Even in a brand-new building, problems arise. The state-of-the-art environmentally sound Humboldt Gardens complex is no different.
Despite three visits from maintenance, Callie Henry's water bill kept going up; the backyard of Michelle and Yusef Farrakhan's residence is constantly inundated with water; and Sylvia Dollarson found herself with frozen pipes during the first cold snap of winter.
To top it off, resident advocate BJ and others say the building's former management treated them with a lack of respect. So BJ – who asked that her last name not be used for this article – decided to form a resident's association at the new Housing Authority complex to help deal with problems they were having.
The Humboldt Gardens Tenant Association – with the motto, "Our low-income does not reflect our high IQ" – is now one of only two tenant-organized associations within all of the Housing Authority's properties.
Built two years ago with federal grant funding from the HOPE VI program, Humboldt Gardens, at Vancouver Avenue and Alberta Street, joined New Columbia in replacing aging eyesores with environmentally sustainable, energy efficient complexes that were designed to avoid the mistakes of past public housing projects.
Until the beginning of 2010, the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) contracted the management of Humboldt Gardens to IPM, a private property management company. While senior property managers with HAP say they were happy with the way IPM managed the property, some residents say their management style lead to distrust and disrespect. HAP says the decision to directly manage the property was not tied to IPM's performance.
BJ says her decision to start the tenant's association had much to do with the way she and other residents were treated by IPM.
"We feel we have no voice when you live in public housing," she said. "You do what they say or you get out."
Carolina Abdullah, site manager for Humboldt Gardens, says there's only so much trust that can be created in two months.
"I can't promise residents that I'm going to be the best manager," she told The Skanner. "I have to show them that. The only thing that is going to show that is time."
To their credit, many of the problems that residents complained about when the association was established have been solved. One of the biggest problems – chronically leaking valves on the inside of toilets leading to an increase in water bills – was fixed once HAP took over maintenance of the complex. Shelley Marcesi, public affairs manager for HAP, says they are providing credits to residents for the abnormally high water bills and are replacing all the flush valves, regardless of whether they are leaking.
She says the creation of the tenant's association has helped identify many problems that have otherwise gone unnoticed.
"Some things I hear from the tenant association, I don't hear from residents themselves," Abdullah said. "The extra information we receive, we really appreciate. It makes our job easier."
Marjorie Harris-Shakier, community builder at Humboldt Gardens, says she tries to create a report with residents. When not organizing a variety of activities for tenants, Harris-Shakier is checking up on complaints from residents and looking into how to solve them.
Not many other HAP properties have a community builder on site and she says her position has allowed residents to form friendships and know their neighbors – sometimes uncommon among many renters. With other programs that help residents to save for a home of their own or plan for self-sustainability, the atmosphere is encouraging an ownership mentality in the property, says Harris-Shakier.
And the fact that residents are taking part in their own self-organized advocacy organization is evidence of that, she says.
But BJ says she hasn't always gotten warm and fuzzy feelings from management about the creation of the tenant's association.
Some of BJ's advocacy work has been to represent residents who have received eviction notices – many of which address problems that can be resolved without an actual eviction. BJ says this practice has sown distrust among some residents, who feel that if they speak up about problems or even have a problem, they risk losing their home.
Abdullah says she and her caseworkers work hard to resolve conflicts that can lead to eviction. She recalls one case in which a woman was unable to pay her rent two months in a row and was nearly about to lose her apartment. Abdullah's staff worked with her and were able to avoid her leaving Humboldt Gardens.
Monee Scroggins, vice chair of the tenant's association executive committee, said she wants to make sure residents know they have power when it comes to dealing with their landlords.
"The reason we started the committee was protect the rights of the tenants," Scroggins said in a letter to The Skanner. "Our association is founded on educating the tenants on their rights as tenants, assisting them in resolving Landlord Tenant Conflicts and giving them a voice in matters that affect them as tenants of Humboldt Gardens."
In reflecting that promise, the first meeting in January had the Community Alliance of Tenants and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon as guests.
As a former senior civil rights investigator for the Bureau of Labor and Industries, as well as a former parole and probation officer and supervisor for Child Services for the state of Oregon, BJ knows the importance of being a well-informed citizen.
She says the best advice she gives to tenants is the most simple: "Follow your lease." But she has problems with the way the Housing Authority hands down directives to tenants.
Her latest gripe: the smoking policy. She says management is not allowing residents to smoke on their own porches, instead forcing them smoke "in the street" or in a zone by the back fence. She knows a large number of residents will sign – but not follow -- the new directive. And when that lease violation lands them in hot water, she'll be there.