When you hear the word, tenant, typically you think of someone who is renting a house. Most people assume that a tenant is someone who has signed some sort of rental agreement, so if they damage the house they will be held accountable. Joe Smith and his mom, Jane Smith, learned the hard way that a tenant is anyone who has established residency, and establishing residency is much easier than most people think.
Joe bought his house almost a decade ago, with the help of NeighborImpact and his mom. Buying the house was an attempt to establish more independence for Joe, who's mentally disabled and on a fixed income, his mother said. He lived in the house on his own, but talked to his mother almost daily so she could check in with him. Jane said she would stop by the house every so often, and helped Joe do repairs. In August, Jane got a call from her son, who told her there were people living in his house and he didn't know who they were.
"He let a young homeless woman in his house because he felt sorry for her," Jane said. "This young women put the word out on the street that she could provide free housing at my son's residence. In they came. Swarms of them."
The people who overtook her son's house were not just homeless people who were down on the luck, Jane said. She called them "street criminals" and said many of them had drug problems and police records. Joe says he ended up hiding in his bedroom to avoid them. His mother called the police, but they were unable to do anything.
"They said it was a civil matter, and their hands were tied," Jane said. "They refused to do anything, which just seems wrong."
The only thing they could do to get everyone to leave was to evict them. Even though no one had signed a rental agreement or paid rent, they still had to be evicted. This was a long process, made longer by the fact that Jane needed to become her son's guardian and conservator when Joe was unable to do the eviction process himself.
Tenant laws in Oregon are written with the idea that most people will have some sort of rental agreement, and that both the tenant and the landlord will reasonably follow the laws, said Paul Heatherman, a landlord-tenant attorney in Bend.
"If the homeowner gave consent [to allow someone to reside in the house] that is persuant to a rental agreement," Heatherman explained. "This makes it really easy to establish a rental agreement. If you let someone in, you're stuck, and now they're a tenant." And because verbal consent can be considered a rental agreement, police are going to be very careful about removing someone from the house, he said. When this happens, the only option is eviction.
After the eviction process was started, Jane said she went to let everyone in the house know. They left, she says. She thought that was it, so she didn't finish the eviction notice. Everyone returned. Jane decided the only option was to get her son out of the house. She picked him up, they grabbed a few things and decided they would get the rest of his stuff later on after everyone was out of the house. Then they restarted the eviction process.
"We tried to go back to the house and they had nailed the door shut," she said. "When I called the police, they told me it was within their rights as tenants, but since my son owned the house we could break in through a window or break down the door."
Eventually, the Smiths finished the eviction process in early May. When Joe and his mother went back to the house to collect his belongings, they discovered extensive damage to the inside of the house. Everything that could be carried away was missing, they said.
"They took literally all of my son's possessions," Jane said. "He had what he was wearing when we left and the few things we took with us. They took everything they could, down to toothpaste, socks and underwear."
Someone also carved profanity into the plaster walls, broke off the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and threw a hatchet into the walls of the living room, Jane said. They unplugged the fridge so the food left inside rotted.
"They did thousands of dollars of damage," she said. "Everything was broken, smashed or destroyed. They were vindictive because of the eviction notice."
Because there was no concrete evidence of who caused the damage, the police couldn't arrest anyone. Lt. Clint Burleigh of Bend Police agrees that removing a tenant is a very complicated situation.
"If someone mows the lawn once for you and you let them stay there, they might be considered a tenant," he said. If there is no rental agreement, cases have to be determined on an individual basis, and usually involve aspects most people might not be aware of.
Oregon statutes are written in an ambiguous way, and most legislation currently is aimed at protecting tenants because there are very few available rentals, Heatherman said. He hasn't seen any legislation that would clarify the tenant/landlord status that became an issue in this situation.
"With the lack of rental houses there might be more aggressive tenants, and they might be able to work the system to stay for a long time," he said.
Because of the general nature of the laws, the police are wary of removing tenants, unless they have a warrant to do so, Burleigh said. The downside of these tenant-centric laws, Heatherman said, is that when you have an unreasonable tenant, there isn't much you can do besides evict them, which takes time, and legally the occupant can stay in the house until the eviction process is complete.
Oregon statute ORS 90.100 defines a tenant as "a person, including a roomer, entitled under a rental agreement to occupy a dwelling unit to the exclusion of others, including a dwelling unit owned, operated or controlled by a public housing authority. Does not mean a guest or temporary occupant."
That last sentence, that says a "temporary occupant" is not considered a tenant is why Jane has such an issue with how the police handled this incident. She said if her son's situation was the only one she knew of in Bend she would chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. But she said she knows of two or three similar situations, in which an elderly or mentally disabled person was exploited by a homeless person or relative who they allowed to stay at their house.
"My son has me to advocate for him," she said. "When I'm gone, those people will still be out there, and if the police maintain their position to take zero action, this will never stop."
Editor's note: The names of the victims have been changed to protect their privacy.