By Marina Starleaf Riker
Simeon Purkey thought of himself as a model tenant. He always paid rent on time and hired a professional cleaner when he moved out of northeast Bend apartment.
So when the property management company decided to withhold a portion of his deposit for cleaning, it took Purkey by surprise. He called the company to find out why the money was being withheld, but got hung up on. The company also sent his deposit back later than required by state law, so Purkey decided to file a lawsuit in small claims court.
“They knew what was up and they were lying to my face,” said Purkey. “But they wouldn’t pay me back until I sued them.”
Purkey said the property management company paid the $700 it had kept from his deposit. He is one of hundreds of Central Oregon tenants who have taken matters into their own hands when they think landlords aren’t following the law.
There is no Oregon agency in charge of enforcing landlord-tenant laws, with the exception of civil rights violations.
“I had no option but to do it all to myself,” said Purkey. “It was a lot of work to get back that money, and the thing is I doubt that everyone would go through this work because it did take a lot of time.”
In other cities throughout the country, however, tenants have more options if their landlords break the law. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, the city offers mediation services to landlords and tenants, as well as investigating and enforcing safety complaints.
In Seattle, the city investigates safety and security complaints by visiting homes and apartments, and runs a special unit to enforce rental agreement rules. If landlords break those laws, they can face $150 fines for the first 10 days and $500 for each day after that. Similarly, landlords in Baltimore who violate rental laws can be charged with a misdemeanor and face fines up to $100 for each violation.
But tenants in Bend are on their own if landlords break laws. There’s no agency to enforce the rules and no fines for landlords if they break them.
Despite there being a number of complaints filed against Central Oregon property management companies with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, enforcing those laws doesn’t fall under the agency’s jurisdiction, said Charlie Burr, a spokesman for the bureau. The only time the agency gets involved is if a tenant’s civil rights have been violated, such as if a landlord discriminates against a tenant for sex, race or family status.
The city of Bend doesn’t get involved with landlord-tenant issues either, unless there’s a nuisance or building code problem, said Anne Aurand, a city spokeswoman.
“It’s a courts issue, not a local law enforcement issue,” Aurand said.
Rental prices in Bend have shot up, with the city’s vacancy rate hovering around 1 percent. If a landlord breaks the law, tenants have only one option — file a lawsuit in small claims court.
“The burden is 100 percent on the tenant to prove that these things are happening,” said Katrina Holland, interim executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants in Portland, which sometimes helps tenants in Bend. “There’s no third-party enforcement agency that’s able to look at these cases, which is a really problematic, especially for low-income tenants.”
Since 2011, there were nearly 500 landlord-tenant cases filed in Deschutes County Circuit Court, according to court data. During that same time, about 4,100 eviction cases were filed.
Holland said some renters may be deterred from filing lawsuits because it’s time-consuming and costly to hire an attorney. And there are no added fines for landlords for breaking the rules.
“The rewards or the enforcement or penalties for violation of the law are not very robust either,” Holland said. “I think it’s incumbent upon local jurisdictions to consider what sort of penalties and enforcement mechanisms can be used to move landlords away from this kind of abuse.”
The Central Oregon Rental Owners Association operates a hotline for landlords with legal questions, but often ends up answering questions from tenants. Members of the group could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Bend Councilor Sally Russell said she’s spoken with several Bend residents who’ve had problems with landlords, but didn’t know what to do. Landlord-tenant laws can be confusing to understand, which can scare off tenants who want to defend themselves, she said.
“We can keep changing the laws,” said Russell. “But the reality is, if everybody followed the laws on the books, then we wouldn’t be having that conversation.”
Going forward, Russell said boosting resources to help landlords and renters understand their legal rights should a priority for city councilors.
“It may be that landlords don’t know the law, or they don’t really care to follow it,” said Russell. “But if the tenants have a resource that helps them move through the law, that’s powerful and that’s effective.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160,