2012.

McNamee said she had tried to get a cabin in her backyard zoned for habitation, but it hadn't worked.

She is required to evict the tenants of the cabin on Feb. 28, 2014.

City officials say water and sewer will be disconnected from the building after that date.

Bradley Mitchell, who resides in the small, tidy cabin with his son, told the Estacada News this month that he will have nowhere to go once he's evicted.

Mitchell said he performs the maintenance work on the property and purchases items such as light bulbs, cleaning supplies, tile, curtains, linoleum and carpet in lieu of paying rent.

“Everything is up to code,” he insisted during an interview on Thursday, Dec. 19.

Crystal Spencer

Crystal Spencer describes living in a room in a converted carport on the property as less “sanctuary” than “slum.”

“By my logic and reason I'm still homeless. Even though I have a box to live in, I don't have a home,” Spencer said when she invited the Estacada News to see how she lived on Wednesday, Dec. 11.

Spencer has lived in the room with her boyfriend since June.

The slight 32-year-old said that prior to moving in, she had spent time living in hotels and sleeping in cars.

Spencer acknowledged being diagnosed as “severely emotionally disturbed” and having a criminal record, though she disputes the validity of a recent arrest.

From the way Spencer describes it, most of the people who wind up at the McNamee residence have some significant roadblocks to acquiring traditional housing.

Spencer's entire income, $710 a month, comes from Supplemental Security Income disability benefits.

by:  ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Tenant Crystal Spencer describes living in a room in a converted carport on the McNamee property as less sanctuary than slum.“Because my monthly income is so low, I can't get an apartment,” Spencer said.

In Spencer's room there was a bed, clothes hanging from a wire in the corner, a red sofa, a coffee maker, hot plate and dirty dishes along the wall by the door.

One large window was boarded up. On the opposite wall near the door, with a surveillance camera on the main house pointed directly at it, was a small window.

“I get retaliated against. My home gets broken into. I can't leave. If I leave, I have to take everything I care about with me,” Spencer said. “And I pay for this.”

There is no restroom in Spencer's unit. She must go inside the main house to use a bathroom.

Spencer showed the Estacada News a battered copy of her rental agreement.

One of the stipulations reads, “I, the tenant, am free from any obligation to pay for utilities. Also, I have full access to the house facilities (phone, bathrooms, laundry, kitchen, etc.) In exchange for said privileges I will do (dishes, vacuuming, basic cleaning and (obscured by a rip through the document).”

Spencer expressed her shock that using the bathroom was referred to as a “privilege.”

Spencer shared several difficult-to-verify horror stories about what it is like to live there: faulty wiring that forces her to choose between having lights or heat from a space heater; frequent theft; ill residents who soil the shared bathroom; alcoholism; harassment from other residents; McNamee's alleged intimidation tactics.

In the midst of the Dec. 11 interview, a confrontation between McNamee and Spencer led to a screaming match on the sidewalk.

The argument started when McNamee was asked how many people lived there.

Spencer furiously listed numerous names McNamee had not included in her answer.

“Visitors,” McNamee said.

Both women accused the other of dishonesty and criminality.

McNamee threatened to throw Spencer out. Spencer said she'd sue McNamee and would “own her house.”

“They're all mental, and so is she,” McNamee said.

McNamee led the way through the house, asking various people whether they lived there, or if other people did.

During a muddled exchange, one man said yes.

McNamee said no.

Yes, the man insisted.

McNamee said the person or persons in question were visiting and headed off down the hall.

During an interview Thursday, Dec. 19, McNamee and Mitchell refuted each of Spencer's accusations and answered additional questions from the Estacada News.

Mitchell said Spencer was refusing to allow him to enter her room to make repairs.

McNamee and Mitchell claimed the property is — and was — in compliance with state law and city code.

All residents are offered some sort of heating implement, unless they want to get their own space heater, Mitchell said.

McNamee rifled through a receipt book and said that Spencer, of her own accord, lowered her rent payments to $350 in August. McNamee said Spencer hadn't paid rent in at least a month.

According to the rental agreement, Spencer was required to pay $500 for her “large room” and an additional $100 for her boyfriend to live there too.

On Dec. 11, Spencer had shown the Estacada News a video of a carpet swarming with insects. She said the infested carpet was in the room when she first moved in, but the video is not dated.

According to Mitchell, the rooms are bug-bombed before people move in.

Perhaps, Mitchell suggested, Spencer's messiness was what had attracted the insects to the carpet in the video.

“When you leave garbage all over, you're going to have ants. I don't care where you are,” Mitchell said.

On Dec. 11, Spencer had shown the Estacada News a notarized letter dated Aug. 6, 2013, requesting repairs.

“Punki, I have asked many times for 1. A window to be installed for the safety of me and my things. 2. Proper pest control for the ants and fleas. 3. Dead bolt or locking door handle with a key. 4. Weatherproof door for insect control,” Spencer wrote in the letter.

Spencer said she got no response from McNamee after giving her the letter.

McNamee said later she never received the letter.

When asked about Spencer's allegations of illegal living conditions, McNamee replied, “Then she should have moved out.”

So why does she stay?

If the living conditions are as appalling as Spencer describes, why does she stay?

“I move out, what happens to everybody else?” Spencer asked.

Spencer indicated that other residents were silenced for fear of McNamee's retaliation should they speak up.

Spencer refers to the residence as “a place where people go to die.”

“They don't know they deserve better than this,” she said.

One woman, whom McNamee had referred to as a “visitor” earlier that day, entered Spencer's room to share her experience with the Estacada News.

She was living there, she said.

She wished to remain unnamed.

In exchange for staying at the residence in a common area, she said she was expected to either pay several hundred dollars rent or clean up after several men, including a man who suffered from illness — which meant, at times, she was expected to clean up human excrement.

During their interview Dec. 19, McNamee and Mitchell brought up the same man. They said the occupants of the house were “like a family” and voluntarily took turns cleaning up after him.

What are her options?

During her interview Dec. 11, Spencer tearfully said she was at a loss for where to turn.

She later was asked to provide a list of agencies and departments she had contacted about her living situation, but she had not done so by press time.

When the Estacada News returned for a second interview Dec. 19, she declined to let the reporter or photographer into her room for additional photographs.

She did allow photographs of a power outlet in the doorway, but the rest of the room was curtained off.

She said she feared what McNamee would do if she spoke again with the Estacada News.

Evicted

On Saturday, Dec. 14, Spencer sent a text message to the Estacada News.

“...Iv been dealing with the recourse of talking to you...iv been served with a 72 hour notice!!” it read.

“I'm going to fight her in court... ill be ok. Willing to risk it all for the cause,” it continued.

Bonnie Cimina, a longtime friend of McNamee's, showed the Estacada News a “Landlord's 72-Hour Notice of Non-Payment of Rent” document. The document does not note when it was issued.

According to both McNamee and Spencer, McNamee followed Spencer to a court appearance for a separate issue to serve her the document.

She said, she said

Anecdotes and allegations presented by either side are difficult to verify.

However, several of Spencer's allegations, if proven, would pose extreme violations of state law and city code.

In such a situation, what is to be done? Who has authority?

The city

Ron Smith, code enforcement officer for the city of Estacada, said either a tenant or neighbor must complain for a city officer to conduct a code-compliance inspection.

However, the code enforcement officer must give the property owner a 10-day notice.

The officer must receive permission from that property owner to set foot on the premises.

Even if the property owner grants permission, it is at the discretion of the property owner which portions of the property the officer may inspect.

If a renter calls with a complaint, the officer still must get permission from the property owner to come onto the premises.

Even with permission, Smith alluded that 10 days is ample time to clean up problem areas.

If the officer is denied permission to inspect the property, there is another option.

The city would have to obtain an administrative warrant from a municipal judge.

Smith said the length of this process varies.

He acknowledged that the McNamee residence has been “a problem spot for many years.”

“She really works the system,” Smith said of McNamee.

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - James Rhodes said he rents this room for $450 a month. 'Personally, I think its a lot of money to pay for that room,' Rhodes said.“As far as code compliance as a city, our hands are tied,” Smith said of the residence.

Smith estimated he's received four anonymous complaints from tenants of the McNamee property in the past six months.

None gave their names, because, according to Smith, they were “afraid they would be evicted immediately.”

McNamee's residence is classified as an R-1 property, which means only one rental or home is allowed on the property.

By law, she is allowed to have up to six people who are unrelated to her living in her home.

McNamee told the Estacada News she has rental agreements for four people staying at her home.

On Dec. 19, she said a total of eight people, including herself, are currently “staying” there.

“There's 15 people that actually reside on this property,” Spencer had told the Estacada News on Dec. 11 — an allegation McNamee vehemently denies.

Smith explained that, in the eyes of the city, the difference between a tenant and a visitor usually comes down to whether there's a rental agreement.

It's hard to prove tenancy otherwise.

Smith said that as far as he is aware, there is no limitation to the number of visitors McNamee is allowed at her home.

Smith said code compliance has been working closely with the building and fire departments on the McNamee residence for 10 years.

When asked why the solution to the "problem spot" has been now at least a decade in the works, Smith replied, “There's been some problems with certain individuals dropping the ball.”

Is the city doing anything about it now?

When asked whether McNamee is allowed to rent out the rooms in the carport, Smith responded that she “is not necessarily allowed.”

However, in order to take any sort of action, the city would have to “go after the property owner for illegal use of a structure.”

The effort would incur attorney fees, time and paperwork for the city.

Is that why it hasn't happened yet?

Smith said no, but he preferred not to go into detail.

“I don't want to jeopardize us legally,” he said.

Smith said the city is dealing with the property, but he declined to elaborate.

As for his personal opinion of the situation, Smith said, “I would hate to have any of my relatives living in those conditions.”

If the city believes its “hands are tied” in this situation, to whom could an aggrieved tenant turn?

Smith said it has been his "response to tenants is to contact DHS” (the Department of Human Services).

DHS

But, according to DHS representatives, the department does not have authority in this situation.

According to Ken Davis, branch manager of the Department of Human Services in Clackamas, the department could only take action to improve the residence if McNamee were acting in a manner that required a license.

Davis said he had spoken to McNamee.

He said she had described her residence to him as a “room rental operation.”

Since she told Davis she did not provide care or food, which would require a license to administer, Davis said the DHS did not have any authority in the situation.

“At this point based on what she's telling us ... we're not in a position to compel her to make improvements,” Davis said.

Code enforcement, Davis said, is up to the city of Estacada.

Erika Silver, human services manager of Health, Housing & Human Services of Clackamas County, agreed.

“Since the property is within Estacada city limits, Clackamas County code enforcement cannot step in,” she wrote in an email.

Who, then, should the tenants call?

Davis said the DHS would be unable to help tenants with their current living situations, but could “help with other options.”

“None of those folks have to stay there,” Davis added.

So, according to the city and county, the only thing for tenants to do is to seek individualized help.

The solution, it seems, is to simply leave.

A tall order, perhaps, for those who feel they have nowhere else to go.

“However, any tenant who would like more information about their rights is encouraged to call Clackamas County Housing Rights and Resources at 503-650-5750,” Silver suggested. “Clackamas County Aging and Disability Resource Connection serves as a single point of entry into the long-term supports and services system for older adults and people with disabilities and can be reached at 503-650-5622.”

Teresa Christopherson, administrative services manager for Clackamas County Social Services, also recommended tenants contact the Housing Rights and Resources Center.

The Estacada News attempted to contact the Housing Rights and Resources Center but did not receive a response from that agency by press time.

Calls to the Community Alliance of Tenants and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon also went unreturned.

At the suggestion of a representative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Estacada News contacted Clackamas County Assessor Bob Vroman.

Vroman said that when a situation such as this occurs within a city's limits, it is usually considered solely the city's responsibility.

“As far as code violations, they have limited tools to actually be effective,” Vroman said of cities.




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