City targets owner of multiple zombie homes
The City Council is poised to crack down on Portland's most elusive zombie home landlord.
Norman Yee owns 10 vacant and derelict houses throughout the city. All have city liens for code violations on them ranging from $6,797.43 to $264,447.05. Neighbors repeatedly have accused them of causing livability problems for many years, ranging from overgrown yards to unauthorized residents and visitors disturbing the peace.
On Aug. 8, the council will decide whether to approve four of the properties for foreclosure. Four others already are being foreclosed on by other parties. City bureaus are considering whether to recommend the remaining two for foreclosure in the future.
On May 26, 2016, the Portland Tribune reported on Yee as part of a series on the problems caused by zombie homes in the city. At the time, Yee had 12 problem properties in Portland. The article, headlined "Zombie houses and the mysterious Mr. Yee," documented the problems bureau officials encountered trying to force him to take responsibility for his properties. They could not find where he lived, and he did not respond to repeated letters mailed to his last known post office box address. The Portland Tribune could not find him either.
The council previously approved four of Yee's properties for foreclosure. He sold two of them in North Portland before the scheduled public auction. One has since has been remodeled into a classic older Portland family home.
Yee kept possession of the other two houses by paying off the liens before the auctions, as allowed by the city's foreclosure policies. But he did not bring them up to code, and the Bureau of Development Services continued to cite them for code violations. They are now two of the four properties coming before the council in just over a week.
"We don't want to take someone's property away from them, but we have given Mr. Yee every opportunity to work with us," says Marco Maciel, the foreclosure manager in the City Auditor's Office, which decides which properties to refer to the council from lists submitted by the development services bureau.
Most recent city offer rejected
Unlike the first time the auditor's office recommended any of Yee's properties for foreclosure, Maciel was able to meet with Yee face to face before making his decision. After BDS forwarded the four properties to the auditor's office for evaluation, they were contacted by Richard Todd, a lawyer representing Yee, who said his client wanted to resolve the situation. The city agreed to meet, provided Yee also retained a property manager who could oversee bringing the houses up to code.
According to Maciel, Yee seemed reasonable at the meeting but did not explain why he had allowed his properties to fall into such disrepair. The city presented Yee with a stipulated agreement giving him a schedule to bring all of his properties up to code, which he asked for time to study. Yee never signed it.
Todd says the last time he talked to the city, he requested a time extension because of health problems facing his client. Todd says he does not represent Yee at this time, however, and cannot elaborate on the situation.
Maciel says he has no knowledge of such a request but insists the city has been more than willing to give Yee every opportunity to fix up his properties in the past, including paying off the liens over time.
The Portland Tribune has still not been able to locate Yee for comment.
Although the situation may seem bizarre, Maciel says Yee is not the only person in Portland who owns multiple properties with city liens that are causing neighborhood problems. Maciel says his office currently is considering whether to recommend a number of them to the council for foreclosure, as well.
Long history of violations, liens
The four properties to be considered by the council next week are located in three different parts of town. One is at 544 S.E. 137th Ave., where Yee owes the city $31,289.22. Another is at 5616 N. Harvard St., where he owes $23,442.16. The third is at 8516 N. Calhoun Ave., where the bill is $6,144.21. The final one is at 4725 N.E. 22nd Ave., where $6,797.43 is owned.
The two properties the city previously approved for foreclosure are located at 8516 N. Calhoun Ave. and 4725 N.E. 22nd Ave.
Records prepared for the council by the auditor's office document many years of growing problems and extensive efforts by Portland bureaus to resolve them at all four of the properties. The house at 544 S.E. 137th Ave. is a good example. It has been owned by Yee since August 2012 — the month BDS received a complaint against it for tall grass and debris.
Increasingly serious complaints continued to be received by BDS over the next five years. By May 2013, the house appeared to be vacant. After repeated inspections found the required work had not been completed, a city contractor performed a nuisance abatement in September 2014 and the city filed its first lien in January 2015.
After a complaint was received that the house was unlawfully occupied in June 2016, a subsequent inspection documented numerous fire, life safety and health sanitation code violations. A female tenant claimed to have a rental agreement, which turned out to be a forgery. Even after an order to vacate the property was approved in December, complaints continued to be received. Another lien was filed in November 2017.
Portland police also have received and responded to numerous complaints about the property over the past seven years. The bureau reports 26 calls for service to the property between May 2011 and April 2018. The majority were related to premises checks and suspicious circumstances. An additional 133 nontraffic calls for service were made from within 200 feet of the property, the most common being for disturbances.
From August 2012 through January 2018, the city mailed 29 notifications and 117 monthly billing statements to the best address it had for Yee. City records on the other three properties tell the same story of escalating complaints and unsuccessful efforts by city officials to resolve the problems before finally deciding to recommend the council approve them for foreclosure.
"They have been prioritized for disclosure because of lengthy histories of health and safety violations, numerous police calls, negative effects on neighborhoods, and lack of responsiveness and corrective action by the property owner," reads a June 19 memo to the council about them from City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero.
Foreclosure threats often gets results
Despite the hot real estate market and need for affordable housing, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of derelict properties in Portland. Many are severely neglected by their owners. Called zombie homes by critics, they can cause problems for nearby residents and entire neighborhoods.
But because of the controversy surrounding a 1965 foreclosure, Portland did not foreclose on any derelict properties for more than 50 years until former Mayor Charlie Hales persuaded the council to reform the process in June 2016. Since then, the council has approved 13 properties for foreclosure. The liens subsequently were paid on all but two of them, which currently are pending resolution.
As Norman Yee has shown, when the city forecloses on properties, landlords can pay off the liens without fixing them up. But even the threat of foreclosure is frequently enough to resolve the problems.
The Portland Tribune has visited numerous derelict houses after they were threatened with foreclosure in recent years, and most have been either repaired or torn down and replaced with new homes. They include a house at 3584 S.E. Holgate Blvd., featured in a Feb. 28, 2017, story headlined, "Back from the dead."
The city also has collected more than $1.6 million in liens and other delinquent fees.
Find out more
You can read the original Portland Tribune story on Norman Yee at bit.ly/2N4qj5g
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)