Just before 6 p.m. on Dec. 28, most of the tenants inside a single family home in Corvallis which had been partitioned into apartments were going about their lives largely unaware – except for an out-of-place campfire smell – their house was ablaze and everything was about to change.
But the destructive flames that would displace all six units’ tenants may have been inevitable.
“That place was unlivable. It was miserable,” said Brian Grant, one of the tenants. He and his housemates had long stories of woe, of questionable wiring, of landlords hard to reach, of poor maintenance and whack-a-mole problems when complaints were finally addressed.
With all that in mind, “I’m still kind of in shock,” Grant said this past week.
They’re not the only tenants of property owners Kip and Michelle Schoning to relate such stories. Mid-Valley Media has been chronicling allegations against the Schonings, who own rental property throughout the mid-Willamette Valley, for more than a decade.
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Likewise, the city of Corvallis has been fielding complaints and investigating potential code violations since the early aughts at least. And Albany has had its share of run-ins as well.
The Schonings did not respond to a reporter’s four requests for interviews left by voicemail on both office and cellphone numbers.
The probable culprit
As flames ripped through the 96-year-old house at 857 NW Tyler Ave. that Tuesday between Christmas and New Year's, tenants and first responders tried to reach Kip and Michelle Schoning to no avail. The property owners finally showed up to the dilapidated property the morning after to speak with Corvallis Division Chief Fire Marshal Jonathon Jones.
“I think the biggest concern is that there were known issues with no repair or no remedy done,” Jones said. “It does appear that this is strictly a building maintenance issue and that electrical is really a high culprit right now. You have one breaker that is running six different apartments.”
Three of the tenants reported trying to fix the breaker themselves – multiple times – saying that it sparked at them whenever they touched it. One of the tenants, Keanna Estes, moved into the apartment in September and said even in that short time, she’s had a history with the breaker slipping.
“I’ve had electrical problems pretty much since I moved in,” she said. “Sometimes I could go a week without it tripping. Sometimes it would trip 12 times a day.”
She called the Schonings several times, Estes said, adding it took Michelle Schoning a week to return her call.
“They do not show up,” Estes said. “They do not come to their property for anything.”
The night of the fire
Estes remembers coming home from the grocery store the evening of Dec. 28 when she noticed her hallway light was out. She went to flip the breaker and it sparked. Not long after, she and her boyfriend smelled smoke; they ran outside to grab a flashlight and realized smoke was coming from the roof.
She called 911 immediately and ran up the three flights of stairs to her unit to grab her animals before evacuating. With the fire alarms silent, her boyfriend, Brendyn Irwin, ran around banging on doors, warning people to get out.
Tenant Tanner Eldridge was home with his partner, Hayden Kuhman. They didn’t know the house was on fire, though they could smell something.
“Another tenant came out and said to get the hell out of the building. That’s when we grabbed our stuff,” he said.
Eldridge had just moved to Corvallis in December, and his father started a GoFundMe to replace the belongings that were lost. While all the residents, their guests and their pets made it out safely, the same cannot be said for all the other items that make a home.
“We all love Tanner and don’t know what comes next for him and his friends,” his dad, Chuck Eldridge, wrote.
Grant, who moved in in October, was home when he heard someone banging on his door urging him to get out. He panicked, grabbing what he could, but he too lost most of his personal belongings in the fire.
Grant had no lights or heating in the unit for the entire month of December, he said, and only two electrical outlets worked in the living room. Michelle Schoning sent out four different contractors who took everything apart and still did not know how to fix the issue, he said.
“I just strung up Christmas lights from Fred Meyer, so I could see,” Grant said. “It was so janky.”
The lights and heating were working consistently a day or two before the fire, he said. But 10 minutes before the smell of smoke permeated, the breaker went out for the last time.
The tenants sat across the street and watched their apartment burn for a couple of hours as they answered questions from the fire inspector. A city bus transported them to Oregon State University, where they had pizza and water at Cascade Hall, home of campus public safety and ironically a building that partially burned in 1992.
The Red Cross showed up and gave the displaced tenants prepaid cards with $500, so they could replace some necessary items and find a temporary place to stay.
“It’s oddly weird because it feels like it didn’t happen at all,” Estes said.
Kip and Michelle Schoning
Mid-Valley Media has covered the Schonings many times over the years, in articles informally known as the Red Door Stories. When he operated under the name “Bula Enterprises,” Kip Schoning was known around the mid-valley for painting the doors of run-down houses red and renting to anyone who had the cash – without running a background check. The setup naturally appealed to college students who typically don’t stay long enough to become a pain in landlords’ sides.
With the doors no longer crimson-hued, Schoning’s property management company has changed names several times in the past decade, from “Bula Enterprises” to “Rising Realty LLC” to “Buena LLC” to “YourHouse LLC.”
Whatever its name, the company is notorious for not returning tenant phone calls, maintaining its properties or making repairs, according to current tenants and those interviewed throughout the years and appearing in a string of "Red Door Stories."
The city of Corvallis’ Permitting System indicates 857 NW Tyler Ave. has been the site of 18 code violations. Among them was a 2015 tenant complaint that without a functional furnace, her unit was uninhabitable. The city agreed, posting an order for the Schonings to address the problem.
It took the city nearly five months – and a court order – to convince the property owners to fix the furnace. The judge called the violation “egregious” because the landlord had known of the broken furnace since October 2011.
The most recent fire wasn’t even the first time 857 NW Tyler Ave. made the papers. In 2010, Alice Sparrow, who lived across the street from the house-turned-apartment complex, complained about an overgrowing pile of stinking trash to her then-city councilor, Mike Beilstein.
The rubbish had accumulated because all six units had to dump their refuse into three 30-gallon garbage cans, two of which did not have lids. At the time, the landlords eschewed the local trash hauler’s services, preferring to send their own crews – occasionally, according to tenants interviewed at the time.
Citing staffing shortages, the city did not act quickly, but 2 1/2 weeks later, a maintenance crew from what was then Bula Enterprises hauled away the pile. It was at least the city's 11th complaint about trash accumulating at the property since 2003.
Incredibly, even that wasn't the first story about 857 NW Tyler. Another set of tenants described to Mid-Valley Media in 2008 how the ceiling caved in in their 4-year-old granddaughter's room. It was only fixed after the city and a reporter got involved, according to previously published reports.
The Schonings became so infamous for exploiting low-income tenants around the mid-valley that statewide legislation was passed in 2009 to protect renters against abusive fees from landlords.
John VanLandingham, a Eugene attorney with the Oregon Law Center, remembers working with a coalition of both tenants and landlords to support Senate Bill 771, outlawing several types of charges, including an upfront “lock-change fee,” fees for serving pre-eviction warnings and fees for appearing in court.
At the time it passed, court records showed Schoning and Bula Enterprises had initiated more than 800 formal eviction cases in the preceding 15 years. A Corvallis City Hall employee served on the coalition and had mentioned the Schonings by name and the published reports about them as "inspiration" for the changes, VanLandingham said.
A year later, the Schonings were having problems of their own. In 2010, Mid-Valley Media reported that Kip Schoning escaped his own foreclosure after falling more than a year behind on payments on his and Michelle’s half-million-dollar Timberhill residence. They ultimately moved out.
While investigation into the Dec. 28 fire is ongoing, preliminary evidence from the building inspection suggests the fire originated between the second and third floors in the ceiling above a light fixture.
With such an old property, Jones said he still has to investigate what type of work has been done throughout the decades.
“That place has had electrical issues for years,” Jones said. “Every time a handyman was sent over, the problem was fixed, and then something else stopped working. When you have buildings this old, things take place over the years, and standards change.”
Once complete, the fire investigation will determine whether or not the building was up to code before the fire occurred.
All three tenants interviewed said their units had smoke detectors, six among them. Not one sounded as flames spread, they said. Oregon state laws requires landlords to install functional smoke alarms and maintain them in working order.
A few of the tenants from the burned down property are teaming up to seek legal help. Hiring attorneys can be expensive, and as college students, they said they will need to work together to take the matter to court.
“I don’t really know what’s next,” Eldridge said. “Maybe a class action suit against them because this is ridiculous. We’ve told them about this.”
In the meantime, they have to live.
Some of the tenants have friends or family they are staying with until they are able to secure another apartment. Others are staying in a hotel and worrying about where to go. Some have said it is difficult to find available units because most are already occupied by college students who moved in the fall.
“I’m just planning a way forward,” Grant said.
Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_.