Zombie houses and the mysterious Mr. Yee

Centerpiece for the Portland Tribune, the final installment of a four-part series that I worked on with a veteran reporter.


Milwaukie city staff needed four days and 20 truckloads to clear the junk from a property where Norman Yee was a resident, including 10 riding lawn mowers and 81 pieces of gas-powered lawn equipment.

Paint is flaking on the house at 8517 N. Portsmouth Ave. The lawn is thick with shoulder-high weeds. The vacant house stands in stark contrast to other well-kept homes along the street.

One neighbor has lived on this block for 50 years and calls himself a victim of the property, which has sat vacant for the past 20 years. He has seen opossums, raccoons and rats living in the house. Groups of squatters have moved in and out. Once he saw a shirtless, barefooted man leap from a second-story window after accidentally starting a fire. He is fairly certain the man was smoking crack upstairs.

In all of those years, the neighbor has never seen the man who owns the vacant property — the one responsible for lowering the value of his home and causing a safety hazard in the neighborhood.

The property has more than $64,000 in outstanding liens, and the city has conducted 15 enforcement actions, according to city officials.

“We don’t understand why the city hasn’t done anything,” says the neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Elusive landlord

Norman Yee owns the Portsmouth neighborhood house and 11 other properties with outstanding liens and maintenance issues in Portland, according to city officials. As of March 1, he owed a total of $529,025 in liens. Police and city inspectors have been called to his properties 127 times in response to neighbors’ complaints.

Portland is in the throes of an affordable housing crisis closely linked to a housing shortage. Yet the city has a glut of abandoned homes — at least 430 on the east side alone.

Though many of those “zombie” homes have unpaid liens due to multiple code violations, the city of Portland hasn’t foreclosed on a home since 1965. The foreclosure office is aware of people like Yee, who take advantage of the system with multiple zombie homes, but has never brought one to the City Council to consider for foreclosure.

Mayor Charlie Hales and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman are pressing for changes in how the bureaucracy addresses abandoned homes and landlords like Yee.

“He is the poster child for moving forward with some kind of foreclosures,” says Matt Grumm, senior policy manager with the Bureau of Developmental Services (BDS), which is overseen by Saltzman.

As much as he is a plague to his neighbors, Yee is a mystery to city officials. He ignores them and he ignores city fines, officials say. One thing they know for certain is that Yee has enough assets to afford paying off liens. His 12 Portland properties are worth more than $2 million, based on real market value set by the county assessor.

Court documents say Yee is 60 years old, 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, has black hair and wears glasses. No one from BDS has ever met him, and they’ve tried.

When city officials want to communicate with Yee, they send notices to six addresses. They don’t know which of his homes he uses. The last time the city had any interaction with him was for a hearing on the Portsmouth property four years ago, officials say. He signed an agreement promising to pay the liens and fix the property. He never did.

“We have someone clearly demonstrating through actions year after year they are unwilling to comply with the city’s minimum standards,” says Michael Liefeld, enforcement program manager with BDS.

City officials say this is unacceptable. They claim they have limited resources to take care of the entire city, so expending so much on one individual keeps them from dealing with the city’s 430 zombie homes. Yet Yee skips hearings, fails to respond to communications and does the bare minimum to string along enforcement officials. And the city does not foreclose.

Unconventional landlord

James Esterkin, a lawyer who represented a company that foreclosed on a property Yee bought from them five years ago, has never seen a case like this.

“There are people whose business practices are conventional and people whose business practices are not,” Esterkin says. “Norman fits into the latter. Letting properties go into foreclosure is a bad business practice.”

Yee’s actions have no obvious profit-making motive, Esterkin says. Most investors, he says, will buy cheap properties, make some renovations and improvements, and then flip them for a profit. But Yee hasn’t done that.

Ultimately, Yee paid Esterkin’s client everything he owed and the attorney fees as well, a total of $52,892. But it was a longer journey than it needed to be, and Esterkin struggled to find Yee to serve him court papers.

“Most of the cases I have where somebody has gone into default on a loan, you look at what happened,” Esterkin says. “Sometimes they made rational decisions that didn’t work out, and sometimes it was bad luck.”

“With this,” he says, “I never could figure out what was going on.”

Clearing the junk

The city of Portland has become a maintenance service for Yee’s 12 properties — removing garbage, cutting grass, trimming hedges and making sure the sidewalks are clear, Liefeld says. But even at that, they’re not sure he’s the worst of the zombie home owners.

“If he is not the worst,” Liefeld says, “he is in the top five.”

Yee’s reputation precedes him, especially with squatters, according to Liefeld, who is certain homeless people have been targeting Yee’s homes as places to crash. In one situation, a squatter moved into a Yee home after seeing a Craigslist ad placed by someone — not Yee — trying to find a renter for a house they didn’t own.

“That is how deep this can go,” Liefeld says. “Word can get out, and now the properties are attractive because they know the owner is absentee.”

Recently Yee has been more responsive to the Portland Hearings Office, but that may be because BDS is stepping up enforcement. Fines on Yee’s houses might soon reach $1,000 a day.

Milwaukie city officials also have clashed with Yee. At 2840 S.E. Boyd St., a property where he was the resident, an abatement process was needed to deal with what the City Council declared was a nuisance.

Quite a big nuisance. It took four days and 20 truckloads to clear the property of the junk that was piled up in the front and back yard, according to a city report. The city removed 51,250 pounds of material from the property, including 24,000 pounds of wood, 10 riding lawnmowers and 81 other pieces of lawn-care equipment.

The final lien assessed for the work was $17,732. It has yet to be paid.

Tim Salyers, Milwaukie’s code compliance coordinator, dealt directly with Yee during the abatement enforcement. In the report he filed with the city, he describes a few of his interactions with the man.

When Salyers first arrived with a warrant, Yee had a large white pickup truck blocking access to the property. While parked legally, it was stalling the city’s workers.

“I asked Mr. Yee nicely to move the vehicle so the workers could get started,” Salyers wrote.

Yee refused, and when informed the pickup would be towed, he said, “to go right ahead.” Eventually, after a sergeant with the Milwaukie Police Department arrived, the truck was moved.

Throughout the process, according to Salyers, Yee would sit on the front porch and back patio, watching the workers remove the material and taking notes.

Numerous attempts were made to speak with Yee for this story. Visits were made to his likely place of residence in Milwaukie, a letter was sent to a Post Office box listed in his name and a call was made to his lawyer. None received a response.

Yee has gone out of his way to avoid interacting with others. One of his properties, at 1818 N. Killingsworth St., is occupied. The occupant spoke on the phone with city officials, and when asked for information about Yee, explained he was explicitly forbidden to say anything.

Liefeld says it’s time to finally deal with the problem.

“Owning property is not necessarily a right,” Liefeld says. “Mr. Yee needs to be foreclosed.”

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