Olga Cibrian has lived in the same one-bedroom apartment with her husband and 12-year-old son Adrian for 10 years.
The apartment had a lot of problems, Cibrian says: mold, rats, cockroaches. The bathroom ceiling is leaking. The refrigerator broke and leaked all over the carpet.
Yet, with no other options, Cibrian and his family stayed. They have looked elsewhere, but they are limited by their son’s disability. He needs constant care and a downstairs unit.
The family is among about 65 people looking for new homes after the city last week condemned half of the 32-unit, two-story Cardinal Village complex on Hawthorne Ave. NE built in 1969.
“Are we afraid? To live under a bridge? Yes, Cibrian said, pointing to the overpass at the end of the street.
Half of the residents of the complex have been ordered to vacate the property. They have until October 14 to leave and find themselves in an almost impossible situation.
Salem faces one of the worst housing shortages in the nation and has become even less affordable than Portland due to declining wages.
Rents are reaching record highs in the Middle Valley. High housing costs and low vacancy rates mean rentals fill up quickly at higher prices. Apartments.com lists the average rent for a one-bedroom unit in the city at $1,128.
Court records list the 2020 rent for this complex at $900.
History of owner issues
According to court records, the building is owned by siblings Laura Febres and Michael Febres and their mother Micaela Caballero, all of whom are based in Klamath River, California.
The family did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by the Statesman Journal.
Court records say the family nearly lost the property in 2015 after failing to make several bank payments.
Property records show they owned multiple rentals in Oregon and California. The 2015 foreclosure case on Cardinal Village was thrown out after the family agreed to resolve all of their defaults by selling another property in California.
This is not the first time that one of their properties has been condemned.
In a legal response filed in a case involving their Salem complex, the family blamed their economic problems on being “discriminated against” by the city of Coos Bay and two city inspectors involving an apartment complex they owned in Coos Bay.
After discussing needed electrical and structural work on the 18-unit Coos Bay complex, Caballero said inspectors then came six months later and posted, without warning, ‘danger and eviction’ notices to all its tenants.
A city report revealed mold, a leaky roof, rotting issues and weak spots compromising the structural safety of the building, leaking ceilings, rooms with no heat, sinks that wouldn’t drain, exposed cables, smoke detectors that didn’t work and water heaters missing.
All tenants were forced to leave.
Caballero said in a motion that she later borrowed $75,000 to fix all electrical issues, add smoke detectors, install water heaters and fix plumbing issues. She said she used rent checks from her Salem tenants on Hawthorne Avenue to fund further work at the Coos Bay complex, which resulted in late payments on their mortgage.
At one point, she said, they owed the bank $500,000.
Court records indicate that the apartment was allowed to reopen.
Neglect model in Salem
Court records point to a similar pattern of neglect in Salem.
A tenant at their Hawthorne Avenue complex sued Laura Febres, Michael Febres and Micaela Caballero in 2020 for failing to maintain her apartment in a “livable condition”. The lawsuit filed in Marion County Circuit Court details water leaking through drywall and warping the bathroom floor.
“The defendants took no steps to remedy this dangerous situation,” a lawyer for the tenant said in court records.
Appliances like the stove and refrigerator were also not working, which spoiled the tenant’s food and spilled water on the kitchen floor.
Although they were made aware of the issues, the owners never resolved them or offered a replacement, according to court records.
The tenant also accused the landlords of charging her late fees and trying to evict her during the pandemic eviction moratorium. Although she previously offered a payment plan for the missing rent of her $900 unit, the tenant received an eviction notice on July 18, 2020, according to court records.
City staff said they have been in contact with owners of the Cardinal Village apartments in Hawthorne for several years.
Multifamily complexes in the city are required to have annual licenses and inspections every five years as part of the Multifamily Inspection Program.
The city maintains a list of abandoned properties in violation of city code. Eight properties are on the list of dangerous buildings where it is dangerous to enter. Seven are listed as abandoned. Most are single-family structures.
Condemnation of an apartment complex is not common in Salem.
“We very rarely declare multifamily properties unfit because most landlords maintain their properties,” city spokeswoman Courtney Knox Busch said.
She said inspectors discovered unsafe living conditions at the property on July 20, which raised significant livability, public health and safety concerns.
During the inspection, staff discovered severe infestations of cockroaches and mice in each unit; leaks damaging floors, walls and ceilings throughout the property; failing windows causing dry rot; and no working smoke alarms.
Appliances and heaters were in poor condition, and inspectors noted several fire safety violations, including overdue fire inspections and a lack of fire exits.
They also found an abundance of shoddy, unauthorized repair work.
Knox Busch said the city contacted ARCHES, the Salem Housing Authority and Mano a Mano before issuing the order to leave the complex so the groups could help residents move. Many of these service providers were present when the city posted the order at the complex on August 2.
The order gives 60 days to help residents endangered by the property move.
Due to the state of disrepair, it is unlikely the property can be made habitable during this time, city staff said.
“It is unlikely that the many structural repairs needed to make the building safe to live in can be done quickly,” Knox Busch said.
Who lives here?
ARCHES outreach teams counted 65 people living in the 16 condemned apartments. Almost all of them are agricultural workers.
In several units, up to seven people live in a one-bedroom unit.
Some residents said they moved there because it was the only apartment that didn’t require document status or would accept their application with so little paperwork. Some found it through a recommendation from employers.
Many had moved into already overcrowded units with colleagues or family members.
Carolina Lazos is pregnant. Her baby is due in October – the same month that she, her husband and their cousin will have to leave. It was the only apartment complex that had approved her family’s rental application, she said.
Monday afternoon, the residents of an apartment were already moving out. Jose Luis, a friend of the locals, lent his truck and his hands.
“It’s an injustice,” Luis said. “They [landlords] just collect the rent. They don’t care about people.
Seven people shared the one-bedroom apartment and most slept on the floor in the living room. On Monday afternoon, all that remained were packed duffel bags, a trash bag and curtains hanging from the ceiling dividing the living room into two spaces. Cockroaches were crawling on the walls.
Luis spoke on behalf of his friends as they carried their belongings in his truck.
“The owners wouldn’t live like this,” he said.
These residents will find friends and family to live with, for now. Not everyone has this option.
“It’s a dilemma,” said Rosendo Tzopitl, who lives in a one-bedroom unit with five other people. “We are between a rock and a hard place. We could go elsewhere, but how?
Groups offer help
If there’s a little silver lining, it’s the 60-day window that residents must leave, said Ashely Hamilton, program manager for the Mid-Valley Community Action Agency. The window gives organizations like his, which oversees ARCHES, more time to assess residents’ needs so they can help.
“Each household will need a different approach to housing stability,” Hamilton said. “Once we know more about their current situation and their desired living situation, we will work with them to help them get there.”
The immediate goal of ARCHES is to teach and introduce the program to every resident. From there, staff will work with each household to help them determine next steps.
“It’s not a cookie cutter, by any means,” Hamilton said. “We are answering the call, but in a different way when it comes to housing stability and homelessness.”
Shannon Sollitt covers farmworkers in the Mid-Willamette Valley as a corps member of Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on underreported issues and communities. You can reach her at [email protected].