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Renter rights: Who wins in the enforcement tug of war?

by: Jim Clark, Heather Bravine fought to keep marijuana smoke out of her family's apartment. The landlord's response was consistent: There's nothing they could do. "It's like (pot smokers) are protected in apartments," Bravine said.

A couple months ago, Heather Bravine didn't know how marijuana smelled.

When the foreign odor crept through vents into her apartment, her kids had to identify it.

The stench gave them headaches; at times it was so strong they had to leave the apartment. An elderly neighbor also smelled it and thought it was from fish she put down the sink's garbage disposal weeks before.

'She kept pouring Clorox down the sink to try to get rid of the smell,' Bravine said.

Someone was smoking pot. At most it was criminal; at least it was violating the apartment complex's no-smoking rules.

She complained to the landlord, who referred her to police. Police sent her back to the landlord. She filed complaints anywhere she could. No response.

Authorities agreed the smell of pot was at times overwhelming, but said they couldn't do anything.

'They were more worried about violating someone's rights than my livability,' said Bravine, a single mother with two jobs and two kids. She pays more than $1,000 monthly for a three-bedroom apartment in the 1100 block of Northwest 15th Street.

'When I saw Columbia Trails, it was so luxurious sounding,' Bravine said. Instead, her family was basically hotboxed. '(Landlords) kept saying their hands were tied. ... It's like (pot smokers) are protected in apartments.'

Renter versus landlord rights are a tightrope, officials say, especially when it comes to medical marijuana - likely the case in Bravine's building, though the landlord wouldn't specify.

Renters are entitled to safe and clean units, and landlords enforce rules to keep them that way. Oregon statute requires minimum habitability standards, and Gresham's city code is even more stringent. But some quality of life details, such as smoking, are up to landlords - a gray area in enforcement.

With 37 percent of Gresham's residential spaces rented, many citizens live by property managers' decisions.

Enforcement

Gresham about four years ago adopted the International Property Maintenance Code, which requires property managers to meet livability standards above state statute, including annual property inspections, said Eric Schmidt, city planning director.

Oregon law requires basic habitability: functioning sewage disposal; water and electricity connections; clean premises free of vermin and garbage; and carbon monoxide detectors.

'The industry refers to those basics as fire, lights, safety,' said Jonathan Clay, legislative analyst for the Metro Multifamily Housing Association, an industry group that represents property managers. 'Frankly ... the market keeps landlords in check. Chances are that if you tour an apartment and it doesn't look very good or is dirty ... you won't rent it.'

Police help landlords enforce criminal laws - minors drinking alcohol, excessive noise, squatters - and will help establish an exclusion process, giving landlords criteria to keep out unwanted people, said Gresham Police Detective Jim Leake. They'll also do 'knock and talks,' backing up landlords who confront tenants.

'Once actions start to interfere with neighbors and the peace of the complex, that's when they start looking for help from us,' Leake said.

But property managers must enforce landlord-tenant laws and the conditions in their rental contracts, such as prohibitions on animals or smoking.

Oregon statute allows landlords to enter apartments for inspections, with a number of stipulations to prevent harassment.

'At the end of the day, landlords don't want to evict someone who is behaving themselves,' Clay said. 'No one wants turnover. If an agreement can be found, landlords are pragmatic, reasonable folks, and would search for that.'

About a month after Bravine's daily complaints, the landlord installed extra filters; the pot smell diminished. Now the problem tenants are moving.

Medical marijuana

Medical marijuana is probably the top uncertainty for landlords, officials say. They see it as a sensitive spot for fair housing - a prejudice guard that is legally sticky.

However, an Oregon Supreme Court decision in 2010 allows landlords to stop medical marijuana users from smoking on the premises; their card allows them to possess marijuana legally, but does not give them free license to smoke.

'Until that ruling came down, sure you can have policies for a smoke-free building ... but at the same time you have this state-sanctioned card,' Clay said. 'Landlords were in a catch-22. ... Whose disability wins?'

The ruling essentially said the state Bureau of Labor Industries would stop investigating landlord no-smoking actions against medical marijuana cardholders.

'That, in theory, would give employers and landlords more leeway in enforcing no-smoking, no-drug rules,' Clay said. 'But it's still all in theory, because it hasn't been tested. ... No one wants to be the first to test the waters.'

The Gresham Police hold landlord forums every other month, which regularly address the medical marijuana question.

'Medical marijuana is a tricky one for landlords, but it doesn't have to be,' Leake said. 'It's no different from smoking or no smoking, having a pet or not having a pet.'




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