Greek Cusina, the downtown Portland restaurant with the iconic blowup octopus out front, advertises itself as a great time: plate-breaking, belly dancing, Greek music, ouzo tasting.
Except that the banquet room, where the frivolity usually occurs, has been shuttered since May, when a team of fire and building code inspectors, a police officer and Commissioner Randy Leonard swooped down on the six-story building and slapped it with 50 fire code violations.
Nine months later, restaurant owner Ted Papas is still fuming. He says the team unfairly singled out his business, and he filed a complaint with the Independent Police Review Division. Leonard’s prominent involvement particularly puzzled him.
“Why, all of a sudden, this hit squad?” Papas said. “Was the intent to make me comply? If so, is this the way to go about it?”
Papas’ restaurant is the latest business scrutinized by the city’s Housing Interdiction Team, a little-known group of code and crime enforcers. The five-person team initially focused on cleaning up seedy residence hotels downtown but now is targeting restaurants such as Greek Cusina, nightclubs, warehouses and drug houses with numerous code violations in and out of downtown.
With its expanded reach, the group faces scrutiny of its own.
Some building owners question why the team operates without a written policy guiding how it selects buildings to target. A review of fire and building code records also shows that places with the most violations aren’t among the ones the group has so far targeted.
George Rumbley, 73, sits next to his window at the Westwind Apartments. He has lived there for six years and says conditions in the building are better since a team of police, fire and building code inspectors pressed for cleanup of building and fire code violations. “I used to consider this just transitory,” Rumbley says. “Now I consider this home.”
“The people making these decisions are not accountable to the public,” said Randal Acker, lawyer for Cindy’s Adult Bookstore. Cindy’s was demolished last August after team members pressed the owners to address building and fire code issues. “My concern is, who’s next? The city should not be selectively targeting businesses.”
Leonard, who started the team in 2003, said Portland needs to bring the hammer down on scofflaws who defy city codes and run dangerous places. But he concedes the team needs the support of all five city commissioners, not just him. So he plans to introduce a resolution soon that would formally recognize the ad hoc group.
The team’s growing role comes when a similar effort by some of the same city employees — targeting chronic petty criminals — has come under fire from civil liberties lawyers who accuse them of violating clients’ rights.
“This is good for us”
Members of the housing team initially zeroed in on residence hotels with egregious building and fire code violations such as cockroach infestations, leaky ceilings or exposed wiring. Team members visited the hotels, sometimes weekly, recorded infractions and urged managers to comply with the law or face steep penalties.
They got results. The Portland Housing Authority bought the Grove Hotel, whose stomach-turning photographs were displayed at a city budget hearing last spring. Owners of the other hotel apartments have cleaned them up.
Mike Narver, who runs the Stewart and Westwind apartments, acknowledged that pressure from the team persuaded him to pull up carpets and repaint the dingy walls. He spent thousands of dollars to replace flooring and tiles. At first, he said, he resented the attention.
“Their approach was a little, maybe, offensive,” Narver said. “Then we realized this is good for us. Sometimes, you get too passive.”
The Cusina is the first restaurant that Leonard and the team have gone after. Papas made the Cusina a firetrap by doing renovation work without city approval and illegally prepares food in the restaurant’s basement, team members said.
Photos by Fredrick D. Joe/The Oregonian Theo Papas (left) and his father, Ted Papas, run the Greek Cusina restaurant in downtown Portland. It’s one of six businesses with numerous fire and building code violations that a city team has targeted.
But Papas said he doesn’t use the basement to prepare food and that he should be allowed to operate his nightclub while he addresses the violations. He’s losing $10,000 a week in potential income, he said.
After dealing with the Cusina, the team wants to enlarge its area of responsibility, from buildings mostly in downtown to structures all over the city — an idea that has the support of Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
“This is the model of bureaus working together,” Saltzman said. “There are other areas of the city that would benefit from that approach.”
Nevertheless, Saltzman said he has no idea how the team works. Neither does Fire Chief John Klum, who nevertheless considers the team’s work crucial.
“You wouldn’t want them to not be properly controlled,” Klum said. “If you had an unchecked model, you’d have the potential of abuse.”
“Worst of the worst”
Leonard, who oversees the city’s Bureau of Development Services, said police officers’ frustration with repeat violators got him thinking about how the city should crack down.
His bureau tracks building code violations, so Leonard called a meeting of the fire, police and building departments to figure out an approach.
Leading the team is Jeff Myers, a 6-foot-8 police officer who works out of a precinct in Old Town and has spent years arresting drug dealers and petty criminals who live in the neighborhood’s residence hotels.
Myers and the team’s fire and building inspectors decide what businesses to look at based on anecdotes from their colleagues working the streets.
Then Myers pulls the inspection histories and number of police calls generated by the businesses and takes photos. Finally, he runs it all past Leonard, who walks through the building and gives the go-ahead or not.
“He gave us the political will to get things done,” Myers said of Leonard. “Having someone at the commissioner or mayor’s level willing to work with property owners — that sends a very clear message to the owner that we’re not going to do business as usual.”
Leonard said team members have been so zealous he’s had to discourage them from targeting some businesses.
“We make sure it’s the worst of the worst,” he said. “The bar has to be so high that even the attorney representing the other side doesn’t want to go to court. It can’t just be a rundown hotel or a rundown apartment.”
Last month, Myers appeared in court to defend a secret list he created five years ago — about the same time the Housing Interdiction Team began — of the most frequently arrested petty criminals in the city’s core. The American Civil Liberties Union and a trio of defense attorneys are challenging its constitutionality, noting that some on the 400-person list are prosecuted more harshly for offenses and have no way to appeal.
Myers and the city argue that the list is constitutional and has reduced the likelihood that offenders will repeat their crimes. The compilation of names, Myers said, has helped police get services such as housing and drug treatment to the city’s most chronic offenders. Some of the people on the list live in the residence hotels that the housing team has targeted.
“There’s crossover,” Myers said. “Our entire goal is to increase the livability of the neighborhood.”
Unlike the list of petty criminals, the Housing Interdiction Team hasn’t faced a court challenge. Last spring, the city budgeted $103,000 to make permanent the position of team member Mike Alderman, a fire inspector. And in a meeting with the team last week, Leonard suggested adopting a different name — the Code Compliance Intervention Team — to reflect its expanded reach to businesses other than rundown residence hotels.
By introducing the City Council resolution outlining its mission, Leonard said, he hopes the group outlasts him when he leaves the council.
“The hope is that it transcends me and is a recognized entity,” he said, “and not just this loose coalition of personnel.”
— Lisa Grace Lednicer; email@example.com