Hundreds of marchers called on a real estate investor on Saturday to lower or eliminate a 100 percent rent spike facing 18 housholds living in an apartment complex in Northeast Portland's Cully neighborhood.
Organizers say between at least 300 and 500 people gathered Feb. 25 for the "renter solidarity march" which began at the complex, the Normandy Apartments, 4605 N.E. Killingsworth St., and ended at nearby Rigler Elementary School, where 26 children who live at the apartments attend school.
The anti-poverty advocacy group called Living Cully organized the march, a type of event it had never organized before. The group is made up of four nonprofit organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Hacienda Community Development Corporation, the Native American Youth and Family Center and Verde, and focuses efforts on preventing the low-income neighborhood from gentrifying.
Living Cully organized the march on behalf of the tenants at the orange-cream colored apartment complex on Killingsworth Street facing the increase; some received notice that their monthly payment will raise from $600 to $1,250 a month.
The complex, parts of which are in disrepair, is split into three buildings and across the street from Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park. The increase would likely displace the families, thereby removing five percent of the student body from Rigler Elementary, which is a dual-language Spanish immersion school.
"It's so important that we work to honor their culture and their linguistic diversity," says T.J. Fuller, principal of Rigler Elementary School. He and other staff at the school support city commissioner Chloe Eudaly's legislation to end the state-wide ban on rent control, as well as halting no-cause evictions. Eudaly was present at the march, where she reinforced those priorities. Fuller said they're hoping to support the families and keep them at the apartments throughout the rest of the school year.
"Because we know our fragile, most vulnerable communities suffer more with a move," he says.
Sandra Comstock, of Sellwood, attended the march to support the families. She worked with families in the Normandy complex to create a giant quilt with sewn on with various signs, such as "Los ninos piden quedarse en sus viviendas" which means "the children ask to stay in their homes."
The quilt, lined along the bottom with blue fabric depicting waves, wrapped around a number of marchers as if it was a boat, while one person held a sail that said "We are all in the same boat."
"You can't replace five percent of the bilingual student body with just anyone," Comstock says. She's bilingual and her children are Meixcan-American. "They already have to be bilingual or be in an immersion program so losing that many people is very hard to replace, even with new families that might move in."
Irina Bautista, 18, who identifies as Hispanic, has lived in the apartments her whole life with her mother, brother and uncle. She held an orange sign that said "Rentas jutas." (The sign likely meant to read "rentas justas" which means "fair rent.")
"I think it's just unfair to put the rent up and kick the people out. The conditions of the apartment aren't very stable and we haven't even met the (new owner)," says Bautista.
'I don't want to move'
Investors Ira Virden and Charles Halladay bought the buildings for $1.9 million in December. Living Cully organizers and others have been calling on Virden, who is an office manager in Portland for HFF, a national real estate company, to meet with tenants in person to find a solution.
However, Virden has yet to respond to their requests for a meeting about ceasing or lowering the increase. Via email, Virden told the Tribune that his property manager "has already met with most of them," but Cameron Herrington, Living Cully organizer, says that was not about the rent increase, but to assess needed repairs and give tenants applications to reapply for their apartments.
At the Saturday event, organizers handed out a flyer with HFF's phone number, requesting that march attendees call HFF real estate directly and leave a message asking Virden to repeal the rent increase and meet with residents.
Margot Black, renters' rights activist and founder of Portland Tenants United, was marching along with community members on Saturday. She says underserved tenants in Portland "have just as much claim to this neighborhood and community as people with money and outside investors who are coming in and buying these properties."
Black is happy about a new city policy that requires property owners to pay relocation costs when they evict renters without cause or if rent is raised by more than 10 percent in a year, but believes it doesn't go quite far enough and hopes politicians in Salem can work quickly.
"What's happening in Salem right now ... in theory will protect future residents from what Normandy tenants are going through," Black says. "An investment firm from California will write those (relocation) checks. $5,000 a tenant is just the cost of doing business for them." (The bill, championed by Eudaly, says relocation assistance will range between $2,900 and $4,500, depending on rental size.)
Tenants hope that the march will have an impact. Jennifer Bollinger, who has lived at the complex for seven years, won't be able to afford the increase, even though she and her family have been told the new owner will "fix it up nice."
"We don't know yet (if we'll have to move), but hopefully this (event) will help. Nothing's been said by the landlords yet," Bollinger says.
Bautista isn't ready to move, either. Her younger brother, Jorge, is attending the nearby Rigler Elementary School, while she's pursuing an associate of arts transfer degree at Portland Community College.
"I've always lived there and enjoy giving back to the community. I don't want to move, I want to stay and be a role model," she says.