A Portland Apartment Complex Became a Refuge for Immigrants. Its New California Owner Is Offering Them Quick Cash to Get Out.

A Portland Apartment Complex Became a Refuge for Immigrants. Its New California Owner Is Offering Them Quick Cash to Get Out.Rath Sok moved to Portland 32 years ago. She left the city this month after her landlord paid her to move. (Walker Stockly)

For the past 18 months, the Portland City Council has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect people like Rath Sok.

Sok, 62, fled Cambodia in 1977, after most of her family—including her parents, husband and son—was murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

But earlier this month, a letter arrived from her landlord. It offered Sok and her 81 neighbors thousands of dollars, if they agreed to vacate the complex.

“We are offering a voluntary program with options for early move-out,” the letter said. “Rent increases will be applied to our updated units.”

Rath Sok moved to Portland 32 years ago. She left the city this month after her landlord paid her to move. (Walker Stockly)

The money the new owner is offering matches the moving costs landlords are required to pay in a no-cause eviction, under landmark tenant protections passed by the Portland City Council last year—plus an extra $1,000 for leaving within a month.

If every tenant accepts the cash offer, it will cost the new owner, a company run by Fred Kleinbub, upward of a quarter-million dollars. But the market is strong enough for Kleinbub to absorb the $300,000 expense to empty his building.

The buyout at Holgate Manor marks the largest reported effort in at least a year to remove tenants from a single building. It’s the first big event to measure new city policies that seek to slow a wave of mass evictions.

To be sure, renters are better off today because of the city’s efforts. But what’s happening at Holgate Manor shows that Portland’s renter protections are not enough to keep some of the city’s most vulnerable residents in their homes.

The effect of Kleinbub’s buyout will be to scatter people from a place that had become a refuge from the terror and trauma of war zones.

At least half the apartments at Holgate Manor are occupied by immigrants and refugees who speak little or no English. Many of them saw the notice and believed the offer was mandatory.

“We are not clearing anyone out of anything,” says Gallatin’s Felicia Heaton. “We are using the city’s relocation ordinance as a base for how we design this program to make the transition as easy as possible.”

More than half the families at Holgate Manor are refugees and immigrants who were previously protected from rent hikes by an evangelical minister. (Walker Stockly)

In 2016, WW reported on a spate of so-called “no-cause” evictions forcing low-income Portlanders out of the city. Before and after that story, the Portland City Council passed a series of unprecedented rules: a 90-day notice for rent increases and no-cause evictions, followed last year by an ordinance requiring landlords to pay moving expenses after many evictions and rent hikes.

It’s unclear how many landlords have changed their plans because of the new tenant protections. The bond money is mostly untapped. But a construction boom has eased upward pressure on rents. For the first time in five years, the average rent in Portland increased less than 5 percent last year: It rose only 2 percent.

Four years ago, figures show, a family making $39,720 a year could afford a two-bedroom apartment in half the neighborhoods in Portland. Last year, no neighborhood west of 82nd Avenue met that standard.

Consulting firm ECONorthwest estimates that in the past three years, 24,000 apartments in the metro area saw rent increases—to more than $840 for one-bedroom, and $1,009 for two-bedroom apartments—that moved them out of the reach of moderate-income families. “It’s going to be fewer and fewer in Portland,” says senior economist Mike Wilkerson.

“If you’re being displaced from your existing place to live on a very limited income, it’s very scary,” says Laura Golino de Lovato, executive director of Northwest Pilot Project, a Portland nonprofit that helps find housing for very low-income seniors. “That’s impossible in Portland unless you’re seriously blessed with a landlord that’s giving you a really, really good deal.”

That renders the offer to pay moving costs all but meaningless: Recipients of the money would struggle to stay in Portland without public assistance.

Kam Mang, 70, sought refuge in the United States from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He’s moving in with his son for now.

Tatyana Bobrick translates for Russian and Ukrainian renters at a recent tenant meeting. (Walker Stockly)

Holgate Manor looks preserved in amber from an earlier time in Portland’s history. The one- and two-story buildings, decorated with tan siding and brick trim, are clustered around U-shaped driveways. It’s the kind of shabby, modest apartment complex that has defined the inner eastside for half a century.

“He wanted to keep rents low and help people,” says his daughter, Carolyn Newsom. “He did the handyman stuff himself.”

As their father had done, they rarely refurbished apartments or raised rent substantially unless apartments turned over, the family and tenants recall.

The decision not to upgrade the apartments and instead wait for tenants to leave created an opportunity for an investor to swoop in with an upgrade and charge higher rents.

Renter advocates meet with Holgate Manor tenants. (Walker Stockly)

The changes may not affect the relative newcomers to the complex, who live in recently refurbished apartments and pay higher rent. Instead, the immigrants who have lived there for decades—and whose units weren’t improved—are taking the biggest hit.

Holgate Manor. (Walker Stockly)

“We like the atmosphere,” he says. “We fell in love with it. We’re from California, where prices are absurd as far as an investor is concerned. We thought we’d try that.”

“They’re trying to get us to self-evict, so they don’t have to deal with any eviction problems,” says tenant Sara Brassfield, 35.

Tenants who haven’t moved out or moved into renovated units, where the rent could be more 50 percent higher, could be evicted.

Portland Tenants United organizer Anthony Bencivengo leads a recent meeting to talk about tenant demands at Holgate Manor. (Walker Stockly)

The city has so far purchased one property with the $258 million bond passed in 2016 (it’s working on four others). The campaign sold that bond to voters in part as a measure “to prevent displacement” and “allow residents to remain in their home.”

So Kleinbub snapped up exactly the kind of property the city told voters it would use the bond proceeds to buy. The sale price of $12 million equates to roughly $150,000 per apartment. The city is currently subsidizing new construction of affordable housing that will cost as much as $567,389 a unit to build.

A former Ukrainian farm worker, Anna Landya, 91, moved to Portland to avoid religious persecution. (Walker Stockly)

Nikolay Landya arrived at Holgate Manor with his wife, Anna, in 1993, after surviving six years in a Siberian gulag before fleeing Ukraine.

A former Ukrainian farm worker, Anna Landya, 91, moved to Portland to avoid religious persecution. (Walker Stockly)

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