Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Story Photo - Jesse Coombs


The ultimate fixer-uppers

Sunday, February 3, 2008 2:21 PM PST

By Amy Fischer / afischer@tdn.com

It's tough enough to repair the reputation of a notoriously crime-ridden apartment complex or motel, but try doing it once that property has acquired a nickname such as "Felony Flats" or "Heroin Hilton."

The owners of three blighted properties in Kelso have managed to do what seemed impossible.

After at least a decade of steady criminal and drug activity that left buildings trashed and residents fearful, two North Kelso apartment complexes and one motel are now remarkably transformed into family friendly environments. The criminals have moved elsewhere, and police say 911 calls have dropped off.

A couple of years ago, or even a few months ago, the 1420 N. Pacific Ave. apartments, the apartments in the 1000 block of Wood Avenue and the Kelso Econo Lodge at 505 N. Pacific Ave. were hot spots for break-ins, domestic violence, drug deals, vandalism and car thefts.

They weren't the kind of places where parents felt comfortable letting kids play outside, or the kind of places where you'd want to get friendly with the neighbors unless you were looking for a drug hook-up.

Today, all three establishments are reborn. The bad tenants are out, and the new tenants are carefully screened. Security is tight, the buildings, units and grounds have been spruced up, and the abandoned cars have been towed away.

What happened?

For starters, both apartment complexes have new owners, and the motel has changed its management practices. The rest is the result of the property owners, landlords and police devising strategies together to make the establishments less attractive to criminals.

"Without exception, every one of the apartment complexes we've had notable successes with, we've built a relationship with the landlords or owners," Kelso Police Chief Wayne Nelson said in January. "That's what makes the big difference. It changes the environment itself. Then you can change the behaviors of individuals as things come to your attention."

Asked whether the bad tenants are just being shuffled around town, Nelson said there's a "certain element of truth" to that. But vigilant landlords are the key to preventing criminals from sinking roots in an area, he said.

"They're going to where they can work in the shadows ... where there's no accountability, there's no exposure, there's no rules and regulations" or they're not being enforced," Nelson said. "The only thing you can say for sure is ... that it takes time for a particular problem location to really become a problem location. It doesn't happen overnight."

The following stories detail the metamorphosis of these diseased housing areas into happy, healthy places the city can take pride in.

1420 N. Pacific Ave.

Corvallis investor and professional athlete Jesse Coombs had never been to Kelso before buying the apartment complex at 1420 N. Pacific Ave. in April 2005.

He was aware the 26-unit complex had a history of poor management, but he didn't know he'd just purchased what was widely referred to in the community as "Felony Flats."

Coombs, a whitewater kayaker named "National Geographic Adventure Hero of 2006," was embarking upon what would be the wildest ride of his life.

"It was like my own Gladiator movie. It was miserable," Coombs, 37, said. He's had

prior experience with rehabilitating apartments in crime-plagued areas. But this, he said, was "one of the most difficult things I've ever done."

As soon as he bought the Kelso apartments, five tenants moved out because they were behind on rent. Aside from a handful of "good" tenants, the remaining renters, he discovered, were drug users, dealers, scrap metal collectors and felons on parole. There also was an unregistered sex offender, a little girl with head-lice crawling across her forehead and a neglected grandmother living among roaches while her children stole from her. One tenant's friend threatened to "bash my head in," Coombs recalled.

Coombs has evicted perhaps 17 tenants in the last two years, he estimates. Today, only four of the original tenants remain.

"Frankly, I've learned more about drugs than I ever wanted to know, owning this place," Coombs said.

He's become adept at spotting drug users, too.

"It's kinda sad. It's a skill I never wanted," said Coombs, who has a master's degree in business administration and a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering.

The apartments' previous owner, who felt that "everyone deserves a second chance" according to Coombs, required only $50 for tenants to move in.

That quickly changed under Coombs' watch. He requires prospective renters to fill out a full application, and he checks their credit, criminal history and references. Then either he or his apartment manager, former prison guard Tim Morgan, conducts an in-person interview. Felons and sex offenders are no longer allowed.

"He's good at reading people," Coombs said of Morgan, whom he brought to Kelso from Corvallis.

When Coombs bought the complex, which was built in 1971, he realized he couldn't manage it from afar. He moved onto the property for four months, the first two weeks of which he lived out of his van in the parking lot because there weren't any vacant, clean units ready.

"I just took it on as my responsibility to make the change and dig in," said Coombs, who worked on repairing and remodeling the apartments seven days a week. Inside the units, he found plenty of graffiti, junk "collections," damaged floors and broken doors.

A couple of units had been posted with "condemned" notices because the city had shut off the water and electricity for nonpayment of bills. The tenants would sneak back in and run extension cords and garden hoses into the units, Coombs said.

He began patrolling the parking lot at night and saw a constant stream of tenants going into each others' apartments. Police would show up, and the tenants would scatter.

During the day, the parking lot was full of cars because so few of the tenants had jobs, he said.

Fran Crawford, 57, who has lived at the 1420 N. Pacific Ave. apartments for three years, said she couldn't put garden ornaments outside before Coombs' arrival because they'd get stolen. Her roommate would find used condoms between the buildings. A neighbor who was a drug user and prostitute would bang on her door. Vandals would shatter the building's floodlights.

"You kept the door locked," said Crawford, who relied on her two dogs for protection.

In August 2005, Coombs met with Kelso Police Sgt. Doug Lane to talk about the history of the apartments, which rent for $400 a month for a two-bedroom unit, and $475 a month for units with a garage. Lane drove Coombs around town and talked about problems at other apartment complexes and strategies property owners employed to fix them.

Following Lane's advice, Coombs installed picket fencing between the apartment buildings to block foot traffic. He removed shrubbery and added exterior lighting. He set rules about where cars could be parked, and where tenants could repair them. He picks up the trash off the ground.

"He's done a phenomenal job," Lane said in January.

Coombs said he finally is starting to turn a profit each month on his investment. Until now, he's been funneling tenants' rent money into property improvements, on which he's spent roughly $50,000, he said.

This summer, Coombs' goal is to finish reshingling the roofs, upgrade the mail boxes, landscape, paint the outside of the buildings and refinish the driveways. Eventually, he'd like to replace the windows and front doors.

But already, the apartment complex is a different place. Rather than criminals, working families live there. Kids shoot hoops in the parking lot, which is almost devoid of cars. Lawn ornaments sit outside. It's quiet.

Crawford feels safe. Sometimes, she even props her front door open.

"It's night and day," she said.

Apartments formerly at Wood Avenue address

When Cimmaron LLC bought the apartment complex in the 1000 block of Wood Avenue last March, Kelso Police Sgt. Doug Lane informed the new property manager it was the only place in town that generated more police calls than the Three Rivers Mall, which had more than 400 calls for service in 2006.

Police also said they were monitoring several people "of interest" living in the apartments.

Lane had approached property manager Steve Sharp to develop a plan for safety and policy changes to make the investment profitable. Cimmaron LLC paid $700,000 for the apartments.

But the situation had gotten so bad at the apartment complex, "he didn't think we could do it," said Sharp, owner of Sharp Property Management. "He showed me pages and pages and pages of calls to this complex. ... This was a drive-through drug drop."

Previous owners had tried to fix the problems but couldn't. But Sharp, a 54-year-old Puget Island resident, has owned and managed other apartment complexes, including one on Eighth Avenue in South Kelso. He knew what had to be done.

"Everyone deserves a clean, secure, safe place to live, no matter what the income level is," he said last week.

Sharp evicted five problem tenants, some of whom were drug dealers, "as fast as the law would allow," he said. Three more immediately moved out. Cimmaron LLC also bought two ramshackle houses next door at 1106 and 1106 1/2 Wood Ave. for $100,000. One of them had been a site of drug activity, Kelso police say. Sharp evicted the tenants, boarded up the houses and cleared away towering piles of clutter from the front yard. He plans to bulldoze the houses and build new apartments in their place.

To keep people from trolling the apartment complex, Sharp blocked off the parking lot's rear entrance on Wood Avenue, a gravel road that runs beside the train tracks. Now, the only entrance is a driveway on North Pacific Avenue, across from Terry's Salvage yard, and the complex's address was changed to 111 N. Pacific Ave.

Sharp also sealed off the path behind the units with fencing. One tenant had been selling drugs out of an apartment's back window, he said.

The city sealed off the gaps in the chain link fence along the train tracks and riverfront dike trail to keep transients who camp by the river from crawling through. At night, they would "come in here, take what they could get," said Ed Paulson, the apartments' resident manager, a Kelso native who has lived on the property 10 years.

The apartment complex, built in 1976, badly needed repairs. Some units were missing kitchen cabinet doors and kitchen drawers. One unit had a severe mold problem.

In addition to being poorly maintained over the years, a few tenants had done "remodeling" projects of their own. In one apartment, a tenant had built a extra bedroom using wood studs, sheetrock and cardboard. Paulson also found "jimmy-rigged pipes."

Now, workers are repainting units and replacing floor coverings, appliances and countertops. Laundry rooms will be added to the buildings, and exterior improvements will be made to make the buildings appear less dated and boxy. The junk cars have been towed, and the parking lot is being redesigned to allow a circle drive with grass and trees planted in the center.

By the time renovations are finished, the owners will have invested $250,000 in the complex, Sharp said. They're about halfway done — so far, Cimmaron has spent about $117,000 on the project, he said.

Eleven tenants have been moved into the newly refurbished units, which rent for $495 a month. New tenants undergo a rigorous screening process.

The tenants who've stayed appreciate the changes, Paulson and Sharp said.

"That's when you know you're doing the job right — when the people who live here are helping out and saying 'Thank you, it's a good place to live,' " Sharp said.

Under the previous owner, tenants had to keep close watch on their belongings because people would "steal everything you got laying around," Paulson said. Thieves would even siphon gas from cars in the parking lot — if they didn't steal the car itself, he said.

"It seemed like things were getting progressively worse," Paulson said.

Earlier this month, Sgt. Lane called the transformation of the complex under Sharp's guidance "unbelievable."

"He did more in 60 days than I think we as a police department would have been able to do in two years," Lane said.

Kelso Econo Lodge

In May 2006, the state Department of Health shut down the Kelso Econo Lodge for numerous health and safety violations and suspended the motel's business license.

But the motel at 505 N. Pacific Ave. was already on the radar of Kelso police. They'd been working with the owner for two months by the time the state shut the place down for problems such as mold, exposed electrical wiring, non-working smoke detectors, mattresses stained with blood and urine, and carpets smeared with feces.

With its cheap rates and lax management, the motel had long been a magnet for people whom no one else would rent to, police said. Guests included transients, drug users and criminals on the lam. People would converge on the motel for underage drinking and storage of stolen property.

In April 2006, the Longview Street Crimes Unit arrested two meth dealers there following a month-long investigation into drug dealing at the motel.

"Rather than just continue to respond to these types of issues and be a little bit frustrated, I decided ... to work with the folks that manage it, including the owner," Lane said earlier this month.

Three months after the state shut it down, the motel reopened with full state approval.

"They've done a beautiful job of remodeling the property," Shannon Walker, a DOH employee, said in August 2006. "It's great to see a property turn around and be successful."

Part of the trouble, police had informed owner/manager Raj Patel, was that the motel's business practices were conducive to criminal activity. The employees weren't asking for guests' identification, vehicle descriptions or license plate numbers. There wasn't daily maid service, so management didn't know what was stored in the rooms or what guests were doing in them. Guests and their friends would tromp from room to room to party in the middle of the night.

Lane said Patel, who lives in Portland, wasn't aware of what was happening at the Kelso Econo Lodge, which is owned by KSL Partners LLC of Troutdale, Ore. When Patel understood police wanted to see the business operating as safely and profitably as possible, "he bought in, he agreed," Lane said.

"It was known community wide as the 'Heroin Hilton.' And the owner wasn't going to accept that," Lane said.

Following Lane's advice, Patel improved exterior lighting, added a surveillance system and changed the door locking mechanisms. Maids began cleaning the rooms daily. Clerks began asking for more information from guests at check-in. The nighttime roaming between rooms was stopped.

The newly watchful eyes of the management made the motel an undesirable environment for its old patrons, police say.

Police enlisted the city's nuisance abatement officer to have the abandoned vehicles in the area removed. The drug task force began matching names with activity at the motel. Police also invited state Department of Corrections officers to join them on patrols so the DOC could take action on people under their supervision.

"I think the partnerships were as big a part as anything else we did," Police Chief Wayne Nelson said. "It all comes under the term 'community policing.'"

Patel didn't respond to a reporter's request for an interview. However, the motel's on-site manager, Cuahutemoc Gavino, said Tuesday the motel is doing well now.

"It has cost us a lot, but we're still here," he said. "Everything has been changed dramatically, different clientele."