On Wednesday night, the Trelawny Tenants’ Union fought the Rent Board’s previous decision on a tax rate rent adjustment and we’re still waiting for a final verdict.

Trelawny Tenants’ Union was founded as a way to form community among residents in the 655 Congress Street building owned by landlord Geoffrey Rice. Not long after, they realized their community would prove a powerful union that represents hundreds of tenants under Rice and Apartment Mart.

Over the course of 2021, renters found Rice violating the rent control ordinance put forth by People’s First Portland and passed by the city in 2020. They’re bringing a rent raise appeal to the Rent Board asking it to find that the rent raises Mr. Rice is seeking to have improperly calculated tax, and to levy fines for each of the hundreds of illegal notices of rent increase.

The tenant union realized that Rice gave the board a higher tax increase than was reported by the city’s records, making a difference of about $3,617. They also shared that Rice allocated 100% of the building’s property taxes into his calculations when tenants do not have access to the basement, the first floor commercial space, or the 3,253 sq. ft. penthouse apartment Rice resides in. That’s roughly 25% of the building being asked of tenants to pay for.

The distribution method was also allegedly incorrect based on the ordinance guidelines. According to the city’s FAQ, increases should also be based on the individual square footage of each unit. So, someone living in a 350 sq. ft. apartment is going to pay less than someone in a 500 sq. ft. apartment.

Not only were his calculations incorrect, but tenants received a string of improper rent increase notifications from May of 2021 to November as, the union alleges, Rice was attempting to illegally increase rent and evict tenants during the eviction moratorium.

Even after being reported to the Housing Safety Office (HSO), being pulled into a meeting with the tenants and HSO, Rice continued to increase rent, according to the union. They estimate a total of 1,032 violations against renters, totaling what could be a minimum of $103,000 in fines.

Despite HSO acknowledging many of these violations, they have yet to issue any fines. Zachary Lenhart, the Licensing and Housing Safety Manager, struggled to clarify that the notices issued to Rice were not violations, though an email from the city included in the union’s presentation issues a “notice of violation,” which references the initial phone call made to Rice stating the reasoning.

Beyond the four presenters, including former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, Wes Pelletier, Matt Walker, and Tom Hamill, several tenants spoke about their experiences with receiving several notices of rent increase and eviction during the pandemic. Many shared their anxieties and stress with unstable housing.

It was unclear if the tenants were going to be able to give their presentation to the Board because they hadn’t heard from Rice that they consented to mediation. However, after an hour-long executive session that delayed the meeting, Anne Torregrossa from Corporation Council said she received an email.

Paul Bulger, the lawyer representing Rice at the hearing, had come in at the last moment, submitting a memo at 4:59, one minute before the meeting started, and it often seemed as though he had not prepared to refute the tenant unions’ claims.

At the beginning of Bulger’s filibuster-esque monologue he acknowledged the anxieties that Rice caused them; he later called the tenants’ findings a “witch hunt” for landlords.

Bulger tried to refute that what Trelawny Tenant Union had brought forth fell short. He claimed that the basement of the building can be included in the tax rate rent adjustment because they use that space to store the equipment for repairs on the building. Those repairs he mentioned are actually for code violations that haven’t been addressed since the inspection in 2019.

Even though the Rent Board has rules about receiving evidence the Friday prior to the meeting, they granted Bulger a chance to gather his documentation and submit it for the next meeting.

“It’s insulting to us as the appealers, to bring evidence in the final hour before the meeting,” said union member Matt Walker. “It’s insulting to the Rent Board to not give them the time to review the materials before the meeting. And I think it’s not. It’s surprising that the rent board would accommodate the landlord’s council by allowing evidence past the deadline.” 

The meeting went over five hours. At the end, the Rent Board decided to continue the hearing on February 9th.