LEWISTON, Maine — When it comes to fixing Lewiston’s housing problem, all three 2019 mayoral candidates say finding a way to work with landlords is the best way to alleviate the city’s struggles with lead poisoning, eviction and uncooperative property owners.
The Bangor Daily News’ Maine Focus team recently took a hard look at the problems plaguing Lewiston’s housing. The city’s residential property values have flatlined over the past decade, and Lewiston landlords have said the cost of maintaining the city’s aging housing stock exceeds what they can charge for rent.
We asked mayoral candidates Mark Cayer, Tim Lajoie and Charles Soule what can be done to fix the city’s housing problems. They agreed the city needs to be more collaborative with certain landlords but were divided on an ambitious plan to revitalize the city’s poorest downtown neighborhood. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Is the city’s tough stance on landlords — such as suing them for failing to repair their properties and not allowing them to lease to tenants paying rent through Lewiston’s general assistance program unless their building passes a code inspection — the right way to address the city’s housing problems?
Cayer: I think we need to identify when landlords are doing the very best they can but are faced with challenges that are not necessarily their fault. And then we also have to look at tenant issues too. So I think there needs to be a balance in how we enforce any code violations or issues.
I know landlords get a hard rap around this community. Just like any other community in the state, you have your landlords who are just the best, they have plenty of resources, you have some that are that that have issues, and then you have those middle of the road ones that, when you have a landlord that is doing the best he can. But because of the low rent, in some areas, they’re not making a profit.
We need to find ways to fairly address this issue so that we’re not forcing landlords to walk away from their homes. But in the end, we have to make sure our landlords are providing safe, bug-free and lead-free housing for for the community and the residents. It doesn’t mean the city is picking a tab up. But it means the city’s working with these landlords to identify resources that they can tap into.
Lajoie: One of the things about the housing problem is that I’ve talked to landlords, and when they’re competing with government entities and nonprofits, there’s no incentive for them to be responsible. I know some of the downtown landlords get a bad rap, but in some cases, the damage is done by tenants, and it’s difficult to make repairs. They don’t make them not because they don’t want to, but because it’s hard.
I think most landlords are trying to do the right thing, and we need to work with them instead of scorning them or having them be under the threat of discipline all the time. That’s a poor way to motivate them. I would like to see a lot more cooperation from the city.
Soule: I don’t. The fact is that the city’s general assistance and code enforcement are coming down too hard.
General assistance has changed the rule saying that if an individual is renting from a landlord, then they have a right to come in and inspect that building. I have no problem with that.
But [some lawsuits have] been fruitless for the city of Lewiston. Another thing is that the code enforcement has been overly harsh on some of the landlords, which is another reason why the landlords don’t want to get involved because once they do they realize [they make themselves] privy to code enforcement.
Do you think there should be stricter penalties on landlords who don’t maintain their properties, either at the state or local level?
Cayer: The penalties we have, I think they’re pretty strict already, so enforcement just needs to be done consistently and fairly. Then, the family part is really important. As long as it’s a committed landlord who is engaged in the community, we need to make sure they’re provided a fair amount of time to get things done.
If it’s a bug infestation or a serious lead paint issue, where we’re actually poisoning kids, then you just got to do what you got to do, and if that’s enforcement, then enforce it. But if it’s issues like a sewer main break, that, you know, happens out of the blue, we should be working with the landlords making sure they have the opportunity to fix it, clean it and make that place safer.
Lajoie: It’s very hard to measure intent. I think most landlords act in good faith with the limits or funding they have.
[The city doesn’t] want to be an adversary, and it shouldn’t be a punitive relationship. I think the question should be how to accomplish X, Y, Z, as opposed to threatening landlords for trying to do the best they can. I’m in favor of the city and the state having high standards, but I’d rather have a cooperative approach rather than a punitive one.
Soule: Of course I do. I know some landlords have been given fines of $15,000. There’s only one thing that bothers me. I hope that the city is not fining landlords great quantities of money due to the fact that there is a crunch — a budget crunch — due to less revenue coming in. That scares me, and that’s why some landlords think they’re being harshly treated.
Do you support the city’s plan to redevelop the Maple Knoll building?
Cayer: Yes, because, one, typical HUD housing over the years has actually hurt the people that they are providing housing for, and in turn that hurts our city. Because basically you can’t provide a brand new residence to someone but not look at the issues that they’re faced with every day.
This transformation plan truly begins to hold people accountable. It holds landlords accountable, tenants accountable, city officials accountable, education accountable. If we don’t start addressing some of these issues in a holistic way, we’re going to shift one problem to another area, and that’s just not the way to do it.
Lajoie: The government injecting itself to make itself feel good is not a solution I always agree with. The city needs to create an environment where companies want to make an investment and leave it at that.
I’m not in favor of what I have seen, and I have my own thoughts on it. I think it’s coming and not something I can change. We look at quick fixes, we’re not strategic thinkers and Lewiston needs investors.
Is that [the plan] the way to restore [Lewiston’s] reputation? I think private investment is better. I think federal investments like rail is good if we want to make this a great small city. Adding more housing doesn’t address the core issues that hold back the city. I think the problem is people see that as a strategy moving forward, but the idea that we want to fill the city with subsidized housing, I don’t see as a workable solution moving forward.
Soule: I will treat it fairly if I’m elected mayor. One thing is, there are questions like this: Does it have EPA approval? How much tax increment financing money will be put into it? These are major issues. What will the housing units look like? A very, very important thing to me is the quality of the living standards of the individuals there. Will it be dense-packed housing? How many people will be living in the area? How many cars will it bring to the neighborhood?
In general, what do you see as the city’s role in making sure residents have good housing?
Cayer: We have to recognize that the city can’t step in for everything. But there are some. Lead paint is a major issue that’s very expensive to take care of, and I would much rather identify resources through federal grants or private funding opportunities to assist landlords and making their residences lead-free.
[Otherwise], the city will end up having to demolish that building and have a vacant spot there. … So if we can identify federal funding, and then identify private funding, I truly think we’re going to be able to make some significant gains in that area.
Lajoie: I think the best thing to do is to provide an economic base that lures investment. A lot of good things are initiated by private entities that create environments that encourage investment. They bring in workers who need places to live, and then you have private entities coming in looking to build and rent. I believe in a limited role of government.
It takes us back to reputation: If we improve things and encourage investment, those people will need places to live.
Soule: It’s a crucial role, and it’s almost to the point that it has to be an authoritarian. Sometimes you have to force people to do things that are right. It’s just that some landlords feel squeezed by it, because sometimes an individual can get overzealous in that position.