The ‘total chaos’ caused by a landlord who put tenants in a condemned building with no heat

Courtesy of City of Lewiston
Courtesy of City of Lewiston
Black mold grew throughout 32 Horton St. in Lewiston, as shown in this August 2016 photo.
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The saga of 32 Horton St. in Lewiston.
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Editor’s note: This story contains profanities. It is part of an ongoing series about Lewiston housing. Ideas? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com. See all the stories here.

Jolyn Whitney and Edwin Fogg were desperate for a place to live when landlord Rick Lockwood offered them an apartment on the third floor of a building on Horton Street in downtown Lewiston. They were being evicted from their nearby home for falling behind on rent and worried they’d be homeless if they couldn’t find a cheap place quickly, they said.

So for $500 a month, the couple endured the building’s disrepair without protest. It had holes in the walls. No hot water. Peeling paint left a pattern on the door frames that resembled alligator skin. And piles of crumbled sheetrock and debris from unfinished construction sat in the halls, according to city documents, photographs, and interviews with officials and tenants.

They moved in the spring of 2016 and spent the summer bathing at their friends’ homes. Fogg, who is blind, finally called the city’s code enforcement department in August to complain about the lack of hot water.

“Well,” Whitney said with a sigh, recalling the conversation, “they weren’t happy.”

Unbeknownst to them, Lockwood had moved the couple into a condemned building, according to a lawsuit the city had brought against him nearly a year earlier, in October 2015.

The revelation intensified a feud between the city’s code enforcement department and Lockwood, one of its most embattled targets.

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At that time, Lewiston had changed its approach to dealing with unsafe housing: It began bringing landlords to court to force them to repair their own properties, under a civil process reserved for “truly uncooperative” property owners. Today, officials look back on Lockwood’s tenure in Lewiston, from 2014 to 2017, as perhaps the most challenging because he tested how far the city would go to hold landlords accountable.

“We did a full court press [against him] because we were fearful for his tenants,” said Gil Arsenault, the longtime director of the city’s code enforcement department. He retired in 2018 after ushering in a new era of stricter compliance for landlords in a city full of old buildings in need of major repairs.

Between 2015 and 2017, Lewiston sued Lockwood 14 times over six of his 10 properties. Finally, the city pursued a rare legal measure that stripped him of corporate legal protections, holding him personally responsible for the court’s civil penalties. To this day, Lockwood still owes Lewiston more than $200,000 in legal penalties and fees for how he ran his buildings, according to city and court records.

The city ultimately demolished two of his buildings after the Lewiston City Council found them too dangerous to remain standing, including the gray, six-unit building at 32 Horton St. where Fogg and Whitney briefly lived while these legal battles unfolded.

Courtesy of City of Lewiston
Courtesy of City of Lewiston
32 Horton St. in Lewiston is pictured Aug. 19, 2016, before it was torn down.

But legal action didn’t always prevent tenants from living without heat, with cockroaches or in general squalor that violated the city’s housing standards. Even as the city bore down, Lockwood still rented to people in Lewiston who were often too poor or faced too many challenges to find another place to live in the tightening rental market. So their suffering persisted.

“If it was that bad, then why didn’t the city do something?” Lockwood said, arguing the city should have condemned all his buildings if they were truly dangerous. In an interview, he said city officials conspired against him to drive him out of business. He said he was so angry he wanted to choke the former code enforcement director and punch the city attorney in the face.

Some Lewiston residents asked a similar question but for different reasons. Despite the extreme action taken against Lockwood, they wondered if the city could have done more — and faster — for Lockwood’s tenants. Ultimately, it’s up to individual municipalities to enforce their housing standards: How tough or lenient they are depends on decisions made by the people running the city.

“Although the landlords get fined, the consequences aren’t as extreme for them usually [compared with tenants],” said Susan Popkin, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C. There aren’t many effective options to protect tenants because civil actions are slow and expensive, she added.

Conducting regular inspections is one way to hold property owners more accountable for their housing, Popkin said, instead of simply responding to tenants when they call for help, as Lewiston mainly does.

But money can be tight in small cities such as Lewiston, which recently nixed the idea of expanding its code enforcement staff because of the cost.

Still, there are costs either way, both for tenants living in dire conditions and the city. Lockwood was “the largest single expenditure of staff resources we’ve used for a given landlord,” Arsenault said.

Courtesy of City of Lewiston
Courtesy of City of Lewiston
The state of 32 Horton St. in Lewiston is shown in pictures taken by the city in August 2016. There was black mold on many surfaces, trash accumulating outside, broken windows, food left to rot, inoperable plumbing and construction debris throughout the building.

‘It wasn’t overnight’

Lockwood, a builder from Gorham, entered Lewiston’s downtown housing market in 2014. At his peak two years later, he owned 10 buildings, valued at just over $920,000, according to tax records.

“We took [our buildings] off the heap pile and made something of them,” he said.

The plan was to renovate two every year over five years, he said. But he ran into trouble, over and over, when his tenants struggled to keep up with their payments, said Diego Martinez, a maintenance man Lockwood hired when he was homeless. Martinez spoke from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham in August, where he was serving a sentence for dealing drugs out of an apartment Lockwood had rented to him.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Diego Martinez reflected on his work in the Lewiston rental market from behind bars at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham in August, while serving time for drug offenses. "It was so stressful. It was literally so stressful," he said. 

It meant that Lockwood was on the city’s code enforcement department’s radar almost immediately, as tenants called to complain about the conditions inside his buildings. David Hediger, who took over as director of the code enforcement office in 2018, said the city first tries to negotiate with landlords on deadlines for repairs before going the more aggressive route with fines and lawsuits.

[How Lewiston tenants pushed their city to address its housing crisis]

City inspectors first visited Lockwood’s gray building on Horton Street, not far from the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, in March 2014. Over the course of two visits, officials cited him for failing to provide heat to his tenants, missing smoke detectors, damaged floors and other surfaces, and missing guardrails on the stairs, according to court filings.

Inspectors wouldn’t return until the following winter, during which the problems persisted and grew. In January 2015, an inspector again cited Lockwood for the missing smoke detectors and the building’s dilapidation, as well as a bed bugs infestation. More time passed. Inspectors were back in July — twice — over more reports of pests.

All these inspections were building to a lawsuit, said Arsenault, the code enforcement director at the time.

“It’s painful. It’s a lot of work, a lot of resources. We were successful with Rick, but it wasn’t overnight,” he said.

The slow pace frustrated people like community organizer Melissa Dunn, who routinely saw what tenants endured in the meantime. Dunn was particularly worried about children living in apartments with chipping lead paint.

On Aug. 11, 2015, activists, including Dunn, held a press conference on the deteriorating porch steps of 32 Horton St. to call out what they labeled the city’s “landlords of concern.”

“If it was that bad, why didn’t the tenants move out?” Lockwood said.

“You know why? Because they didn’t have any money — because they didn’t pay me,” he said, referring to how his tenants fell short on rent or withheld it when they found problems with their apartments.

[They wanted a home. Instead they learned the human cost of living in Maine’s most distressed neighborhood.]

Two weeks after the press conference, the city filed a complaint against Lockwood in Lewiston District Court, citing 32 Horton St.’s continued problems.

As with lesser code enforcement actions, the city has discretion in the courtroom to work with a landlord. The goal is compliance, not punishing landlords with hefty fines, said Hediger, with the city’s code department.

Lockwood agreed to repair all of the Horton Street building’s apartments by the following July and gave the city permission to tear the place down on his dime if he didn’t, according to the consent judgment he signed in October 2015. The city said it would waive all but $1,000 of a $25,000 fine if Lockwood made the fixes.

In the meantime, he wasn’t allowed to rent to tenants until he completed repairs. The court made one exception: Lockwood could keep renting the first floor rear apartment to a tenant, so the building wouldn’t be empty and attract squatters.

Unfortunately, one couple, Lestina and Kelly Harris, were unaware of the court’s decision when they asked Lockwood for a place to live. The city’s lawsuit wouldn’t prevent what they endured the coming winter.

‘We didn’t have heat’

Lestina and Kelly Harris, teenage sweethearts then in their late 40s, needed a home because the bathroom ceiling in their current apartment leaked sewage from the upstairs apartment onto anyone who was using the toilet, Lestina Harris said. Their landlord hadn’t fixed it, despite their complaints, and he served them an eviction notice when they withheld their rent.

In either December or January 2016, Lockwood offered the couple the second floor of the gray building on Horton Street, according to Lestina Harris.

They didn’t unpack any of their belongings because Lockwood said he wanted to move them into the downstairs rear apartment, which was under construction. In fact, the entire building was torn apart and vacant when they moved in, except for the cockroaches, Lestina Harris said. While they waited for Lockwood to make the repairs, the couple didn’t allow their grandchildren to stay with them overnight, visits they had looked forward to every week in previous apartments.

In February, Lestina Harris woke in the middle of the night to find their hallway full of steam. It terrified her, reminding her of a fire that started in the kitchen of her old apartment. Late at night, the steam resembled smoke.

She soon learned that the pipes in the building had frozen and then burst. Someone had broken in and left a door open overnight, stealing a set of tools, according to Martinez, Lockwood’s handyman.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
"It’s been three years since we’ve done property management in Lewiston, and still, when I think about it, it gives me anxiety, the way these people can back you into a corner like that,” Diego Martinez, Rick Lockwood's former handyman, said of working with the city's code enforcement department. Martinez was serving time for drug offenses at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham when he spoke to the Bangor Daily News in August.

“The water was kept off for close to a month, or at least that,” Lestina Harris said. “And we didn’t have heat for about a month and a half.”

To stay warm in the dead of winter, she and her husband taped cardboard over the cracks in the windows and slept underneath layers of blankets, squished in with their two cats and their small dog, a Papillon named Isabella. Twice, on especially cold nights, Lestina Harris’ boss paid for the couple to sleep in a hotel.

She didn’t call code enforcement because she was afraid of being evicted, she said. She and her husband, a traffic flagger who didn’t work much in the winter, lived primarily on her minimum wage paycheck, and it wasn’t easy to pack up and find another cheap apartment.

In either April or May, Whitney and Fogg moved onto the third floor, joining Lestina and Kelly Harris as tenants in the condemned building. The hot water still didn’t work, and the pipes still leaked — conditions they endured silently until August when Fogg finally called the city.

When an inspector arrived on Horton Street on Aug. 12, 2016, Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard discovered a dangerous situation in the basement that lurked beneath the tenants living upstairs. Water from the burst pipe still ran through the building, so black mold grew along damp wooden beams, and moisture seeped into the walls where hanging, improperly cased wires and electrical panels were mounted, according to photographs compiled by the city.

Courtesy of City of Lewiston
Courtesy of City of Lewiston
This compilation of photos of 32 Horton St., taken in August 2016, shows, from top right, a damaged light fixture leaving live conductors exposed to moisture, moisture leaking onto the underpinnings of the building and contributing to rot, mold causing the underside of the building to turn black, and damaged electrical panels with missing covers making for "extraordinarily dangerous conditions," according to the city of Lewiston.

The city ordered the utilities to be shut off and the tenants to move. Code went to the Lewiston City Council in late September to ask to demolish the building.

It took a few more weeks for Lestina and Kelly Harris to find a new place on Pierce Street, where they moved in September, Lestina Harris said. She loves her landlord, whom she’s still renting from today, she said, because the apartment is warm, and he responds immediately when she calls.

Fogg and Whitney accepted an apartment in another of Lockwood’s buildings, a green three-story tenement on Bates Street. It meant their problems would continue before getting better.

‘Shame on any landlord’

Screenshot | City of Lewiston
Screenshot | City of Lewiston
Rick Lockwood speaks before the Lewiston City Council on Sept. 20, 2016.

In heated tones, Lockwood pleaded before the Lewiston City Council for more time before it tore down his building. He argued that the burst pipes were an unforeseen disaster and that his insurance company prohibited him from continuing with renovations until the claim went through.

“I have been bullied by the city since I’ve been here the last two years. And I’ve put a ton of money into my properties — a ton,” Lockwood said during the hearing Sept. 20, 2016. In an interview, he claimed he’d spent more than $850,000 just at Home Depot.

But members of the City Council, like tenant advocates in the city, wondered how the building had gotten to such a dire point before someone intervened. They had just watched a slideshow of photographs depicting the condition of the building that Councilor Michael Lachance referred to as “total chaos.”

“I guess my concern is this is not the only building that Mr. Lockwood owns, and my concern is that other buildings are in the same state of disrepair and that we have been sitting on those for two years,” said then-Councilor Kristen Cloutier, who is now the city’s mayor.

“Not true, necessarily,” Asenault responded. “We have many lawsuits against Lockwood properties, and we’re legally doing all we can within our power.”

Indeed, between October 2016 and May 2017, the city sued Lockwood over six buildings, each following multiple notices from the city that required Lockwood to make repairs. The lawsuits sought relief for tenants living in buildings that had no heat, no hot water, sewage backing up in the basement, missing smoke detectors, clogged drains and doors that wouldn’t close, according to the lawsuits.

Lockwood blamed his tenants for the conditions of his buildings.

“They’re not all like [this], but the majority are. They’ll come to you with tears in their eyes, only to find out they’re nothing but drunks and druggies and liars and cheats. And when they can’t pay their bills up there, they call the code enforcement office on you,” he said.

Lacking the resources to keep up with a demanding building isn’t a justification for allowing tenants to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, Arsenault said. His office was more patient with landlords in instances where they felt tenants were to blame, but that wasn’t the case with Lockwood, he said.

“Shame on any landlord, especially Rick because he does construction, that walks away from a closing without money to fix the buildings up,” Arsenault said.

[Map: For the first time, see where Lewiston sued to get landlords to repair homes]

Even as the city zeroed in, some of Lockwood’s tenants reached out to Pine Tree Legal Assistance when the city’s actions weren’t swift enough or Lockwood didn’t meet its deadlines.

Matt Dyer, a longtime Pine Tree attorney, had doubts that “piecemeal enforcement” and litigation would be effective against Lockwood, he wrote in a Nov. 14, 2016, letter to city officials.

Dyer urged the city to consider pursuing receivership, a process by which the city would take over Lockwood’s business operations. When he sent the letter, Dyer had clients in one of Lockwood’s eight-unit buildings that didn’t have heat. Winter was coming, and Lockwood had not paid the gas bill, according to Dyer, who said he called the gas company himself.

The city did not pursue receivership, as it didn’t want to be in charge of the building’s maintenance and tenants, Arsenault said. It did, however, take an unprecedented measure to hold Lockwood in contempt.

The same month that Dyer sent his letter, Michael Carey, the city attorney, pursued a legal move to strip Lockwood of his corporate protections — what’s known as “ piercing the corporate veil.” He was able to prove to a judge that the company Lockwood used to purchase his buildings, Investment Properties LLC, was indistinguishable from him personally, merely a shell that did not operate like a separate corporation. It meant that Lockwood was personally liable for the financial penalties his business owed the city as a result of the lawsuits.

By spring 2017, Lockwood’s buildings were for sale.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A three story building sits at 275 Bates St. in Lewiston.

‘Pick it up yourself’

When Fogg and Whitney moved from the condemned building to another of Lockwood’s apartments on Bates Street in the late summer of 2016, they got bed bugs. Court records show multiple problems with the building under Lockwood’s ownership, including failure to exterminate the bugs, damage to the building, and a lack of heat and hot water. It was only when a new property management company took over the building in May 2017 that someone got rid of the pests, Whitney said.

As the year drew on, trash continued to pile up outside, despite repeated notices and fines that grew with every citation. In March, Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Susan Reny ran out of lines on her pre-formatted violation card for Lockwood, so she used a blue pen to draw a fifth line and wrote in the fine: $840.

“Pick [the trash] up yourself and put it on my tab,” Lockwood allegedly told a code enforcement officer in January, according to a lawsuit the city filed against him.

As of today, the only property Lockwood owns in Lewiston is the patch of grass on Horton Street where the condemned building once stood. The city sent him a notice last week for not mowing the plot, Lockwood said.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Weeds grow in the vacant lot at 32 Horton St. in Lewiston.

Lockwood’s private financier paid $37,000 toward the city’s legal fees and another $42,000 to cover the cost of the building’s demolition, according to Hediger, the new code enforcement director. It’s unclear when the city will see the rest of the money Lockwood owes: more than $185,000 in civil penalties and at least $18,700 in attorney’s fees, according to a tally of fines listed in court documents and confirmed by city officials.

In June, Lockwood filed for bankruptcy. It was his first time doing so since 2013, when he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy three times within the year, according to documents filed in district court.

The court dismissed each request for relief when he stopped complying with the process, but the timing of his filings prompted a judge in 2013 to bar Lockwood from pursuing bankruptcy protections in Maine for six months. His conduct was “a clear abuse” of the system because, each time, Lockwood filed “on the eve” of having to appear in court in Portland for hearings related to a civil case pending against him, according to court arguments with which a judge agreed.

Lockwood now owes $4.46 million to 44 creditors, including the IRS, according to his 2019 petition for bankruptcy.

He owes more than $750,000 to a former Lewiston landlord who sued him in 2016, after Lockwood promised to buy his building on Howe Street but never followed through with the sale, according to a court judgment.

Lockwood, however, still managed the building, while the then-owner, Patrick Kelleher, was on the hook for the bills and taxes, court records state. Lockwood denied the allegations but didn’t show up to defend himself in court. The judge sided with Kelleher.

Looking back, Arsenault said the city did all it could in Lockwood’s case, but he still doesn’t think Lockwood faced consequences that were proportionate to the damage he caused.

“I think he hurt a lot of people. And I don’t know how much he was financially impacted, if at all,” the former code director said.

Lockwood feels differently. “Gil Aresnault, what a piece of shit. If I could get my hands around that bastard’s neck, I’d choke him out. I really would. I’d choke him out. Put that in the paper,” he said. Carey, the city attorney, “is a lying sack of shit, and when I see him I’m going to punch him right in the face.”

[Lewiston’s fight against its ‘truly uncooperative’ landlords]

To prevent future code violations and financial loss for landlords, the city is trying to be more proactive with educating property owners, including by setting up a series of landlord training sessions, said Cloutier, the mayor.

Another way to hold landlords accountable is by performing regular inspections of the city’s housing stock, according to Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

That idea came up in discussions among a Lewiston housing committee last year. It studied creating a rental registry of who owns what rental property in the city, Cloutier said, and an original version of the proposal would have required inspections to be on it.

But the committee nixed a new $36-per-unit fee that would have funded the additional code enforcement staff required to carry out the inspections. Cloutier said the registry, which is expected to go live next year, wouldn’t have passed otherwise.

Martinez, meanwhile, has kept in touch with Lockwood during his time in prison, which is just a 3 ½-mile drive from Lockwood’s stately colonial home in Gorham.

Lockwood is eager for him to get out, so they can get back to work, Martinez said. But this time, he said, they’re only building houses from the ground up.

Courtesy of Gorham Assessment Records
Courtesy of Gorham Assessment Records
Rick Lockwood's four-bedroom home in Gorham is pictured in 2002. Property records indicate that he used to own the home, assessed at $395,600, but now rents it.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

 



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