For a few brief months, Katelynn Davis had a home.
The once-stately apartment building at 120 College St. in Lewiston was, like much of the housing in the city’s downtown, in need of work. The paint was chipping, leaving dust on the window sills, and the appliances were old and dirty. But for only $700 a month, the spacious three-bedroom felt far superior to the motel room where she had been living with her 2-year-old daughter, Emily, in the late fall of 2017.
Emily made a best friend at the new apartment. One of Davis’ roommates, Storm Stevens, also had a toddler who stayed over on the weekends, 3-year-old Storm Jr. Emily and Storm Jr. passed the time playing with blocks, watching cartoons and chatting in a toddler dialect their parents enjoyed trying to decipher, Davis said. They were so inseparable that Storm Jr. used to coo messages through the closed bathroom door while Davis gave her daughter a bath.
“We basically formed a family,” she said.
Then, in mid-June, a doctor discovered elevated levels of lead in Storm Jr.’s bloodstream, according to Davis and Stevens. They were afraid. Toddlers, they realized, can get permanent neurological damage from ingesting lead paint dust and chips from old buildings like theirs. Indeed, Lewiston is so dense with deteriorating buildings that children there are poisoned by lead at almost twice the rate of Maine as a whole.
“It freaked me out,” Davis said. After the blood test, the roommates decided not to pay July rent until they knew whether the apartment was safe for the kids living there. They were already a little behind, too.
That’s how the home they created began to fall apart.
In downtown Lewiston, the economics that keep a healthy rental market afloat have largely collapsed, according to local officials and property owners. Instead of owners investing in their buildings and, over time, turning a profit from the rent and appreciation of the property’s value, a significant number have struggled to keep up with basic maintenance and health standards that are required by city code ordinances.
The value of residential real estate in Lewiston as a whole has flatlined since 2009, according to city financial reports. That means, in general, property owners could not recoup their investments into Lewiston buildings over the past decade by reselling them. Instead, they have to rely on rent paid by tenants.
But rent payments often aren’t enough. Lewiston landlords said that the cost of maintaining the city’s challenging housing stock — which is old, decaying and full of lead paint — exceeds what they can charge for rent in a neighborhood where residents live at the highest levels of concentrated poverty in Maine.
Tenants, meanwhile, pay a different cost, often with their health and well-being.