How Cash Sent the Portland Home Market Spinning

Julieth Buri waters flowers in front of the Portland house she and her husband, Justin, bought in 2014. Photo: Leah Nash for InvestigateWest

Justin and Julieth Buri were about to lose. Again.

This time it was a gold-colored bungalow, a 1,382-square-foot house on Northeast Fremont belonging to the estate of Veona Monroe, a church devotee and the matriarch of a large Portland family.

It needed work, but they were smitten, if not optimistic. Justin Buri, by day an advocate for tenants, knew well the scarcity of Portland houses. They offered $250,000 — $10,000 over the asking price — and crossed their fingers. This time it took a full day before another buyer outbid them, paying all cash. Seven months later, the house sold again, remodeled, for $483,000.

“It was a nightmare,” Justin Buri said of the couple's house-hunting days. From the time those days began in October 2013 until they ended the following May, the Buris were outbid 16 times for homes, many times by all-cash offers.

“Sometimes we wouldn’t even get beat by that much, but because it was a cash offer, the owner would prefer it,” he said.

So goes the story. Cash is king in red-hot Portland real estate, representing a full one-third of single-family home sales last year. Depending on which urban myth you subscribe to, many first-time home buyers are just out of luck either because the Metro-area urban growth boundary makes housing scarce and pricey, or because Portland is so great, housing is being gobbled up by a flood of New Yorkers and Californians racing here for a slice of nirvana. It’s a post-Portlandia feeding frenzy, right?

Well, no. Not entirely.

A Vision for Transparency Reform in Oregon

In my household there is a running gag. It’s that my future biography — to be written by my husband, who I have been talking at for a minimum of two hours a day for many years — will be called Visions.

Redacted.

It will not be about all of the things I have accomplished. It will be a list, likely numbering in the hundreds of pages, of all the great ideas I’ve had but for a variety of reasons did not see through.

There will be the numerous companies I have started (in my mind, anyway). The ever-evolving landscaping plan always in progress in my yard (and, again, in my mind). There will be the dozens of art projects floating around in closets and our basement. Thousands of unwritten articles — a few with asterisks denoting the unavoidable legal causes of their demise. A book or five. Nonprofits, animal rescues, orchid arrangements, volunteer projects.

I am not a procrastinator. I simply like to start things. Like this column. Like the Redacted app. Like a TED Talk-style story rollout at InvestigateWest’s Oregon launch party Thursday night (6 p.m. in Portland at Ecotrust).

And now I’m going to start something with you people: We are going to try to get this darn bill passed.

Byline: 

Microbeads Ban Goes Down the Drain

Puget Sound. Photo: Flickr/Kris Symer

Legislation aimed at reducing water pollution by phasing out plastic microbeads in products like toothpaste and cosmetics got a unanimous yes vote in the Republican-controlled Washington Senate. But the Democratic-controlled House Environment Committee scrubbed it, leaving it in the growing pile of this session’s dead and discarded bills.

Senate Bill 5609 would have, by 2020, banned the manufacture and sale of products containing synthetic microbeads. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used as abrasives in many health and beauty products. They wash down the drain but are so small that they can escape wastewater treatment filters, ending up in Puget Sound and other waterways and entering the food chain as a pollutant.

Byline: 

Budget-Cutters Take Aim at Key Puget Sound Projects

Puyallup River. Photo: Flickr/Eldan Goldenberg.

Updated April 13, 2015, 4:20 p.m.

In the little town of Orting, the Puyallup River spilled out of its banks during heavy rainstorms in 2006 and again in 2009, each time forcing hundreds of residents to flee the muddy floodwaters.

Last November, the deluge returned with nearly the same fury. This time, however, after a major construction project to move back the levees around the Puyallup, the river spread out harmlessly across a vast, newly created floodplain. It’s part of a state strategy to restore Puget Sound — giving rivers room to roam helps Puget Sound by restoring habitat for salmon and other creatures far upstream from the Sound.

“The November storm was the fourth-highest flow since 1962, yet the city did not fill one sandbag,” said Ken Wolfe, Orting’s building official, who managed the floodplain restoration. “There was no need.”

A big chunk of the money for moving back Orting’s levees came from a state program known as Floodplains By Design that would be eliminated under a budget proposal unveiled this week by Senate Republicans.  Their budget, which aims to increase spending on education while holding the line on taxes, would completely eliminate some of the most important efforts to restore Puget Sound and slash others to a fraction of their current funding.

Winning in Court Just the First Step for Bellingham Wage Theft Victims

When workers get cheated out of wages, it’s often not enough just to win a court order for back pay. Often the court ruling is a hollow victory because the employer has gone out of business or claims to have little or no money to pay the judgment.

Editor's Note
InvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

That’s the challenge likely facing 101 workers who a jury last month awarded $1.3 million in back pay and damages from the co-owners of a restaurant and a spa in Bellingham, Wash. A lawyer for the employers said there is no way they will be able to pay.

The case, detailed in a FairWarning story InvestigateWest published last year, was brought by the U.S. Department of Labor against Huang “Jackie” Jie and Zhao “Jenny” Zeng Hong and their businesses. The government’s civil suit highlighted the issue of low-skill immigrant workers who are victims of wage theft but resist complaining to authorities because they fear retaliation by their employers.

Federal officials alleged an array of workplace abuses by Huang and Zeng, who once were married but divorced in 2013. Also named as defendants were their businesses, which operated under the names J&J Mongolian Grill and Spa Therapy in a Bellingham mall. Both closed in recent months.

Byline: 

Senate Committee Guts Inslee Plan to Clean Up Toxics in Fish

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Credit: Flickr/GovInslee

With the feds pressing Gov. Jay Inslee to better protect consumers from toxic chemicals in fish, a Senate committee gutted a potentially pivotal bill to allow the state to set up a new toxic-cleanup program.

Inslee now opposes the legislation, saying it would leave him without tools he needs to head off federal intervention in Washington’s water-pollution-control system.

Inslee’s toxic-cleanup plan calls for attacking pollution at its source, even before the pollutants can get into waterways where they accumulate in fish that are then eaten by consumers. Inslee contends that his approach would be more effective than traditional cleanup methods focused on industrial and sewage discharges. Most pollution nowadays comes from stormwater — a foul mixture of pollutants that washes off roadways, parking lots and other hard surfaces when it rains.

Inslee’s plan — and the focus of the legislation (HB 1472) — is to identify the most dangerous chemicals, track them back to their source and look for safer alternatives.

Energy Code Edits Run Out of Juice

Editor's Note: We're starting a semi-regular column on bills that couldn’t find majority support in Olympia and what their demise can tell us about state government. Follow all of InvestigateWest’s Olympia reporting and let us know what you think.

Changes to the state’s energy code that won bipartisan support in the Senate nearly made it to the finish line but died this week when SB 5804 failed to get past the Democrat-controlled House Technology and Economic Development Committee.

The energy code — which sets minimum efficiency standards as part of the statewide building code — is no stranger to legislative tinkering, with proposed changes showing up nearly every session. The last major change happened in 2009, when lawmakers set a target for buildings built in 2031 to be 70% more energy efficient than those built to the 2006 code.  Since then, two cycles of energy code amendments have improved new building energy efficiency by about 25%, according to the State Energy Office. So there’s a long way to go. But this year’s legislation might well have moved the state in the opposite direction.

This year’s bill, backed by the Washington Association of Realtors and the Association of Washington Business among others, came from Senate Democrat Marko Liias of Mukilteo. It would have meant big changes to how the State Building Code Council considers new energy code requirements.

Byline: 

Energy advocates charged up, but legislators divided over efficiency bill

A state senate committee heard testimony on HB 1100, a bill to set efficiency standards for battery chargers, on Tuesday.

OLYMPIA — Look around an average home and you’ll find 11 battery chargers re-juicing various electrical devices from toothbrushes to lawnmowers, says one study. Cell phones, laptops, power tools – the list of little-noticed power sucks goes on. The Washington Energy Office estimates that Washington residents together own about 30 million battery chargers.

Holding these small, numerous and largely overlooked energy users to efficiency standards like those in Oregon and California could eventually save Washington consumers $27 million a year. That’s the argument of environmentalists and other proponents of legislation (HB 1100) that has passed Washington’s Democratic-controlled House but faces an uncertain future in the Republican-ruled Senate.

On the other side of the debate stand electronics manufacturers and conservative politicians who argue that such government-imposed standards are just another unneeded regulation that will drive up the cost of battery-powered equipment. If such standards are needed, they say, they should be imposed at the national level.