Evicted student challenges campus housing policy

After a string of hearings, eviction notices, and incident reports, former Portland State student Robert Hagel was told he had 24 hours to remove his belonging from his campus apartment before a security officer would come to escort him from the property.

Hagel’s student housing contract was terminated in September 2004 from the Ondine after he was accused of defecating in the elevator, housing firearms, stalking and harassing an administrator, and flooding a floor of the Ondine building by flushing kitty litter down the toilet.

Despite the seriousness of these allegations, Hagel is appealing the eviction in federal court, saying that the eviction process at Portland State violates his rights as a tenant by not allowing him to follow the due process of law. The case has been dismissed twice in the lower courts and Hagel is now appealing to the 9th Circuit Court.

Under the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, he says, he is entitled to more than 24 hours notice and should be able to appear in court and face the witnesses that accused him of violating the student conduct code.

But there is one problem: on-campus housing at Portland State is exempt from the Residential Landlord Tenant Act.

The act, which indicates for what reasons a landlord may evict a tenant and how much notice must be given, makes an exception for institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and universities, according to Ed Johnson, who has been a housing attorney at the Oregon Law Center, an organization that provides legal aid to low-income citizens, for four years.

Under this exemption, students living in university housing are technically not “tenants,” and do not have the same rights. The act allows universities to retain their own guidelines and implement their own eviction policies.

Residence Life, the department at PSU that manages on-campus housing buildings such as Epler Hall and the Ondine, requires students to follow a code of conduct, and students found in breach of this code receive a warning and can be required to move out within 24 hours.

“You could unfortunately lose your housing for non-housing issues or behavioral issues,” said Don Yackley, director of Residence Life, adding that a 24-hour eviction from campus housing at PSU usually only occurs in serious circumstances in which the safety of others are threatened. “It doesn’t happen that someone gets evicted for no reason. You don’t get evicted unless you’ve had a long time of nonpayment and you have to do something pretty extreme.”

Twenty-four hours is the shortest eviction notice given under the Residential Landlord Tenant Act as well. But the difference is, Johnson said, is that a 24-hour notice never means that a tenant has just one day to clean out the residence.

When a 24-hour notice is served to the tenant, it means the landlord may file an eviction complaint after 24 hours. After that, the landlord must take the tenant to court. If the court favors on the side of the landlord, the landlord must post a Notice of Restitution on the door of the residence, and the tenant has four days to leave the property after it is posted. If the tenant still refuses to leave the property, they would be escorted away by a sheriff.

Under normal tenant law, Johnson said, “You won’t actually be physically removed by a sheriff until you’ve had your due process.” Even with a 24-hour notice of eviction, he said, that process could take up to a month.

“You have a lot more guaranteed rights if you’re a tenant than you do if you live in student housing. Basically, if you’re not covered by the Landlord Tenant Act, whatever [the institution] puts in the contract is binding. You’re kind of at the mercy of the university in making sure that the contract has those rights in it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that a notice that short is reserved for “outrageous behavior” like manufacturing drugs or being a safety threat. The most eviction common notice is 30 days, or 72 hours for nonpayment of rent.

After receiving his 24-hour notice of contract termination, Hagel said he had not been able to vacate his apartment by the 4:30 p.m. deadline. A campus safety came to the door and said it was time to leave. “They were all standing there watching me pack up my stuff,” he said.

Hagel is not the only student to be asked to leave his apartment after short notice. Graduate student and Montgomery Court resident Herbert Jones opened his door in March 2004 to find his building manager, a campus safety officer, and a locksmith standing on the doorstep.

“They told me to get some belongings,” Jones said. “They changed the lock.”

Because of some confusion over a lost rent money order, Jones said, he was told to leave his apartment immediately. Jones was forced to stay in a hotel for over a week, until he produced rental receipts demonstrating that he did not owe any money.

He returned to his apartment to find his belongings stuffed into garbage bags, and claims that hundreds of dollars were missing from his apartment.

“The housing becomes the prosecutor, the jury, and the judge,” Jones said. He still lives in Montgomery Court, and settled out of court with PSU in May, receiving over $1,200.

Jones said he thinks the way campus housing handled the matter was inappropriate. “Students have financial problems,” he said.

According to the 2004-2005 Portland State University Housing Guide, students must attend a meeting with a student conduct officer after they receive written notification of the violation. The student conduct officer decides if a violation has been committed, then sends a letter informing the student of their decision. If the student does not attend the conduct meeting with the officer, the officer “will take disciplinary action in the student’s absence.”

Hagel failed to show up for his meeting with the conduct officer, saying he did not have enough notice of the meeting to make sure his lawyer was present. Yackley terminated Hagel’s contract in September 2004 and issued him 24 hours to leave his apartment.

Yackley declined to comment about any specific incidents leading to Hagel’s eviction. However, in a letter Yackley confirmed he had written to Hagel, Yackley wrote, “As a result of the policy violations that have taken place I feel it is in the best interest of the university as both an institution and community that your housing contract be terminated.”

It was then that Hagel’s lawyer, Ann Witte, filed a civil right violation case against the school. She later dismissed it. Witte then filed an eviction complaint, which a judge then dismissed. Upon appeal, the state of Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that Hagel was entitled to a hearing to contest the decision to evict him. Hagel is currently waited to find out what the next step will be, Witte said.

Witte believes that the process of student evictions is inherently flawed. “Portland State is peeling the rights of due process away from the students,” she said, adding that under the current process of student eviction at PSU, there is no traditional cross examination and that Hagel never had a chance to face the witnesses who accused him of violating the student conduct code.

“They do not allow real hearings, ” she said. “They don’t allow you to have a lawyer. They don’t allow you to even know what you did until you go to the hearing.”

“They said that I didn’t fit in well with the community, and everything following was just an agenda to get rid of me,” Hagel said.

The contraction termination letter from Don Yackley said that on September 20, 2004, two students had seen and held two loaded handguns in Hagel’s room.

While the letter states that no guns were discovered, Yackley wrote, “Since that time I have interviewed these students and find that they are credible.”

Hagel said that he kept his guns at his friend’s house, and never had them in his apartment. “I was involved with these two guys from the engineering department. We’d hang out and talk and drink beer and stuff, and I told them the guns that I had.”

After having a physical altercation with the students, Hagel said, those students told Yackley about the guns. Hagel said these same two students accused him of nearly everything following these altercations. One of the students declined an interview and requested that his name not be used, saying he feared for his safety, while the other student did not return phone calls requesting an interview.

Hagel said that while Yackley was in his apartment looking for guns, Yackley saw several Gateway computers that he thought were stolen. The letter also said that “more than one student” had heard Hagel bragging about stealing the computers, but said “…I find that there is not enough evidence to pursue this at this time.”

Hagel said the same two students accused of defecating in the elevator. “There was a witch hunt to find out who did it.” He said that shortly after the incident he told Amina Senge, an Ondine resident assistant, that he wished he had done it.

“[Senge] states that in January 2004, you admitted causing damage to the Ondine elevators,” Yackley’s letter said about the incident. “She said you had felt guilty about damaging the elevator. She said she encouraged you to tell us about this but you refused.”

Despite the slew of complaints and alleged conduct violations, Hagel believes that the reasons he was thrown out of the building were entirely different. “I think it stems from my conservative political beliefs and that when I feel something I speak my mind,” he said.

“If you’re not a ‘tenant,’ it’s not clear who you go to tell your side of the story,” Johnson said.