By Ivy Epstein

When Amy Smith, who is passionate about rehabilitating homes, became aware of the lack of affordable housing in Maine, she pulled all of her skill sets together and started on a new career path that led her to found Healthy Homeworks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “creating healthy homes, empowered residents, and a proud neighborhood.” Her goal is to help low-income families living in Maine, including many immigrants, who are unable to find decent, affordable places to live. 

After a long career in software development, Smith was ready for a new start. Looking to downsize from her family home in Yarmouth, she and her husband found themselves in a classic triple-decker property in Portland where she spent the next year rehabbing the property herself. She found joy in the process: taking an old, neglected property with so much personality and turning it into a fulfilling place to call home. Smith was hooked. She had a yearning to continue renovating homes and sought out a place where she could continue.

Every participant gets a new homeowner toolkit to keep. Pictured in the Healthy Homework shop: Amy Sanchez, Fowsia Musse, Aragsan Egueh, Francisco Luemba, Ahmed Alasow

Smith landed in Lewiston, hoping to focus on helping families and underserved communities. She knew of the city’s large immigrant population. Upon looking at properties, she immediately knew that the city was a place where she wanted to invest her time. “I couldn’t believe the poverty. I couldn’t believe the condition inside the buildings. People sleeping on the floor, lead dust, asthmathic kids…it was really upsetting.”

According to a MaineHousing January 25, 2022, Point in Time Count Survey, 3,455 people self-identified as homeless – or unhoused – in Maine. Around half of those households have at least one child (1,543), with nearly half of the children under age 18. Amy Smith said that in Lewiston, only 4% of the buildings are owned by those who live in them. The other 96% are rental units. Like many others, Smith believes homeownership is a key to financial stability. 

Nearly all of the active housing units in Lewiston are occupied, according to Smith, leaving very few vacancies for people in need of affordable housing. Based on data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the waiting list of Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) tenants compiled by the Maine State Housing Authority, Maine needs between 20,000 and 25,000 more affordable living units to be able to house everyone. The main issue is a lack of resources. 

Cohort 1 gets their certificates for completing “Renter 2 Owner” at a graduation dinner Henoc Nguy, Héritier Nosso, Allie Smith, Osman Bashir

When the downtown neighborhoods come back, the whole image of the city changes…

— Amy Smith

“It wasn’t going to be enough to invest in properties, we had to invest in people, too,” said Smith, reflecting on the lack of safe, affordable housing and its impact on communities. What Smith started as a local popular program inspired by national models  to teach residents how to build their own beds (Build-a-Bed), grew into Healthy Homeworks, a robust organization that offers programs in three categories – resident engagement, neighborhood stewardship, and citywide collaboration. Each of these low-barrier programs is essential to fulfilling the mission of Healthy Homeworks.

Renter 2 Owner, a program under both the Resident Engagement and Neighborhood Stewardship categories of Healthy Homeworks, provides resources to Lewiston residents who want to learn more about homeownership, home repair skills, and general home financing. Participants graduate from this program equipped with skills necessary to navigate the complexities of the Maine housing market, which often is entirely mystifying to immigrants.

Smith emphasized the importance of maintaining a barrier-free model for these programs. All programs are cost-free, and anyone who rents in Lewiston, or who cannot pay their rent because prices were raised, is welcome to sign up. After completing the Renter 2 Owner program, graduates receive the right of first-refusal on the homes that Smith and her Stewardship Team, which includes her daughter Allie Smith, have refurbished. This means that they have the opportunity to purchase the units before others who have not taken part in the program. Purchasing one of Smith’s homes, however, is not required. 

In addition to relishing the process of taking old triple-deckers in Lewiston and converting them into durable, reliable, and energy efficient starter units, Smith also finds joy in witnessing participants in both the Build-a-Bed program, and the Renter 2 Owner program, as they become empowered by the skills that they learn. 

Learning how to make standard repairs to aging walls.

Students learn how to use power tools to fix what’s broken in their new homes, as well as participate in one-on-one meetings with bankers and realtors whom they can use as resources for navigating the financial process of homeownership. Smith spoke with pride of one student, an immigrant from Africa, who graduated from Healthy Homeworks and, within two months of his graduation, bought a house. “He basically used all of the resources that we had provided and is now a homeowner…we were like, ‘well, that was fast’…it was awesome!” she said with a laugh. 

To Smith, it is paramount that her programs reach the immigrant community in Lewiston, many of whom were displaced from their countries, sought asylum, and were resettled in Maine. The process of buying a home may seem next to impossible to this population.

 “A lot of the people renting in Lewiston who want to stay here didn’t grow up in the U.S. financial system…they don’t even know what they don’t know about buying a house.” Smith finds that watching the process of empowerment unfold (especially for immigrants and women, who are often excluded from these practices) is particularly gratifying. She believes it promotes agency and autonomy. 

Héritier Nosso, a graduate of the program who is originally from Democratic Republic of Congo, struggled to find housing upon arriving in the United States. His previous residence was neither safe nor sanitary, and he said that others were living in similar situations. “A lot of people were struggling, not having apartments that meet the codes…when you go to them you don’t even feel like you can use the bathroom.” 

Nosso spoke with gratitude about what he learned from Healthy Homeworks, particularly the financial aspect of buying a home, the home repair skills, and the real life experiences of home ownership.  “It’s not like somebody is teaching you something that you can learn online if you’ve never experienced it. They are telling us that being a homeowner is something good…they are honest, showing us everything…their experience and expertise as homeowners. They wanted us to learn from their mistakes … it was really great,” he stated, adding that felt confident he could trust them. Smith’s properties are also available to be rented – one of her affordable units located at 115 Pine Street is rented to Happy Little Paradise, a childcare cooperative owned and operated by an Angolan woman. 

It’s not like somebody is teaching you something that you can learn online if you’ve never experienced it. They are telling us that being a homeowner is something good…they are honest, showing us everything…their experience and expertise as homeowners. They wanted us to learn from their mistakes … it was really great.
— Héritier Nosso

Healthy Homeworks programs and framework are applicable to other cities as well. Smith asserted that in older cities around the United States, her model can serve to interrupt the process of gentrification before it occurs. Rather than funneling money into new homes that are unaffordable to those who have already established themselves as residents, Healthy Homeworks’ model aims to turn old homes into safe, reliable, and affordable housing to help those who are already here to flourish. A replication of this model in other cities would serve the same purpose. 

“When the downtown neighborhoods come back, the whole image of the city changes, other people want to invest, people put down roots and they stay, and the whole city benefits…and it’s a great place to live, and you get success…and Lewiston deserves it. A lot of people here work really hard,” Smith said.

Francisco Luemba, an immigrant from Angola, is one of those hard-working people. He spoke glowingly of his experience with Healthy Homeworks. “In the beginning, it was so difficult, I didn’t know how to deal with a lot of situations…I was shoveling snow with a spoon. And they became like a plow for me.” Other cities and towns would do well to study Smith’s model. And Amy Smith’s story and mission can serve as a lesson to everyone on the importance of individual drive and passion to pave a path towards a solution to a widespread issue.