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February 28th, 2007 Isaac Kaplan-woolner | News Stories
 

The Hit Squad

WW revisits the city's plan to improve flophouses, and finds it's working.

     
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Room for Improvement Some rooms at the Westwind are awaiting their final improvements.
IMAGE: ISAAC KAPLAN-WOOLNER
The Westwind Apartments aren't luxury living, but they're a lot better than they were a year ago.

The 67-unit low-rent building in Northwest Portland is one of three notoriously awful single-room occupancy buildings owned or leased by Mike Narver (see "Welfare Check," WW, Dec. 21, 2005).

Before December 2005, city inspectors cited the Westwind at 333 NW 6th Ave. for mold-ridden carpets strewn with trash, roaches flowing from cracked and rotting walls, and squalid bathrooms. Narver said those fines averaged $300-$400 a month.

Then the "Hit Squad" stepped in. It's the name City Commissioner Randy Leonard gave to a multiagency task force he created to clean up flophouses and make them safe for vulnerable residents.

And it appears to be working.

A recent tour of the Westwind revealed freshly painted walls and floors. Bathrooms were clean, and not a cockroach was scurrying. Working smoke detectors hung in the rooms, and new art hung in the lobby. The 104-year-old former brothel will probably never be a desirable destination, especially at $415 a month for a 12-by-12-foot room. But it's livable. And that's a huge improvement over a year ago.

"The difference is absolutely night and day," says Portland police officer Jeff Myers, assigned to the neighborhood response team for downtown, Chinatown and Old Town.

Myers brought the condition of the Westwind, Stewart and Home apartments to Leonard's attention. And the Hit Squad convinced Narver to improve the three buildings.

"It was either shutting down or going along," says Narver, who estimates spending more than $100,000 to improve the Westwind. "Initially, the approach was a little harsh, but...now I feel like it's a positive thing."

Leonard calls the Hit Squad "edgy" for its unconventional tactic of focusing every resource he and Myers can think of—city inspectors, police, housing and social services—into an organized multiagency blitzkrieg on a single owner.

"We have relentless daily inspections of the buildings, piling up fines on an owner who has been ducking the city...until they feel like they're being picked on," Leonard says.

The owner is then given a choice: Fix the property or end up selling. In Narver's case, he entered into an agreement to bring the Westwind and his other two properties up to code on a negotiated timetable.

In the past, Leonard says, slumlords have managed to duck mounting fines and citations for years by tapping fears that tenants would be evicted into homelessness if the city comes down too hard on a building. In the meantime, property owners collect thousands of dollars a month in rent while putting nearly nothing back into property upkeep.

"It is shocking that we have people in this city living in those conditions," say Leonard. "I have no sympathy for these property owners."

The task force ensures that alternative housing at hotels and temporary shelters can be provided for residents if a building must be closed for repairs.

But Leonard is worried about the fate of the program. In December 2005, just as work on the Westwind was beginning, Leonard and the rest of City Council voted unanimously to institutionalize the task force under Mayor Tom Potter's office.

But Leonard says the program has since lost its focus by expanding its aims into general anti-crime cleanup in the Cully neighborhood.

Potter's public advocate, Jeremy Van Keuren, co-chair of the renamed Interbureau Task Force, says Leonard is confused. He says they are two task forces engaged in different work.

"We never took over," says Van Keuren.

Regardless, Leonard says he plans to circumvent Potter by creating another task force and continuing the Hit Squad.

"Stay out of the sights of the Hit Squad," Leonard says with a laugh. "Find religion."

 
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