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Home Forward, Willow Tree Apartments named in lawsuit by tenants Robert Nicholson and Dianne Heber.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Two residents at Willow Tree Apartments said they were illegally being charged for electricity usage and faced health concerns. Two local residents have filed a civil lawsuit against several groups claiming depravation of rights and property, collusion and fraud, amongst other complaints, after allegedly facing high utility costs and health issues while living in a Gresham apartment complex.

The plaintiffs, Robert J. Nicholson and Dianne Hebert, filed the suit on Dec. 18, after issues they faced living at Willow Tree apartments, 311 N.E. Division St. The lawsuit names Home Forward, Walsh Construction Co., Human Solutions Inc., Cascade Management Inc., Affinity Property Management LLC, Willow Tree Apartments and Leah Colette Sykes, attorney at law, as the defendants.

According to the lawsuit, living in the apartment led to illegal increases to their electricity bill and serious health concerns because of alleged mold and fungi growing on the property.

From early 2012 to early 2013, the Willow Tree apartments were retrofitted, pulling existing bathroom fans for more powerful models. According to the lawsuit, the fans were hard-wired to be on 24 hours a day, without the residents having any way to turn them off. The fans were operated through the tenant's lighting circuits, the lawsuit said, meaning the residents had to foot the bill.

"The bathroom fans installed at the Willow Tree apartments, during a significant property rehabilitation, are the current industry best practice to improve indoor air quality for our residents," said Tim Collier, director of communications for Home Forward.

Nicholson and Hebert had been living in a shelter prior to being moved into the apartment, and according to the lawsuit were never told about the retrofit, "theft of electricity" issue, or the negative air pressure it creates in the units. The two reported having electricity bills that averaged $140 a month.

According to the lawsuit, Home Forward had knowledge of the electricity issue, but failed to make notice of it. The lawsuit also claims the group, often referred to as the Housing Authority of Portland, failed to advocate in any meaningful way for the residents.

"Only one unit has made a complaint about increased utility costs," Collier said. "In response to this complaint, we have requested further documentation to be sure the unit's utility costs have increased."

In addition to the electricity issue, the plaintiffs cite problems with the fans drawing in outside air through negative air pressure. According to the lawsuit, this led to dust, pollen, mold spores, ash smoke, moist-air, insecticides, volatile organic compounds and much more being drawn into the apartment. The lawsuit cites this as the reason behind Nicholson's pulmonary health deteriorating, leading to a hospitalization in April 2017 for asthmatic issues.

"Home Forward hired an engineer to review whether the fans could pull in air from outside and from storage units into residents' homes, and they determined that this is not occurring at Willow Tree," Collier said. "The health of our residents is paramount to everything we do."

The pair returned from the hospital to discover "a huge mold bloom" in the storage locker in the lowest part of their building. According to the lawsuit, the discovery of the mold and mildew bloom led them to report those problems and the electricity theft to Human Solutions and Cascade Management, who was the rental agency in place at Willow Tree at the time of the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, a series of reports and complaints from the plaintiffs from 2017 to present day were unsatisfactorily dealt with.

The tenants are seeking $100,000 in emergency injunctive relief to move to a new residence, LifeLock identity theft services for the rest of their lives, compensatory damages, punitive damages, exemplary damages, future damages and attorney's fees.

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