Gentrifiers Keep Snitching and Getting Their Neighbors Fined for Uncut Grass

Homeowners in Portland currently owe $10.6 million for violations like peeling paint and uncut grass, in a system that disproportionately harms communities of color.
An empty house with an overgrown yard on North Maryland Avenue in the Interstate Corridor of Portland, Ore., is pictured with a Bureau of Developmental Services (BDS) Nuisance Notice taped to the outside of the front door, on May 14, 2019. (Alex Milan Tra
An empty house with an overgrown yard on North Maryland Avenue in the Interstate Corridor of Portland, Ore., is pictured with a Bureau of Developmental Services (BDS) Nuisance Notice taped to the outside of the front door, on May 14, 2019. (Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

People living in gentrifying areas of Portland, Oregon, are snitching on their neighbors’ unsightly peeling paint, uncut grass, improper fence heights, and trash—which disproportionately saddles communities of color with huge fines. 

After neighbors complained about an elderly man’s disabled vehicle, the boat in his yard, a tarp over his carport, and his unfinished remodeling projects, for example, he faced more than $136,000 in enforcement liens—prompting foreclosure proceedings that almost cost him his home, according to a scathing report published Wednesday by Portland’s ombudsman’s office, a city watchdog. 

Advertisement

Similarly, a 79-year-old blind veteran built up more than $88,000 in liens over unaddressed complaints relating to his too-tall grass and vehicles stored on his property. Yet another homeowner stared down some $30,000 in liens because she failed to resolve neighbors’ woes about her peeling paint. At the time, she was struggling financially, dealing with a family member’s mental health crisis, and caring for her aging parents, according to the report. 

All three people were ensnared in the city’s property maintenance enforcement system, fueled by aggrieved neighbors and passersby filing confidential reports—and rooted in Oregon’s history of excluding and driving out Black residents, the ombudsman's office said. Portland adopted property maintenance regulations in 1903 and started to rely on citizen complaints to enforce them in 1914, the report notes. A few years later, the city’s mayor and chief of police posed for a photo with Ku Klux Klan members.

Today, the complaint system is sometimes weaponized in gentrifying neighborhoods, with newcomers filing grievances against long-term residents.

“On average, households in neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color and greater increases in median home prices over five years were most strongly associated with higher complaint rates,” the report stated.

Advertisement

And by relying on complaints to enforce code violations, the city is bound to treat homeowners differently, the report adds: The people who complain about a too-tall fence in one neighborhood might not do the same in another area.

Homeowners across the city currently owe $10.6 million in outstanding enforcement liens, though there are some programs to provide limited assistance, according to the report. 

But Portland is hardly alone in issuing outsized punishments for neighborhood eyesores, rather than solely going after the serious public safety and health concerns inspectors are ostensibly designed to address. VICE News previously reported on a Cleveland Heights, Ohio, woman who faced jail time over issues like chipped paint and a loose gutter, which she couldn’t afford to address. And Dunedin, Florida, issued some $30,000 in fines against a man with overgrown grass, leading him to sue the city in 2019. 

In Portland, the anonymous property maintenance complaints can trigger a quick deadline for offending homeowners, forcing them to get into compliance or face penalties after they’re reviewed by a city inspector with the Bureau of Development Services, according to the report from the ombudsman’s office. If a homeowner fails to act, they can be punished with fines and liens on their property; the liens are particularly troubling, the report notes, since they can make it difficult to sell a home by affecting the property’s title, while also “automatically and continually” increasing “over time from escalating penalties, billing charges, and interest.” 

Advertisement

As an example, the report stated, a homeowner who failed to fix a loose gutter within 30 days might face a fine of $299 every month, for three months. After that, the fines would increase to $598, at least until the violation was fixed and inspected, and the homeowner would also be saddled with fees for re-inspection and interest. 

In a joint response to the report, Bureau of Development Services Director Rebecca Esau and Commissioner Dan Ryan wrote they agreed with the ombudsman’s office’s recommendations for improvement—which include eliminating disparities in the complaint system and engaging with affected communities to solicit their advice, among other suggestions.

“The bureau’s goal is to ensure safe and healthy housing and neighborhoods, and we are committed to taking a holistic look at our programs, including current regulations and enforcement policies which may have detrimental impacts, particularly on communities of color and low-income property owners,” Ryan and Esau wrote in a response to the report. 

“We are committed to equitable outcomes and dismantling systemic racism in its systems, processes and services, including our property maintenance code and systems for enforcing this code.” 

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.