Quick condo conversions put tenants in a bind, while cities can offer little help
by: DENISE FARWELL, Ian Slingerland, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, is among those in a new statewide housing alliance that will push to protect renters whose apartments are being converted to condos.

Three months ago, dozens of residents of an apartment complex at 2025 S.E. Caruthers St. - including recent college grads entering the working world, and two women who'd earlier been displaced by Hurricane Katrina - were told their building was being converted to a condominium complex.

Tenants were given just five weeks to leave their apartments - either that, or buy them.

Never mind that tenants knew the Portland condo market was overheated, and prices hadn't cooled down yet. Never mind that vacant rental units around the city have grown scarcer over the past year. Never mind that several of the residents owned cats - which are not welcome in many of Portland's apartment complexes.

Never mind, too, that both the state and the city of Portland have rules designed to protect residents from just this type of situation- rules that are neither enforced nor obeyed.

'There was a lot of anger,' recalled Oreet Ranon, who'd lived at the complex for years with her cats, Moxi and Tovah. Looking around for a new home, she found that she'd be paying a lot more for an equivalent apartment. 'There was kind of this general feeling of anger at 'the Man.' '

For tenants like Ranon affected by condo conversions, 'the law provides no meaningful protection,' said Ian Slingerland of the Community Alliance of Tenants.

Now a group of housing activists, agencies and local governments is trying to change that. The Oregon Housing Alliance - a coalition that is supported by the city of Portland, Multnomah County and Metro - last week adopted a legislative agenda for the coming session.

The proposal would plug loopholes in state law, ensure protections for tenants being displaced for condos, and also clarify that the law allows local jurisdictions to be even more protective of tenants.

The local option is a key point, since a Clackamas County Circuit Court ruling citing state law recently blocked a Wilsonville ordinance that had been adopted to protect residents of a mobile-home park.

Condo conversions spike

Under existing state law, developers are supposed to give tenants 120-day notice before converting their apartments to condos. However, the law is interpreted as applying only to tenants with active leases, and developers therefore have frequently skirted the law by simply issuing 30-day eviction notices to tenants whose leases have expired.

The new legislative proposal would strengthen the existing law's 120-day notice requirement. The proposal also would require the developer to pay relocation assistance to the tenants forced out - enough to cover three months of rent, as defined by federal low-income housing standards.

Judging by recent trends, a new state law would affect Portland more than other cities in Oregon. According to statistics that housing activists obtained from the state of Oregon Real Estate Agency, the number of units converted in Multnomah County peaked last year with 1,517 units converted - more than in the previous seven years combined, and more than half the total conversions statewide.

Portland officials have been monitoring the trend and would welcome new protections, said Daniel Ledezma of the Portland Bureau of Housing and Community Development.

'I don't think you can overstate the impacts from condo conversions on low-income people,' she said.

Conversions create need

The lack of regulations did not become clear until recent years, when condo conversions began to heat up.

Slingerland's group regularly receives calls from tenants seeking help as a result of condo conversions - the callers range from single parents with kids to the elderly and the disabled.

He said the statewide coalition's legislative agenda is just a start, and that the city could go further in ensuring a supply of mixed-income rental housing.

'A number of other jurisdictions are much more aggressive,' Slingerland said. 'There's a much broader approach the city could take.'

The city, however, is unsure of its authority based on the recent Clackamas County ruling, which said state law limits what localities can do. So Portland will wait until the uncertainty is clarified by new legislation in Salem, according to Ledezma. 'I think we want to have a coordinated and more holistic approach,' she said.

For Ranon, among those displaced from Caruthers, things worked out. An employee at a health care consulting company, she had been looking at the condo market anyway, and bought a place in North Portland.

But she said one longtime resident had to move to Gresham to find a place he could afford, while a group of close friends were scattered about the city. She can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been if all the residents had been low-income.

'My feeling during all this was that change is always hard,' she said. 'But when change is forced upon you, it's even harder.

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