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December 11, 2015

Rehab or Raze: A 107-Year-Old Central Eastside Apartment Building is Up for Sale

The Portland Mercury

Shelby R King

The real estate listing for the 107-year-old apartment building calls it "one of the more historically significant apartments located in what is now considered the Burnside Bridgehead area of close-in east Portland."

The 8,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar building holds 36 studio apartments and seven one-bedrooms. Some of the residents have lived there for four decades. Many are on tight budgets and appreciate that the current landlords have kept the place affordable in comparison to what's happening around Portland, according to Sabrina Louise, a 13-year resident.

Jordan Carter, a broker at Kidder Mathews who specializes in Portland-area multifamily investment sales, touts the building as being smack dab in the middle of "one of Portland's highest profile neighborhood redevelopment projects."

"Union Arms is in need of updating on a number of levels to help it reach market rents that have been escalating throughout Portland at a rapid pace," the listing reads. "The property represents an amazing opportunity to either continue to provide market rate but affordable housing, rehabilitate it, or fully redevelop it."

Uh-oh. If recent history-where building-wide evictions and astronomical rent hikes abound-is any indication of what could happen, things aren't looking good so far for the Union Arms, located at 131 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

"This is one of the hottest blocks in the city and it's up to the owners to decide what they want to do with it," says Clay Newton, Carter's partner at Kidder Mathews. "It's part of our process to give them the widest range of possibilities. We've had nonprofits look at this property, [the Portland Development Commission] looked at it indirectly. We're being very conscientious with these clients."

There is so much opportunity at this site, in fact, that the brokerage firm is offering it for sale without including an asking price. Instead, bidders have until December 15 to put in their bid.

"In this market we see a lot of commercial properties come out as unpriced, typically because there's more than one investor interested and this is really the only way to prove out what the real market value is," Carter says. "When markets heat up like this, that's when we see more places come out without a price or come out artificially low priced."

Carter and Newton pointed out that just because the owners put the building on the market unpriced, that doesn't mean they're shooting for taking the offer from the highest bidder. Both said the Union Arms' owners had not discussed their intentions around what sort of offer they're looking for. A call to the owner, listed on Portland Maps as Princeton Property Management, wasn't returned by the time this blog posted.

Louise says she's already paying more than half of her monthly income to rent a studio apartment, is worried about what this might mean for her and the tenants in the other 42 units.

The listing says the units' average current rent ranges between $610 and $672 per month. It also gives the building a "walk score of 82" and says that the tenants "enjoy the a 10-15 minute walk to the west across the historic Burnside Bridge to reach the heart of Downtown Portland, while a 5 minute walk east brings a plethora of Portlandia experiences."

It's easy to see why Louise is worried about how long her tenancy will last in a hot rental market where studios are going for record prices and there's redevelopment happening all around her building. Sadly, there's not a whole lot Louise or any of the other tenants can do about it.

"Although there is a requirement that any new building on that site be reviewed by the Design Commission, there are no regulations prohibiting the demolition of the Union Arms. Because it is not a landmark, the city's preservation rules would not apply to a proposal to bring down the century-old apartment building," says Brandon Spencer-Hartle, Senior Programs Manager at Restore Oregon. "While turn-of-the-century apartment buildings are becoming scarcer on the east side, the recent rehabilitation of the 1911 Clifford Apartments just a few blocks to the south provides a model for how historic preservation and affordable housing can go hand-in-hand in the Central Eastside."

It's getting to be such a regular event-entire apartment buildings being evicted so owners can renovate or raze it and increase rents on the new tenats-that it's barely even news anymore. But that doesn't mean it's not a story worth repeating.

"I've built my life around that building. My office is downtown because of it and I can walk anywhere I need to go in less than 30 minutes," Louise says. "I really don't want to move, and I certainly don't want the building demolished. But there are these monstrosities going up all around us and these suits have been coming around asking questions for months now."

Newton says that although bidding closes on the current listing for the property on Dec. 15, that shouldn't be taken as indicative of a timeline on the current owners' decision about what they'll do with the property.

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