By Danielle Roslevich

Residents of downtown Lewiston have suffered from poverty and poor housing stock for many years, with 49% of residents in the Tree Street area living in poverty and one-third of the units on Tree Street classified as “distressed or falling,” according to the 2019 Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan In 2018, one in five people in Lewiston lived in poverty, nearly double the national average of 11.8%. For families with children, the poverty rate is 62%. Research conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) indicates that downtown Lewiston has the highest poverty rate in New England. Recently, growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from a variety of African countries have joined Somalis in calling Lewiston home. The city has among the largest per capita population of Muslim people in the nation. 

The problem is that landlords don’t take care of the buildings, and lead contamination is a big issue

— Safiya Khalid

In keeping with many other New England states, Maine has some of the oldest housing in the country. And older houses often contain lead paint, which wasn’t banned by the federal government until 1978. In Lewiston, 90% of downtown housing was built before 1970, and a third was built before World War II. Because the city’s downtown has the largest concentration of children below the age of five in Maine, Lewiston suffers from some of the worst childhood lead poisoning cases, which can be implicated in long-term physical and mental health problems. Lead poisoning in the Lewiston and Auburn area is three times higher than the state average.

“A lot of us lived in the Lewiston area because it was affordable and it met all of our needs,” said Kheyro Kamil, a community health worker and Amjambo Africa Somali translator. “However, some units lacked basic hygiene – they were infested with cockroaches and generally weren’t a healthy environment for anybody. But some landlords would pick newcomers to put in these units. I would get angry and say that I wouldn’t even keep my pet in those conditions. But if you have a family of 10 that just came to the U.S., it’s a matter of finding a five-bedroom place for them. Because of a lack of options, you’re trapped in this environment where your health and your children’s health are at risk.”

Kheyro Kamil

Kamil believes that we need to bring awareness to these problems, educate ourselves and our communities about how to do advocacy, and learn how to protect ourselves and our children from lead poisoning.

“With the housing market going up in value, a lot of community members are struggling to find an affordable place to live,” Kamil continued. “It’s the first time I’ve seen Lewiston natives experiencing homelessness. This shift has been going on for the past decade and a half. I was on Lisbon Street the other day, and I saw this big, renovated building. It used to be a place where you could rent a three-bedroom for $700, but now units in the downtown area cost $1,800. In a way it’s positive, since there’s more investment in the city, but it’s a struggle for those who can’t afford to go through that type of change in the market.”

In 2013, three big fires in Lewiston helped highlight the poor condition of the city’s housing. Over 100 people lost their homes, and had to live in the school gymnasium for weeks, because the organizations helping them couldn’t identify habitable housing. Since then, the city began stepping up its code enforcement, which in turn has led to the condemnation and demolition of old buildings. Though the code enforcement was a positive change, since many unsafe units were torn down, a tightening of the market followed, and rents were pushed up. And a number of tenants were stuck with the dilemma of whether to settle for poor housing that they could easily afford or opt for better housing that might not be financially sustainable.

“The problem is that landlords don’t take care of the buildings, and lead contamination is a big issue,” said Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid. “What I’ve seen over the years is large families squeezed into two- or three-bedroom apartments with unlivable conditions. We need to diversify our housing stock to have more options. Especially since we’re becoming more and more diverse, as more immigrant families arrive. So, with any project that comes up, I’m trying to talk to the developers and the rest of the council and advocate for more four- and five-bedroom apartments.”

Community art project – photo courtesy of Raise-Op

When you have community control you also have an opportunity to build relationships with people and create a community and forms of support

— Craig Saddlemire

Lewiston has recently created a rental registry program, where landlords list their property and provide up-to-date information about management and an assessment of conditions that may negatively impact tenants’ health. With this database, figuring out who owns what building is easier, as is reaching them quickly if necessary. Failure to register results in monthly fines. Khalid said that the program has shown great success so far.

In May, Lewiston was awarded a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to redevelop 92 existing deteriorated units, and construct 93 new workforce and market-rate ones in the Tree Street area. Lewiston is the smallest city to have received the Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. Over 400 community members, speaking eight different languages, gave input that informed the application.

According to Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager, about one-third of the money from the award will be used to fund community programs that increase accessibility of childcare, pediatric healthcare, youth programming, and affordable food.

“It’s a project that will develop a large portion of the downtown housing stock, particularly the Tree Street area where there’s been the most concern,” said Khalid. “That entire neighborhood will be completely revitalized. Currently, the majority of residents there are immigrants and low-income families.”

Much change has come about thanks to the grassroots efforts of downtown residents, who started advocating for improvements a decade and a half ago. The Visible Community is a group of downtown residents and community members who have worked together to ensure that residents’ voices are heard in Lewiston city planning decisions. The group initially formed in response to the city’s release of the Heritage Initiative, a downtown revitalization plan that would have divided the downtown with a throughway and displaced 25% of the population, and was conceived with no input from those who would have been affected. When the city opted not to go forth with the Heritage Initiative, the Visible Community decided to continue to take a proactive approach to future downtown development plans by seeking ways to become involved in the various planning processes within the city.

In 2008, the Visible Community submitted a proposal called The People’s Downtown Master Plan to the city council after surveying over 400 residents. The plan illustrated their vision for the future of their community. It demanded affordable, quality housing, improved public transit, better community infrastructure, and more youth programs, among many other things. Many of these goals were either reached or at least achieved more public buy-in over the next several years. Other grassroots organizations like the Neighborhood Housing League sprang up, determined to bring more attention to the health and safety issues in downtown housing. The league campaigned for increased code enforcement, taught tenants how to contact city officials with complaints about their buildings and advocate for themselves, and how to safeguard against lead poisoning.

“What we’re experiencing now is what any community will experience at either end of the cycle of a for-profit real estate market,” explained Craig Saddlemire, cooperative development organizer at Raise-Op Housing Cooperative. “In this system where we rely on for-profit private ownership to provide the majority of our housing – in particular when we’re looking at cities – you’re at one of two extremes or you’re transitioning in between them. In the past in the United States, people lived close to their urban centers. But beginning in the 1950s, the government subsidized suburban sprawl, specifically for white families. A lot of the investment and wealth moved with those white families out to suburbs. The public stopped investing so much in urban centers where most BIPOC people, and others of low income ,such as those with disabilities, lived.”

Saddlemire called Portland another extreme. “It’s very gentrified and has really great quality buildings, but it’s very hard for families to find an affordable place to live because it’s so expensive. So, you either have a high degree of luxury and safety or a high degree of deterioration but affordability. And sometimes there’s an in-between, but it’s usually short-lived. Rents are starting to go up in Lewiston and it seems like we’re going into the in-between part of the cycle, where there’s starting to be more investment.”

In the decades from the 1930s through the 1970s, buildings in Lewiston mostly were owner-occupied, Saddlemire said, with multigenerational families living in them. However, people began moving away from the downtown area in the 1980s and started renting out those apartments. Since private owners no longer lived in their buildings, they were less sensitive to their condition. “When you’re living in a building, you make decisions based on your own quality of life. But when you don’t, you’re making decisions based on the numbers,” Saddlemire said. “Some landlords will maximize their return on investment and neglect maintenance. Others really want to do the right thing and keep the property in good condition. But at the end of the day, they’re still operating it to make a profit or at least break even.”

As income disparity has grown in America, tenants have less income and fewer social safety nets to support them. So the difference between what people can pay for rent and the cost of maintaining the building continues to grow further apart. “If you look at it on a small level, it seems like an income problem. But if you observe the big picture, you can see how it’s a systemic issue and how the political and economic choices we’ve made as a society have led to this natural consequence,” said Saddlemire.

He believes that one of the solutions to this problem is pulling property under some kind of community control to guarantee long term affordability of those homes. The Raise-Op Housing Cooperative houses primarily low-income residents, who also own the organization. They currently operate three apartment buildings and have over 50 residents on Maple and Pierce streets in Lewiston. Raise-Op Housing Cooperative’s mission is to operate the properties at cost, and continue to grow and develop more housing to house their residents permanently. It’s essentially homeownership with controls, so people can’t speculate or profit.

Raise-Op views buildings as an extension of land, like a public resource to be stewarded, much in the same way public water resources or roads need to be maintained for public benefit.

Other examples of public housing include Lewiston Housing Authority and Auburn Housing Authority, which offer various programs such as after school help, employment assistance, and mentorship opportunities, as well as affordable housing. During the pandemic, Lewiston Housing Authority provided meals to their tenants and connected them with opportunities to learn about vaccination.

“When you have community control you also have an opportunity to build relationships with people and create a community and forms of support,” Saddlemire said. “Another form of community control is town or city regulations that ensure people have access to their homes. But those can be challenging, because so long as property is privately owned, this country protects private property owners and places their rights above a lot of other human rights.’ When he was a member of Lewiston City Council, Saddlemire said, they started to work on code enforcement and create funding opportunities for people to fix up their buildings. “And I found that with some of our bad actors, so long as it was their private property, it was very hard to fine, shame, encourage, or incentivize them to be better property owners. That’s why I think direct community ownership of some kind is a more efficient and effective, long-term way of developing and operating housing that’s responsive to the tenants.”