As the mold grew around the leak in Maria and Jonathan Knapp’s bathroom ceiling, so did the smell that came with it, which was so strong it sometimes made Jonathan vomit. And when it rained, water ran down the walls and onto the lap of anyone who happened to be sitting on the toilet.
Like the smell and the mold, the leak at the apartment at 125 Pine St. in Lewiston grew slowly over the 15 months the Knapps’ landlord failed to fix the issue, according to court filings.
The leak was relatively small when Portland investor and lender Scott Lalumiere purchased the apartment building in April 2017. He then transferred it to SK Housing LLC, which he owned with Kevin Fletcher, then the president of the Maine Commercial Association of Realtors.
In addition to the Knapps’ building, the men’s companies had bought a number of rental properties in downtown Lewiston, where, almost a decade after the financial crisis, multifamily residential buildings could still be acquired for a fraction of their pre-crash value. Lalumiere scooped up the building at 125 Pine St. for $85,000. It had previously sold in 2006 for $272,500.
The Knapps reported the leak to their new landlords soon after they took over the property, according to court filings. They also mentioned that their kitchen sink wasn’t draining and that their smoke detector didn’t work. When no one made the repairs, they complained again and again. The problems continued and worsened.
After eight months went by with no repairs, the Knapps turned to other means of getting their landlord’s attention: They called Lewiston’s code enforcement department. Code inspected the apartment and issued a notice of violation to Lalumiere and his companies, which also included MECAP LLC. Still, no one made the repairs. So Maria Knapp made a rare move in August 2018 and filed suit.
Last year, the city of Lewiston brought its own legal action in civil court against Lalumiere and his companies for failing to repair not just the Knapps’ apartment but eight other properties in downtown Lewiston.
These lawsuits, and others like them, shed light on the extent to which the city has changed its posture toward landlords who don’t immediately address violations. The city of Lewiston has brought more than 100 lawsuits against property owners in the last decade to force them to make repairs, 90 of which were filed since the start of 2015, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis of court records.
In contrast, similarly sized Bangor has filed only 11 such lawsuits since 2009.
The lawsuits show just how much housing in downtown Lewiston has required extreme intervention. They reveal a pattern in how some property owners manage their buildings, seemingly ignoring code violations and housing problems until they are legally forced to invest in their own properties.
By suing landlords, the city is forcing landlords to put money into their downtown properties, instead of only using them to extract rents from some of Maine’s poorest residents. When they resided at 125 Pine St., the Knapps lived on a monthly disability check of $745, about 70 percent of which went to Lalumiere’s company in the form of a $535 rent check, according to court documents.
Downtown Lewiston is a tough place for both tenants and landlords: It’s the poorest neighborhood in the state; its housing is old and often contains poisonous lead; and the city is an eviction hotspot, with an eviction rate double the state and national average. As a result of decades of neglect, large portions of the housing stock do not live up to the city and state’s legal requirements for safe housing.
But in recent years, in large part due to pressure from downtown organizers and activists, the city has cracked down on owners of distressed housing by increasing inspections, demolishing property, and filing lawsuits against landlords like Lalumiere who fail to make fixes. The city is also seeking a $30 million federal grant to build new apartments and has told the federal government that fixing its downtown housing market “requires aggressive, disruptive intervention.”
When the city sues a landlord over code violations, it brings the suit via a civil court procedure under the state’s 80K rule, an action recommended only for “the truly difficult enforcement issues and the truly uncooperative violators,” according to the state. That typically means property owners have already repeatedly failed to make repairs, and, in some cases, failed to meet repair deadlines they agreed to with the city in court.
Sometimes this process results in financial penalties for the owner. But the city’s primary goal in suing is to force the owner to invest money, or their companies’ money, back into the property, according to David Hediger, a longtime employee of the city’s code enforcement department who became its director in 2018.
Property owners said in interviews that the neighborhood’s poverty means they can’t charge rents that are high enough to fund improvements to their buildings. Landlords also said that code requirements are unreasonable for the aging downtown housing stock. It means the code office can essentially target any building at any time.
“You’re at the whim of the bully,” said longtime downtown landlord Joe Dunne, who, together with his girlfriend and business partner, Debra Sullivan, manages between 200 and 300 units in the downtown, a number the duo is actively trying to reduce, according to Dunne. Since the beginning of 2018, the city has brought Sullivan to court over problems at 18 of her buildings, more than any other landlord.
Though some landlords may be extracting rent from cheap properties while purposefully keeping them in disrepair — a business model known as “milking” — both city officials and landlords attributed many problems to landlords not understanding the job they signed up for. Bargain housing prices make it easy for some people to jump into the market before realizing how much maintenance will actually cost.
“There are some bad actors who haven’t done the greatest job in taking care of their properties,” said Mayor Kristen Cloutier. “But I think there are folks who became landlords without understanding the ins and outs of that job, and find out quickly they aren’t particularly good at it.”
But whether the reason for failing to maintain property is ignorance or avarice, the results are the same, according to Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s longtime code enforcement director who retired in early 2018.
“Either you intended to do this, or you didn’t know what the hell you were doing,” Arsenault said of landlords who don’t maintain their property. “Either way, shame on you. We in code pay the price, because we’ve got to chase you. The tenants are paying the price. And the other property owners in the neighborhood are paying the price.”