When Shanna Cox moved from Mechanic Falls to Lewiston in the spring of 2009, she looked at 26 apartments before she found a rental where she felt comfortable living with her 4-year-old twins. At unit after unit, she said, something appalled her: trash in the staircases, evidence of vermin, a person passed out in the hallway, the odor of urine wafting through the building.
A few times, Cox pulled up to an address and drove off before going inside. By the time she found a place on the corner of Walnut and Bartlett streets, she was fed up. And motivated.
Tenants such as Cox, frustrated with absentee landlords and the city’s apparent reluctance to enforce its housing safety rules, have played a key role in bringing about the policies and practices that are now reshaping Lewiston’s downtown.
In recent years, city officials have been more aggressive in cracking down on landlords who operate apartment buildings that violate the city’s code of ordinances, including by taking an unprecedented number to court. The Lewiston City Council, meanwhile, has passed new rules aimed at curbing the flow of tax dollars to substandard housing and creating more transparency about who owns rental property.
Some of that change may have happened in due course, officials said. But it also stemmed from the grassroots organizing of downtown residents, who began pressing for improvements more than 15 years ago.
The Heritage Initiative
In the summer of 2004, Nancy Gallant, now 80, learned that her apartment on Knox Street was slated for demolition. City officials had proposed a plan, called the Heritage Initiative, that would have bulldozed portions of the downtown to make way for a four-lane boulevard. It would have displaced 850 residents like her in the name of urban renewal.
Gallant, like many other residents, had not been consulted before she learned of the project and was outraged. The project suggested that city officials had little regard for her neighborhood, she thought at the time. In what’s known as the Tree Streets, the symptoms of poverty are often on display, but it has long been where she and thousands others call home. Gallant worked for years in the local mills and shoe factories that have since vanished.
That summer, Gallant became one of the many residents who organized opposition to the Heritage Project under the banner of a nonprofit called Visible Community. The city abandoned the proposed boulevard amid the outcry.
“That’s where your power is — people,” Gallant said.
Visible Community, however, did not disband. People like Gallant, as well as a core contingent of recent graduates from nearby Bates College, continued to knock on doors to make sure their voices were heard when pressing issues came before the city council. So while the Heritage Project inspired an immediate, reactive response from the community, its major effect was galvanizing residents to more proactively shape policies concerning the city’s downtown.
Members of Visible Community conducted surveys and officially put down their vision for their neighborhood in The People’s Downtown Master Plan, which they submitted to the city council in the spring of 2008. By then, one of the group’s members, Tina Bailey, had won a seat on the council.
The proposal called for more affordable, quality housing, better public transportation, more community gathering places, more green spaces and more youth programs, among numerous other goals that aimed to boost the neighborhood’s health, economy and image.
Many of them would either be realized or receive more public buy-in over the next decade. But in 2008 the plan also simply signaled that downtown residents wanted to be heard.
“We see the downtown community as vibrant, diverse and residential, containing a variety of housing from low- to moderate-income and we want to see it stay that way,” the 18-page plan stated. “We envision a City where children growing up downtown are valued just a highly as children growing up outside of downtown.”
Neighborhood Housing League
After Cox had trouble finding a decent place to live in 2009, she saw a need for even more organizing power, she said. Joining with the members of Visible Community, she helped found the Neighborhood Housing League to draw more attention to health and safety problems with Lewiston’s housing stock.
Much of that work took place by teaching tenants to advocate for themselves, said Cox, who has a professional background in community planning and development.
Tenants who joined the Housing League trained one another how to contact city officials with complaints about their buildings, for example, and how to check for signs of lead paint. Ninety-six percent of residents in the Tree Streets, the central downtown blocks where Cox lived, are renters, meaning they rely on other people to address needs in their homes.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the housing market in 2008 hit Lewiston hard, forcing scores of property owners into financial tailspins or to walk away from their buildings entirely. The city itself didn’t have the resources to expand inspections and beef up enforcement, officials said. Lewiston’s code enforcement office is responsible for inspecting properties and ensuring that owners abide by the city’s adopted ordinances, in addition to other duties.
So the Housing League focused on getting a federal Community Development Block Grant to hire a new code enforcement position, Cox said, which they achieved in 2013.
Still, progress was slow. It was harder to generate momentum to change the status quo than to fight something urgent and concrete, such as the Heritage Project’s boulevard, Cox said.
That changed the afternoon of April 29, 2013.
It was around 5:15 p.m. on a Friday, and Cox’s computer shut off. She was finishing up her day job at Community Concepts on Bates Street, where she’d been hired just two weeks earlier to work on community development issues.
Blocks away, a massive fire had started to consume a condemned apartment building and was spreading. It was the first of three separate arson fires — each set in a condemned building — that tore through the downtown over the course of the next eight days. They burned a total of nine apartment buildings and displaced more than 200 tenants.
The fires, though intentionally set, drew attention to the vacant and abandoned buildings that hurt the downtown’s image. The terror of the ordeal intensified the discussion already ongoing around housing and safety.
“The police force went through military task force style, put X’s on buildings like [during Hurricane] Katrina,” Cox recalled. “The rush of activity, I think it validated what we had been saying for years.”
David Hediger, a long-time member of the city’s code enforcement department who became its director in 2018, listed off the factors that ultimately culminated with stricter enforcement.
“The recession, the overall blight and deterioration of the structures in the downtown, and the fires,” he said. “At that point we really had the community and city council support to move head with demolitions and code enforcement.”
In August 2015, a tenant of 32 Horton Street stood on the crumbling porch steps of his apartment building and told a group of reporters that his first-floor unit had water-damaged ceilings, holes in the walls and cockroaches living in the kitchen cabinets.
He was flanked by members of the progressive political action group the Maine People’s Alliance, as well as the Neighborhood Housing League, who had gathered the press to announce the release of a report, called “Time to Name Names: Lewiston’s Landlords of Concern.”
It called out three men in Lewiston who controlled or financed a large portfolio of substandard rental property in the downtown — its title suggesting it was time to hold accountable the private individuals behind some of the poorest quality housing in the city.
The press conference took place as the Maine People’s Alliance’s then-Political Engagement Director Ben Chin was running for mayor on a platform that included calls for better housing. (Chin is now the organization’s deputy director.)
In response, one of the landlords singled out in the report, Joe Dunne, hung signs on his properties urging voters not to vote for Chin. They compared Chin, who is Chinese American, to the Communist former leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Min. The signs set off a firestorm of condemnation from local and national politicians, including a Democatic candidate for president at the time, Bernie Sanders, who decried them as racist.
Dunne denied the signs were racist but took out an ad in the local paper to apologize.
Chin, a Democrat, lost the mayoral race in a run-off. But his campaign, as well as the adjoining one by the Maine People’s Alliance, enhanced publicity around issues related to poor housing.
By the time of his loss, the city’s code enforcement department had already started to ramp up its enforcement against landlords — including those the Maine People’s Alliance had called out by name.
“In some ways I feel really lucky because I got to see the change in the community that I felt really strongly about, and I didn’t have to do any of the work of actually being mayor,” Chin said.
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In recent years, the Lewiston code enforcement office has been more aggressive in pursuing remedies from landlords who operate unsafe housing, according to Hediger, the city’s director of code enforcement. That sometimes means taking them to court to make them fix their buildings.
Since 2013, the year of the fires, the city has ramped up its lawsuits against landlords and real estate companies, suing them about 100 times, according to a Bangor Daily News review of court records.
“The movement has been, ‘Hey, why aren’t you picking on this person? Why is this still going on?’ Yeah, we’re tired of hearing that, too. Let’s make something happen,” Hediger said.
He clarified that the city’s goal has never been to pick on specific landlords — though some, like Dunne, say they feel targeted — but to ensure that everyone who owns property in the downtown is in compliance with local ordinances.
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The city council, meanwhile, also passed measures aimed at holding property owners accountable for maintaining their rental housing. Last October, the council ruled landlords cannot lease to tenants paying rent using money from the city’s general assistance program unless the unit passes a code inspection.
In March, it adopted a policy that will require landlords and real estate companies to register their rental property and contact information with the city, creating a database that will make it easier to see who owns what and to reach them in the event of an emergency.
The registry is expected to go live in 2020. It came at the recommendation of a committee that decided against charging landlords a $36-fee-per-unit fee that would have funded more code enforcement.
Just last month, the council endorsed a sweeping plan to seek $30 million in federal grant money to demolish poor quality housing and develop more affordable units in the downtown, among other initiatives to improve the social and economic health of residents there.
It was developed with ongoing input from the neighborhood, by a coalition of community members and input from 400 residents speaking eight different languages — a far cry from years earlier, when a much different proposal sought to reshape the downtown in the form of a doomed boulevard.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.