MEDFORD — A landlord whose tenants are being evicted because of unsafe living conditions filed an appeal with the city Thursday and pledged to turn things around.
Joe Suste, a Medford real estate broker, said he requested that the tenants be allowed to remain at 215, 229 and 235 N. Ivy St. while the repairs are being made.
"If the city insists that these people get out of the buildings immediately, they're going to have some homeless people on their hands," said Suste. "It's kind of unfair to the tenants to put them on the street like that."
The residents were ordered this month to vacate their homes within 30 days after the city, tired of decades of building code violations and crime on North Ivy Street, cracked down with arrests and code citations. All three buildings, which are just a few blocks from McLoughlin Middle School and Jackson Elementary School, were cited for code and safety violations, including a failing foundation, inadequate heating, insect infestation, plumbing and electrical problems and construction without permits.
One house has open raw sewage running beneath it and another has a gas vent arrangement that is a fire hazard, city officials said.
Suste said he will make all of the repairs. His other options are to vacate and board up the structures or demolish the buildings.
Suste said he has evicted five tenants who were recently arrested by police. He also said he has changed his tenant screening process to ensure that applicants with any criminal background will be turned away.
That has not been his policy until now, he said.
"They come to me and maybe they've had some trouble and they're working with OnTrack (a substance abuse treatment center in Medford) and they need a second chance and they mean it," he said, adding that many of his tenants have had troubled pasts. The 13 apartments in the three buildings, which Suste has owned for more than 10 years, rent for $400 to $500 per month.
"I've had people from social services ask me to accept their clients," he said. He said his tenants have been homeless, suffered from mental health problems, been in recovery and been unable to read. When one thing goes wrong — such as losing a job or resuming a drug habit — they can't pay rent.
"The problem is not the buildings," he said. "They do damage to those buildings, I repair those buildings. The answer is some kind of social program that will not just put them in jail for a week, let them out, put them in jail for a week, let them out."
Suste said he has often had to serve tenants with an eviction notice after they missed several months of rent. A common tactic among tenants facing eviction is to intentionally break something in the apartment, then call the city and report building code violations. The call starts a long bureaucratic process, which means they get to stay in the apartment rent-free, said Suste.
Medford building inspector Hugh Fechtler said he's aware of the tactic and that inspectors are sometimes used by both tenants and landlords.
Chris Reising, building and safety department director, said the staff is careful not to lay blame on either landlord or tenant.
"We try to stay out of those issues as far as who did what," he said. "We know we get used by both sides."
Reising said the Uniform Code for the Abatement of Dangerous Buildings states that when an appeal is filed, there is a stay of the order — except for orders to vacate. The tenants still must be moved out by Jan. 31 at No. 215, Feb. 4 at No. 229 and Feb. 11 at No. 235. The houses were posted on different dates.
An appeal board must meet to review Suste's appeal and determine whether tenants may stay while Suste makes the repairs. It is not known whether the board will meet before the first eviction date.
Fechtler said the city is going to keep a close eye on the repair work and make sure Suste hires certified professionals and obtains the necessary permits.
"We're not going to cut him any slack," he said.
Inspections of the three buildings were initiated by Medford police officers who noticed dangerous living conditions during a recent series of arrests. The department assigned a team of officers to patrol the area after crime reports on North Ivy Street increased last fall.
Medford police Sgt. Mark Boone visited the houses Thursday and noticed many apartments are still occupied and some had new, unprofessional construction.
"The tenants themselves had tried to do some repairs," he said.
Fechtler said he's heard of landlords offering tenants reduced rent if they do their own repairs, which is illegal under Oregon's landlord-tenant laws.
Cecilia Rayburn, who has lived next door to the houses for 46 years, has said their condition has decreased property values in the neighborhood and hurt her ability to sell her house.
Suste does not dispute that.
"I think the problems there are a problem for her value," he said.
Fixing the buildings is just one step, he said.
"There's an opportunity here to improve this neighborhood, but it's not going to be solved by simply repairing windows," he said.
He said that general area of town has many unemployment, drug and crime issues that need to be solved by a concerted community effort.
"I'd love to have some suggestion on what I can do," he said. "If we could figure out a way to stop the group mentality — I don't know what it is."
He said better follow-up programs are needed.
"It's almost as if some of these adults need parents to look over them," he said.
Reach reporter Meg Landers at 776-4481 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.