Rising rents force families into one move after another

July 20, 2017

Adelfa dumps an armload of T-shirts and socks from the broken dresser drawer into a well-worn cardboard box. In black marker she writes, "Bedroom."

She straightens then scans the room: a pile of clothes yet to be sorted covers the belly of a human-size teddy bear. The queen mattress still in its protective plastic cover leans against the wall. A small  green copy of "La Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo" rests alongside a framed poem her 12-year-old daughter Beatríz  wrote. "Just because I go to Rigler," it reads, "Doesn't mean I don't deserve an education. I'm smart."

Adelfa's sons, Osmar and Jorge Jr., play video games as she packs up their apartment in the Normandy complex.

Adelfa moves to the kitchen, where she pulls a dining chair to the edge of her counter, and climbs up to reach the shelves above. She pulls out dishes and dry goods, which join odds and ends crowded below. There's trash to take out. Toys to corral. The bathroom is halfway to clean, while the living room plays staging area for empty boxes. The rosaries and pictures of Jesus are packed, as is the nativity scene that claimed prime real estate next to the family's wide-screen TV.

Adelfa's son Jorge Jr. shows off family photos before they're packed up for the move.
Adelfa's son Jorge Jr. shows off family photos before they're packed up for the move.

In the smaller of the family's two bedrooms, 6-year-old Jorge hides inside a cardboard box waiting for just the right moment to pop out, feet first. Then he moves to a twin mattress on the floor where his brother, 10-year-old Osmar, ignores him as he bounces, head first. Osmar concentrates instead on a video game. He doesn't talk much about the move, or about the months of uncertainty leading up to today.  But he does say his parents were anxious, and he's happy they have a place to go.

In the kitchen, Adelfa climbs off the chair and leans back against the kitchen sink. She pushes hair from her face and sighs.

"It's going to be different. Here we had freedom, We had big barbecues in the parking lot," she said. "Kids ran in and out of each other's' houses. I knew their moms."

Change isn't easy for Adelfa. And she's seen too much of it in recent years.


Shifting Ground for Working Families

Adelfa's family, along with more than a dozen others, are moving out of the Normandy apartments in the Cully Neighborhood after an investor purchased the complex and doubled the rent. It's the third time since arriving in Portland in 2001 that Adelfa has left an apartment because the complex was sold. Each time she moves a little further east. Many neighbors have done the same; some have moved twice since receiving the notice of rent increases at the Normandy this winter.

They have been swept up in a tide of working families displaced by rising rents in neighborhoods that catch the eye of wealthier families and real estate investors. Those forced out are the renters, people of color, people without a college degree, and people who earn low hourly wages, according to research by Lisa Bates, a professor and director of the Center for Urban Studies at Portland State University.

These families from the Normandy – many of them related to Adelfa by marriage or birth – are part of what a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University called the nation's largest-ever surge in rental demand. And the largest increase within that largest increase is among families who, like Adelfa’s, earn less than $25,000 a year.

“In general, low-income households move more easily, mostly because of the increase in rent burden,” said Karen Chapple, a professor of city and regional planning at University of California, Berkeley and a lead of the Urban Displacement Project.

“Portland has gone through this cycle. It’s a boom and bust place,” she said. “It just starts to hit different areas. There is less stock that is available to be gentrified, so that puts pressure on other areas and different types of buildings.”


The First Eviction

The moves started for Adelfa and her husband Jorge in 2004, in a red apartment complex near the intersection of Williams and Killingsworth in the Alberta neighborhood of Northeast Portland. Since arriving from Oaxaca, Mexico three years earlier, Adelfa had lived in one apartment and flirted with Jorge, who lived in another. They moved into a unit together in early 2004 and became pregnant with a baby girl. Beatríz was born that November. But two months later they got word the apartment owners were planning to sell the complex and renovations soon would begin.

Neighbors gather to make Tamales at Adelfa's apartment in the Normandy complex.

“It wasn't easy. It was my first child,” Adelfa says. “We had to move, and we tried to find another place. It wasn’t easy.”

There is a period between leaving one stable place and finding another stable place, when rooms and rentals blur. Adelfa and Jorge both have family in Portland, and they stayed in spare rooms when finding something of their own proved difficult.


The Second Eviction

Finally they settled into a tiny one-bedroom apartment on a quiet street 49 blocks from their old apartment. They were just two blocks from Rigler Elementary School, a beautiful, sunny old building surrounded by grassy fields and play structures. Beatríz could walk to class, and her little brother Osmar, two years her junior, soon joined her. Adelfa cared for their home while Jorge worked long hours as a painter.

Adelfa's brother moved his family into the complex soon after, when the apartment they rented on Killingsworth sold and turned into condos. A pair of Adelfa's nieces moved into another unit. Jorge's younger brother came with his wife Michelle, and their little boy.

Then in the summer of 2012, the little row of 12 apartments sold for nearly $700,000. Tenants received three months notice to vacate before major renovations began.

"We left it clean because we wanted the deposit back. I think we even painted," Adelfa remembers. But she didn't get her deposit back. Neither did Adelfa's sister-in-law Michelle.

"They told us if we don't find anything, we didn't have to give 30-days notice. I found a place three days before the deadline," Michelle recalls. "We thought they would give us back our deposit, but they said we didn't give them 30 days notice."

Fernando Madrid, a school resource officer at Rigler, tried to intervene. "They targeted Latinos and no one knew what to do," he said. "I went over there with the school secretary. We asked to talk to the owner. They wouldn't come out."

Adelfa's family, like Michelle's, struggled to find another affordable apartment. So they moved in together, along with Michelle's niece and her child, living 11 people to a three-bedroom house. Then Adelfa discovered the Normandy Apartments.


The Third Eviction

The Normandy was on a busy street and wasn’t in the best of shape. Its parking lot, bowed and rutted, doubled as a playground. But a two-bedroom unit cost just $600. Adelfa and Jorge moved first. Then Jorge’s brother Jose Luis, and his wife, Michelle, moved in. Adelfa’s nieces Yesica, Sandra, and Fedelina each moved in with their families.

The complex filled with extended family and friends.

Some mothers went off to jobs at fast food restaurants or house cleaning assignments. Adelfa sometimes helped her husband Jorge with a painting job. A few times a week, the women would carpool to a local Salvation Army where they took Zumba from Niki Valdez, a long-haired blonde with bangle bracelets, an enthusiastic smile glued to her face, and a ripped T-shirt that shouted, “PUMPED UP.”

For mothers who felt the pressure of low wages, crowded apartments and the instability of renting, Zumba was a refuge. “It helps me forget everything, just for the moment,” said Adelfa’s neighbor Juana. “It helps me relax, to feel less stressed.”

The children, most of them elementary school-aged, went off to Rigler together and arrived home to unlocked apartment doors, a yard scattered with unlocked bicycles and Mexican country music streaming from open windows. Inside, mothers gathered for coffee and conversation.

“Sometimes when I had to run an errand I could say, ‘Take care of my kids for a little bit,’ or ‘I have a meeting or whatever,’” Adelfa said. “I always cooked, and I’d invite people over to eat or to have coffee.” Or one of her niece’s would pick up something for her at the store and drop it off.

Adelfa's nieces and nephews play with empty boxes as their mothers prepare tamales

On weekend evenings families would gather in the parking lot to grill meat and drink a few beers. They’d put on music and laugh, maybe dance a little.

The on Dec. 30, 2016, a real estate developer paid nearly $2 million for the Normandy apartments. The company introduced itself to tenants the next day with news that their rent would double, “due to the rising cost of utilities, insurance and the steady increase of market rents for similar units in the Portland area,” the notice read.

This time families responded. They teamed up with advocates at Living Cully and with teachers and administrators at Rigler, where 26 of the Normandy kids attended school; who accounted for 5 percent of the entire student body.

“Living Cully really jumped on it immediately, which helped me out a lot,” said Rigler Principal T.J. Fuller. The nonprofit identified resources for families, organized information sessions on tenant rights, and organized a rally to push back against the steep rental hikes.

“It was a beautiful thing. There was a rally for 26 kids, and about 800 to 1,000 people showed up to march in the streets,” Fuller said. “What’s the most beautiful thing, is the Normandy families wanted to give back so they cooked posole and tamales and fed all 800 people. It was amazing.”

Legal Aid Services of Oregon volunteered to work for the families, negotiating with the new Normandy owner for better rental terms. In the end, families were given until June 30 before rents would increase, and three months of that would be free. Most decided to leave before the increase.

Mothers in the Normandy wanted to do something to say ‘thank you’ to Living Cully and the legal team, so early on a warm Friday in May they gathered in Adelfa’s cramped second-floor kitchen to prepare tamales.

Adelfa scorched garlic and tomatoes, which she dumped in a blender filled with tomatillos. Her niece Michelle shredded chicken. Her neighbor Juana kneaded pork fat and salt into a tub of corn flour. Another neighbor Minerva started a gas grill on the patio to heat a 50-gallon pot, where she placed stacks of folded plantain leaves to steam.

Her niece Fedelina swept up after them all, keeping an eye on her 11-month-old son David, who crawled along the kitchen floor, tipping over trash bags filled with onion peels, cheese wrappers and the heads of jalapenos.

It takes about 10 hours to make all the tamales, and as the women worked they told stories and joked, laughing with mouths open, crying from the laugher and from the sliced onions. Cumbia played over the constant rush of the kitchen faucet and the clatter of dishes.

The day was tender and sad in the way endings are. They had been here before, but it doesn’t get easier.

“I think everybody had stress,” Michelle said later. “Because we’re focused on ‘What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?’”

As parents scoured the internet, visited apartments, filled out applications, worried about application fees, rental deposits and other fees, Michelle said it left them less time to spend with their kids.

“It left them in second place to the plans we had to make,” Michelle recalled. “There were times they wanted to talk to us and one of us, in our stress, would say, ‘Wait. We’re busy. We’re talking about important things.’”

Her son, 8-year-old Jose, worried about leaving his friends at Rigler. His teacher said he was emotional in class and his grades were slipping. Michelle sat him down one night and reassured him: It doesn’t matter where we go. I’ll continue to take you to Rigler, she promised.

The family's new living room doubles as a bedroom for their 12-year-old daughter Beatriz.

Signing the lease

Jorge Jr. takes a break from wrestling with Teddy in his new living room.
Jorge Jr. takes a break from wrestling with Teddy in his new living room.

Michelle was lucky. She and Jose Luis met a couple who had just built a two-bedroom apartment behind their house. They wanted to rent to one of the families from the Normandy, and the little apartment house was walking distance to Rigler. Today the kids play in a grassy yard protected by a high wooden fence, next to a garden bursting with flowers and a pond filled with fat goldfish. The kids run freely between the two houses, and play with the couple’s dog named Happy.

Adelfa’s nieces moved further east, past Interstate 205 to apartments that skirt the railroad tracks off Sandy Boulevard.

Meanwhile Adelfa and two of her neighbors found units at an apartment complex located in the Madison South neighborhood. The City of Portland purchased the complex in February for $47 million, part of a $258 million housing bond passed by voters last fall. Today the apartment building offers more affordable rents to tenants who make 80 percent or less than the area’s median income.

Adelfa, her husband Jorge, and the two youngest kids went together last month to sign the lease. They sat in the office for an hour reviewing forms – a rental agreement, pet agreement, satellite dish agreement, mold and mildew agreement, and notices of complex rule, pests and criminal activity.

“Are we going to see it now?” their son Osmar asked, looking up from his Pikachu video game.

“Soon, son,” Adelfa said. “There are a lot of documents to sign.”

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” he insisted.

“When are you going to move?” the office assistant asked.

“Thursday or Friday,” Adelfa said.

“Why not today?” Osmar interjected. Adelfa shushed him.

After finished the paperwork, the family took their new keys and walked down the block, past a pile of children wresting in the grass. A girl shouted to Osmar, “Someone has a crush on you,” but Osmar was head-down staring at his video game.


Settling into an uncertain future

By the end of June, Adelfa and her family are in their new apartment. Family photos are still in a box, along with rosaries and prayer candles. Jorge’s painting supplies crowd the entryway, slated for a storage unit at his work.

Adelfa's kids are happy about the new apartment. But Adelfa does trust that it will last.

The family slides into their summertime routine: Adelfa brings Jorge his midday meal – on this Friday it’s fried eggs in chili sauce and a side of black beans. Then she comes home to shower and pick up the house – Jorge Junior’s tiny discarded socks, Osmar’s video game console, Beatríz’ stray nail polish.

Osmar likes the quiet of the neighborhood, he says as he leans against a couch, focused on a video game called Design It! Beatríz likes the new friends she’s made, she says. But today she stays inside too, away from the heat. She sits cross-legged, watches her brother from her bed, which they’ve set up in the living room between the apartment entry and the TV. Her soccer trophies line a window near her headboard.

Adelfa settles her children into their new apartment, but worries whether they'll be pushed out again.
Adelfa settles her children into their new apartment, but worries whether they'll be pushed out again.

Jorge Junior, still in Minion pajamas, sucks on an Otter Pop and dive bombs the human-size teddy bear sprawled on the living room floor. Adelfa wanders in from the kitchen, sits on a couch and begins to peel an orange.

Adelfa is happy her children appear to have settled in, she says. She has not. The management company doesn’t want her to install a satellite dish, even though it meets that guidelines she read in the lease paperwork. One neighbor complains to Adelfa that her children play too loudly and scare her dog. And most of her neighbors only speak English. While Adelfa speaks some English, it doesn’t flow easily, and she misses the familial warmth of Latinos she knows and trusts.

More than any of that, Adelfa worries about the future. She worried about the money spent and the time lost to moving again and again.

“It’s not easy to readjust,” she said. “We’re calmer, knowing we won’t have to pay as much. And we like the neighborhood. The only thing is getting used to this. And hoping they don’t raise the rent again.”