September 27, 2021

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Home Gets Me Excited

North Portland’s red house and surrounding neighborhood linger in uneasy limbo after tense standoff

15 min read

On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen people came and went from the boarded-up red house on North Mississippi Avenue that just two months ago served as the catalyst for an explosive standoff between activists and city leaders.

People stayed warm under a tarp jutting from the back of the dilapidated two-story house. A handwritten sign listed chores including “organize tent” and “mulch pathways.” A woman showed up with a case of Capri Sun soft drinks. Someone delivered firewood.

A Moorish sovereign citizen flag flew from the circa-1896 house adorned with spray-painted rallying cries — “land back” and “we are red house” — on the sides and roof.

Ground zero for Portland’s gentrification and racial justice movement in 2020, the house and adjacent vacant lot have settled into a sort of homeless encampment and chronic source of nuisance complaints for the surrounding neighborhood.

Though the mayor’s office in December announced the house would return to its former longtime owners, the Kinney family, that deal never materialized.

The battle over the Kinney family home drew the attention of a loose group of demonstrators last year. They echoed the message of the Black Lives Matter movement that animated the city throughout the summer but also spotlighted the red house as a symbol of Portland’s history of housing discrimination. This photo shows the scene that erupted at the house and adjacent property late last year.  Beth Nakamura/Staff

Likewise, there’s no timeline to finalize the handover of the lot next door to Self Enhancement Inc., a prominent nonprofit that has long served the area’s Black youths and families.

Other political leaders and some supporters don’t see a clear path toward resolving the turmoil.

The continued occupation of the properties in a historically Black part of Portland has left other residents in an uneasy limbo, begging for the city’s intervention.

Recent emails to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s staff show a neighborhood in crisis. People reported repeated instances of harassment, vandalism and personal threats. One complained about regularly finding human waste in his driveway and yard. Another said she found a replica gun on her steps, the barrel pointed at her front door.

The neighborhood in early February.

In an email on Jan. 16, a resident questioned why the city had done so little to address neighbors’ public safety concerns.

“Why is the city still allowing an armed occupation in our community,” the neighbor wrote. “I suppose this will be a higher priority when we’re dead.”

The city released dozens of emails to The Oregonian/OregonLive in response to a public records request. Underscoring the volatile dynamic that persists in the neighborhood, most property owners declined to be identified and city lawyers redacted the email addresses and names of nearly every neighbor, citing a “personal safety” exemption in the state’s public records law.

One wrote to a Wheeler aide and Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis last month to report William Kinney III had shown up at her front door.

A video from the couple’s home security system shows Kinney berating the woman’s husband and telling him to move out. The exchange ended with Kinney saying repeatedly and without explanation, “welcome to your shame by law.”

The couple reported the encounter and said they were told by city officials and police to “avoid” Kinney.

Kinney’s parents owned the red house at 4406 N. Mississippi Ave. for 23 years before losing it to foreclosure in 2018 for failing to pay the mortgage for nearly a year and a half.

Neighbors say Kinney visits the property regularly but does not appear to be living there.

This month, Kinney filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court against brothers Colin and Bryan McLean, the investors who own the lot next to the red house, and Ken Vonderach, the Denver-based investor who owns the apartment building on the other side of the house.

His lawsuit makes a series of vague land claims and accuses Vonderach of taking down what he characterized as a “historic monument” even though it was “against the wishes” of Kinney’s mother and erecting a “monstrosity of a building.”

Property records and real estate listings show the apartment building was built on the site of an 1894 home that sold in 2012 for $288,000. The Kinneys did not own it.

William Kinney shown in a file photograph from late last year inside of the home his family owned for decades, then lost through foreclosure. Real estate investor Roman Ozeruga bought the house in a 2018 foreclosure action for $260,000. Kinney this week characterized his family’s fight as one of the underdog against “white collar criminals” who benefitted from the protection of former President Barack Obama “and his bunch.” “The Kinney family has filed claims against these beastly corporations to no avail,” he wrote in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

 Brooke Herbert/Staff

Kinney, who goes by William X. Nietzche, has embraced the sovereign citizen movement, a fringe belief system whose adherents profess they are above the law.

He has maintained that the law does not apply to his family and courts have no jurisdiction over them or their debts.

Kinney is representing himself in the lawsuit.

In response to a request for comment, Kinney released a statement with claims about corrupt foreign entities that he said preyed on his family. He characterized his family’s fight as one of the underdog against “white collar criminals” who benefitted from the protection of former President Barack Obama “and his bunch.”

“The Kinney family has filed claims against these beastly corporations to no avail,” he wrote in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The battle over the Kinney family home drew the attention of a loose group of demonstrators last year.

They echoed the message of the Black Lives Matter movement that animated the city throughout the summer but also spotlighted the red house as a symbol of Portland’s history of housing discrimination.

In September, activists began camping outside the home to prevent the Black and Indigenous family from being forced to leave.

Members of the Kinney family have traced their financial troubles to a criminal case involving William Kinney two decades ago. Kinney has told The Oregonian/OregonLive that his family paid $26,000 for legal bills related to his 2002 felony hit-and-run conviction in a crash that killed Frederick Goetz, 82, and seriously injured Goetz’s wife, Ann.

Real estate investor Roman Ozeruga bought the house in a 2018 foreclosure action for $260,000.

Last year, the Kinneys posted this video of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office’s effort to evict the family in September. Police left that day and returned with Portland police in the early morning hours of Dec. 8.

The conflict over the house came to a head in December when Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies moved to enforce a court-ordered eviction for the second time.

Deputies had tried to carry out the order in September but left after the Kinneys resisted. They returned to the red house in the early morning hours of Dec. 8.

When police returned to evict the Kinneys in December, they faced a volatile crowd. A social media call went out and eventually about 200 people showed up. Protesters threw rocks at officers and one sprayed a fire extinguisher toward them, prompting an officer to fire an impact munition. Police SUVs were damaged, including at least one window smashed. Overwhelmed and outnumbered, police retreated. Beth Nakamura/Staff

This time, deputies accompanied by Portland police faced a volatile crowd. A social media call went out and eventually about 200 people showed up. Protesters threw rocks at officers and one sprayed a fire extinguisher toward them, prompting an officer to fire an impact munition. Police SUVs were damaged, including at least one window smashed.

Overwhelmed and outnumbered, police retreated.

The scene as police retreated on Dec. 8 from an attempted eviction of the Kinneys from the home they lost through foreclosure in 2018.

Demonstrators then proceeded to build a fortified blockade in front of the red house, cutting off blocks of homes and businesses in the neighborhood. Some of them openly carried weapons, conducted armed patrols and amassed piles of rocks, preparing for a showdown with police.

The mayor and Police Chief Chuck Lovell condemned the group as tensions simmered and national attention once again focused on Portland’s civil unrest.

Photo taken last year during the height of the tensions between activists and city officials over the fate of a house bought through foreclosure in 2018.  Beth Nakamura/Staff

Then, as the year drew to a close, Wheeler’s office announced it had helped broker a deal: The Kinneys, it seemed, would buy back the house. Ozeruga, who co-owns Urban Housing Development LLC., which bought the house, told news outlets he would sell it at cost plus legal and administrative costs.

The news prompted activists to pull down the barricades.

The Kinneys had raised at least $315,000 through a GoFundMe campaign. They also solicited donations on Venmo and the CashApp, though it is unclear how much they raised or how it was spent.

But the deal never came through.

Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for Wheeler, said Thursday that neither the Kinneys nor Ozeruga have “put a formal offer on the table to transfer ownership.”

Middaugh said city officials are in touch with both parties and remain “cautiously optimistic” about a resolution, but added that the situation has been complicated by the Kinneys’ refusal to obtain a lawyer.

Kinney recently notified city officials that he and his mother Julie Metcalf Kinney “are going to be handling the real estate negotiation despite the city’s consistent urging that they hire a lawyer to assist them,” Middaugh said.

Metcalf Kinney’s previous writings also suggest that she, like her son, holds sovereign citizen sympathies. A lawsuit her son filed two years ago includes a signed statement by Metcalf Kinney declaring she is a “declared living American sovereign standing with Treaty Law of God.” The document goes on to say she has been “falsely accused” of being an American citizen.

In a text message to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Ozeruga declined to comment “given the sensitivities of the matter.”

The city at one point reached out to the Portland nonprofit Proud Ground that helps people buy their first homes to see if it could work with the Kinneys, Middaugh said.

Diane Linn, executive director of Proud Ground, declined to elaborate on what, if any, role her organization could play in the matter.

“We’ve had a few initial conversations nothing specific,” she said in an email.

Next door, the McLeans have offered to donate their 7,200 square-foot lot to Self Enhancement Inc. but that, too, has not been formalized.

The organization said it is carefully reviewing the arrangement before proceeding.

Libra Forde, the organization’s chief operating officer, said a new lawsuit against the McLeans by Vonderach, the owner of the nearby apartment complex, has complicated the deal.

These images show the red house and the empty lot adjacent to it as they appeared in early February. For now, the people staying in and around the house and on the lot appear dug in. They’ve carved a gravel path and a stairway in the empty lot. An outdoor shower wrapped in a blue tarp and heated with propane tanks sits on one of the lot’s corners. A sign in front marked “community agreements” says “we are here for the Kinneys.” Among the rules: “Clear the air as conflict arises.”

 Beth Nakamura/Staff

The lawsuit alleges the lot has become a “major homeless encampment and staging ground for people to trespass” on Vonderach’s property.

“In doing due diligence, we have to be clear and understand what we are getting into, be informed,” Forde said. “There is still a lot to find out. There is still a lot to do.”

Longtime Portland Black Lives Matter activist Mac Smiff, who documented demonstrations at the red house and helped field press inquiries at the site, said the city is to blame for escalating the situation by trying to carry out an eviction during the winter.

He said activists’ aim was in part to draw attention to broader concerns about how the city approves development without paying attention to people displaced in those efforts.

“How can you try and include the people who live in a neighborhood in the wealth that is being generated,” he said, “as opposed to getting rid of them and moving in new people to take on that wealth? It’s the same thing we have always asked for.”

Smiff said the protest was effective even if the outcome remains unresolved months later.

“There is legal and there is what’s right,” he said, “and what’s right wins even if it’s a strange win or a temporary win.”

“This came to an illogical conclusion and now we have to figure out what’s next and that’s hard,” he said.

Meanwhile, property owners say they feel a deepening despair as the city allows the encampment to continue.

In an interview earlier this month, a frustrated Vonderach said some of his tenants have left. His apartment building, The Roux, boasts “sophisticated living spaces” and sits just feet from the red house. One real estate site showed 10 vacancies in the building for units with monthly rent ranging from $1,100 to $1,600.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, people said some of their neighbors are moving out. One resident said two renters and a homeowner on North Albina Avenue, which runs behind the red house, have either left or are in the process of moving.

Neighbors are scared, Vonderach said.

“These people that are brandishing weapons on a daily basis, automatic rifles, ARs, handguns — they are bullying the citizens of that neighborhood,” he said.

Residents want the city to clear both the empty lot and the red house.

One neighbor told Wheeler’s office in an email in late December that he had seen men in “body armor and with guns” patrolling the properties. As recently as a few weeks ago, the resident said, he saw people on the site armed with handguns.

Between Sept. 1 and Jan. 3, city records show 118 calls were made to 911 to report a wide range of conduct associated with both properties, including harassment, noise, and theft.

People who live near the site echo Vonderach’s complaints and blame the city.

Buildings near the red house were marked with graffiti last year amid protests on behalf of the Kinney family. The battle over the family’s longtime home drew the attention of a loose group of demonstrators last year. They echoed the message of the Black Lives Matter movement that animated the city throughout the summer but also spotlighted the red house as a symbol of Portland’s history of housing discrimination.  Beth Nakamura/Staff

“Neighbors and businesses have done everything legally and within our power to cooperate and support that process to achieve a peaceful, permanent resolution,” one wrote on Jan. 21 to Wheeler’s staff. “But despite that intent, NOTHING has been accomplished to get us any closer to that outcome. NOTHING.”

That same resident said his fence was tagged with graffiti earlier this month.

Another said she recently looked on nervously as the group tended a large fire – a common occurrence, according to residents. The woman said the fire coated the “entire neighborhood” in smoke.

Two weeks ago, Bryan McLean said he hired a company to clean his large lot next to the red house only to have the crew turned away by people on the site. Gravel covers a large swath of the empty space, which stands out amid the development along the bustling avenue.

He said it’s the fourth time he’s sent a crew there. The last three times workers have been interrupted by the people staying there.

McLean said he told his crew to walk away after the latest attempt.

“I just didn’t want to have the situation (made) worse,” he said.

He said he filed a report with Portland police that day, though he said the bureau has made clear as recently as January that it’s received enough trespassing complaints from the public about the site.

“We have been told we don’t need to call the police anymore, by the police,” McLean said.

This time he decided to report the encounter.

“In this situation, the police definitely needed to be called,” he said.

A spokesman for the Police Bureau said in an email that police respond to calls involving the lot and the red house “but it depends on the nature of the call, the resources available at the time, and other factors. Certainly we don’t want our response to exacerbate tensions, and we’ve seen that can happen.”

It is difficult to say how many people are living on the properties.

These images show how the site appeared earlier this month. Tents were erected on the vacant lot next to the house. The entry to the house was blocked with rope. And the house itself exhibited spray-painted rallying cries — “land back” and “we are red house” — on the sides and roof.

 Beth Nakamura/Staff

Neighbors report that a handful of people seem to be staying in the home, which appeared to have electricity as of two weeks ago, and a dozen or so come and go throughout the day to both properties. Until the recent winter storm, tents were set up on McLean’s property.

McLean said he has sent several letters to William Kinney and his mother telling them they aren’t allowed on his lot.

People staying on the lot, he said, “don’t have permission to be there, they never had permission to be there.” He said the most recent letter went out in mid-January.

Using police to clear the property risks escalation and injury, city officials said.

Wheeler’s staff has instead tried to help the Kinneys find a lawyer to represent them in the real estate deal, as well as offered to help clean the site and remove garbage, Middaugh said.

They also have tried to connect the family with nonprofits that “might be in a good position to support them as they try to figure out a path forward,” he said.

The Kinneys have largely declined those offers, Middaugh said.

“They wanted to work through the folks they have surrounding them to do a lot of that work,” he said.

Wheeler’s staff has told the Kinneys about neighbors’ complaints, like fires, noise, blocking traffic and “the defecation on people’s driveways,” Middaugh said.

“We have suggested that those things are not helpful to a long-term resolution,” he said.

State Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat whose district includes the red house, said the city “is between a rock and a hard place.” Frederick, a Black lawmaker and member of the Oregon Legislature’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color Caucus, has long advocated for police reforms.

“No matter what they do, they’re going to be accused of harassing a poor group of people and they are a poor group of people,” he said.

“Right now when I look at this situation, it’s a real struggle to find a way, to find a path that really helps the family in a way that is going to make a difference,” he said.

Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a Portland-based organization that works to confront structural racism, right-wing extremism and other social issues, said activists who demonstrated on behalf of the Kinneys should play a role in resolving the dispute.

Activists dismantled the final barricades in the North Portland neighborhood and reopened streets to traffic, Dec. 14, 2020, after a weeklong eviction blockade.  Brooke Herbert/Staff

“There were dozens of activists who showed up to stop the eviction with their physical presence,” said Ward, a longtime civil rights strategist. “It doesn’t speak highly that those activists have since disappeared and haven’t sought to engage the Kinneys around the repair of the property, the livability of the property.”

The city, too, must address neighbors’ concerns, he said.

“Until folks actually agree to a solution,” Ward said, “the only answer is escalation and forced removal. My sense is everyone is trying to avoid that type of escalation but to avoid that means everyone has to seriously be in communication and conversation and negotiation with one another.”

For now, the people staying in and around the house and on the lot appear dug in.

They’ve carved a gravel path and a stairway in the empty lot. An outdoor shower wrapped in a blue tarp and heated with propane tanks sits on one of the lot’s corners. A sign in front marked “community agreements” says “we are here for the Kinneys.” Among the rules: “Clear the air as conflict arises.”

On a recent afternoon, a man emerged from the tarped area behind the red house to talk with a reporter. He said no one else wanted to comment.

“They are too worn out from everything that’s gone on here all this time,” he said.

He identified himself only as Michael, 65.

He said he sympathizes with the neighbors but said the people staying on the property “are good people.”

The man said he is homeless and seeks refuge on the property during the day.

“It’s a resource,” he said. “It’s available to me. … I am not trespassing. I am not breaking any laws. I don’t intend to.”

He said he wasn’t on the property a couple months ago when activists pushed back police — and he’s still not too clear on the particulars.

“I have no idea who actually owns the land,” he said.

— Noelle Crombie; [email protected]; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie

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