Cleaning House: Evicting criminals to clean up neighborhoods
Police, property owners in Gresham are cleaning up apartment complexes that breed criminal activity
Two years ago, members of three gangs lived at Barberry Village on Southeast 188th Avenue near Burnside Street. It was a hotspot for prostitution and drug deals.
Homicides were committed just outside the gates. Four police cars were required to respond to even routine calls.
'Nobody would come through here. UPS wouldn't come in here. The garbage people came in looking over their shoulders,' said Dennis Hanna, property manager for CNR Real Estate, which took over managing the complex in 2010.
Police contacted the property owner, retired in Arizona, about the issue: Housing criminals was devastating the entire area, from the 7-Eleven on the corner to the MAX station across the street.
When the owner visited the complex, he was appalled, said Detective Jim Leake with Gresham Police Department's Special Enforcement Team.
Then he wanted change.
'He said he wants it to be nice enough to bring his grandkids to the swimming pool,' Leake said.
Just more than a year later, the owner's grandchildren swam in the pool, Hanna said.
A partnership between police and the property management company was the key, and the outcome was a win-win: cleaning up the apartment complex improved the surrounding area, easing the burden on police resources and keeping the 180 apartments full of tenants for the owner.
For the past year-and-a-half or so, the Special Enforcement Team and some property management companies have made a concerted effort to clean up apartment complexes known for criminal activity, and they're beginning to see the benefits.
'Now we're seeing that not the entire complex is the problem, it's individual apartments,' Leake said.
In neighborhoods like Rockwood, notorious for high crime and low income, that's a huge improvement.
'It definitely affects the entire neighborhood,' said Sgt. Manuel Hernandez with the Special Enforcement Team. 'It prevents fights and gang activity. Now people feel safe.'
Rampant crime concentrated in apartment complexes is a fading trend as owners shift from tenant managers to property management companies, police said.
'Many owners don't live here. A lot live in Arizona and this is their retirement,' Leake said. 'We contact the owners and let them know what's going on. That's when they switch to a management company and clean it up.'
Tenant managers, whose rent is free or reduced in exchange for management duties, not only weren't invested in the property's success, Hernandez said, but also tended to become friends with tenants or could be intimidated by them. And police officers weren't inclined to work with them.
'(Officers) didn't take time to build a relationship with them when they're rotating through with no investment in the property,' Leake said.
'There's a heightened sense of professionalism,' he added. 'More companies are seeing quality tenants and are making it a safer environment for people living there.'
When a property management company contacted police last year about cleaning up an apartment building it had just acquired on Northeast 178th Avenue near Oregon Street, they witnessed what uprooting the criminal element could do for an area.
'It's common practice when a building is changing hands ... to sell a full apartment complex, and they don't take time to do background checks,' Hernandez said. Then the new property management company comes in to undesirable tenants.
Police and management officials sent notices to every tenant in 178th Avenue and Oregon Street, notifying them that apartment rules would be enforced.
So when management suspected gang or drug activity, police went in and management evicted them. When six people were living in an apartment whose tenant was in jail, management kicked them out and police arrested them.
'Out of 15 apartments identified as problems, we served three or four evictions,' Hernandez said. 'But just letting ... people hanging around causing problems know we were there slowed down service calls to police.'
The process played out successfully at other apartment buildings in the city: The management company enforces its rules such as smoking bans, and the police enforce criminal laws, such as noise complaints and squatting. Police provide an authoritative presence when confronting problem tenants, and management provides eyes for police investigations.
And word is spreading, police said. Management companies are going to police when they take over a problem building and more managers are attending the Gresham Police Department's Landlord Forum, held every other month to foster communication between police and apartment management.
When CNR Real Estate took over Barberry Village, Hanna was tasked with the momentous task of clearing out the drug dealers and gang members and bringing in families.
He reached out to police - who described Hanna's work as 'awesome' - who would respond quickly to his reports. Then he systematically cleaned. 'What I could actually see going on that was bad, that's what I tackled first,' Hanna said.
Sturdy fences and bright lights - 'At night this place lights up like a Christmas tree,' he said - pushed criminal activity outside the complex, and he removed bushes and trees that shielded prostitution activities.
Then he went inside the apartments; tenants with drugs or excessive filth were evicted.
Once the bad tenants were out, he installed landscaping and other livability enhancements for the good tenants who stayed.
Jennifer Johnson, who has lived in a top-floor apartment for three years, said those changes meant the most.
Sitting on her balcony filled with potted plants, she said the landscape and safety upgrades dramatically improved the place from three years ago.
Now mostly families live there. Her two children, James and Hannah, can play in the yard with the many other young children at the complex, which, for the first time, is fully rented out.
The Gresham Police Department hosts a Landlord Forum every other month in an effort to facilitate communication between property managers and police.
Detective Jim Leake, with the police Special Enforcement Team, and Jeffrey Bennett, a landlord attorney, are there to answer questions, as are representatives from the city of Gresham and Home Forward, the housing authority of Portland.
Admission is free, and no registration is required. Each meeting is 3-5 p.m. in Gresham City Council Chambers, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway.
Coming meetings and topics are:
May 16: Fair housing. Jo Becker with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon will present.
July 18: Lease enforcement, termination of tenancies and domestic violence. Attorney Jeffrey Bennett will present.
Sept. 19: Drugs, drug houses and medical marijuana. Gresham Police Department Special Enforcement Team will present.
Nov. 14: Bed bugs and resident disputes and mediation. Home Forward staff will present.