November 12, 2019
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Surveying his shrinking empire, Lewiston’s most notorious landlord questions his tenants’ fate

Josh Keefe | BDN
Josh Keefe | BDN
Joe Dunne walked up the steps of a property he owns in Lewiston this September. He declined to have a picture taken of his face. Dunne and his partner, girlfriend Debra Sullivan, have collected roughly a quarter of Lewiston’s emergency housing assistance for tenants with little or no income in recent years. But they stopped accepting those funds after the city required apartments to pass inspections to qualify for the money.

This story is part of an ongoing series about Lewiston housing. Ideas? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com. See all the stories here.

Lewiston landlord Joe Dunne drove his red Chevy Silverado through the city’s downtown in September, noting building after building that used to be his — more than 300 by his count — like a grandfather pointing out faces in a family album.

“That green one was mine. That white one was mine,” Dunne said, gesturing to a set of multi-unit rental buildings. “Yellow was mine, too.”

Dunne has been a landlord in Lewiston for three decades, and most of his properties have been in the downtown, the poorest neighborhood in the state.

He knows the area’s tenants as well as its buildings. As he drove around a corner, he saw a woman on the sidewalk he recognized. He had been a landlord so long, he said, he had rented to her, then her daughter and, eventually, her granddaughter.

“I rented to three generations of them,” Dunne said. He sighed. “And they were all hookers.”

The operation Dunne runs with his partner, girlfriend Debra Sullivan, occupies the low end of Lewiston-Auburn’s housing market. Dunne and Sullivan mostly rent low-cost apartments to people living on the margins, tenants other landlords often reject.

But as the city has cracked down on substandard housing, Dunne said they have been forced to turn away the city’s most vulnerable. In recent years, Dunne and Sullivan have collected roughly a quarter of Lewiston’s emergency aid for people with little or no income who need housing. But they have stopped accepting those funds, called general assistance, since the city last year began requiring apartments to pass inspections to qualify for the money, which comes from state and local taxpayers.

Dunne has no desire to give the city’s code enforcement department, which conducts the inspections, more reason to enter his properties. Dunne and Sullivan, and their associated companies, have been the most frequent target of city lawsuits aimed at forcing landlords to fix up their buildings. Dunne’s contentious relationship with the city highlights the tension between quality and affordability inherent in Lewiston’s efforts to revive its downtown housing.

Partly because Dunne and other landlords no longer accept general assistance, the city has seen its payments for the aid plummet nearly 70 percent in one year. The city paid out just $200,000 in housing assistance in the last fiscal year, down from $660,000 the year before. It’s not clear where all the tenants have gone who otherwise would have used the money to find a home.

As he drove, Dunne told stories about tenants. One recent tenant stopped paying rent, and, when Dunne went to her apartment, found that she had skipped town and moved another family into the place. (They said they were “just passing through.”) It wasn’t the first time Dunne discovered squatters living in his apartments without permission. Other tenants kicked out balusters supporting hallway railings. Some brought in mattresses off the street — Trojan horses for bedbug invasions.

“It shocks me some of the tenants he has rented to. Just abusive, unpleasant people that aren’t paying rent and throw him under the bus,” said longtime code enforcement director Gil Arsenault, who retired in 2018 and dealt with Dunne and his properties for three decades. “A lot of people speak poorly of [Dunne], but there are certainly people that would be homeless without him.”

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Fred McKinney points to an insulated wooden patch he had to screw into a door in his old apartment in Auburn. McKinney rented the apartment from landlord Joe Dunne, who didn't give him a key when he first moved in, he said.

Fred McKinney has been homeless five times, he said, but described living in a Dunne property as “like being homeless.”

McKinney moved into a four-bedroom downtown Auburn apartment in March 2018. But Dunne did not provide a key to the place, McKinney said. So, for the first several weeks he lived there, McKinney drilled four 3-inch screws into the door to his apartment to secure his belongings inside.

There was also a leak in the bathroom, he said. When it rained, the leak produced a steady stream of water into the bucket McKinney put down. During the winter, the heat came and went. In the middle of the night, McKinney had to walk down to the basement and reset the furnace.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Peeling plaster marks long-term water damage at the home in Auburn where Fred McKinney lived.

Heritier Nosso of Healthy Androscoggin works with immigrants to secure safe housing and described Dunne as “king of the slumlords.”

To Dunne, the criticism is nothing new. He said he’s “grown thick skin about it. It doesn’t really bother me.”

Fellow landlord Chris Aceto said Dunne has unfairly become the face of Lewiston’s decrepit housing stock. “Dunne is a straw man,” Aceto said. “People need to point somewhere.”

Like Lewiston’s housing problems, Dunne is often described as “complex.” It’s an adjective born of his many contradictions. Though many tenants complained that he doesn’t fix problems with their apartments, he’s also bought groceries for tenants when they had nothing and has agreed to the kind of ad-hoc payment arrangements that more corporate landlords would not. Multiple times, Dunne paid for heating oil to heat buildings his operation did not own to prevent tenants from going cold, said Jeff Baril, a retired Lewiston police officer and code enforcement officer.

His contradictions continue. Dunne drew national attention when he put up political signs in 2015 against mayoral candidate Ben Chin that were decried as racist for comparing Chin, who is of Asian descent, with the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. (Dunne later apologized.) But, in an interview, Dunne slammed the racism of Lewiston residents who complain about the city’s immigrant population. What’s more the city’s stricter enforcement has been “disruptive to the inhabitants of the city,” he said, especially immigrants. `

In addition, Dunne is the area’s most famous landlord but owns almost none of the buildings he and others say are “his”: Sullivan’s companies are the legal owners of nearly all the properties he manages. Sullivan declined to comment.

In recent years, however, Dunne and Sullivan have shrunk their portfolio. At their operation’s height, they managed 1,000 units in the downtown. Now, they own between 200 and 300, Dunne said, acknowledging that some of his problems could be attributed to the fact that his operation got “way too big” for his crew.

City tax records show the assessed value of their holdings have declined from nearly $9 million in 2013 to slightly more than $6 million this year.

And Dunne and Sullivan-affiliated companies collected just $52,000 in general assistance last fiscal year, down from $153,000 in fiscal year 2015. City records from this summer show that number declining to zero.

Whether those changes represent the gradual erosion of a slumlord’s empire, or the evaporation of affordable homes for marginalized tenants, or both, depends on who you’re talking to.

But Dunne said he does not intend to get out of the landlord game anytime soon, despite claiming he has not turned a profit in years. He said he continues in order to keep his workers employed. And he values the flexibility of the job, which has long allowed him to spend time with his 20-year-old daughter, who has special needs.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A sign on a boarded up building in Lewiston's Tree Streets neighborhood warns against trespassing, loitering and drinking alcohol in public. Similar signs pepper the rest of the neighborhood.

‘Horrible right now’

Dunne’s drive through downtown Lewiston was punctuated by waves and honks and people looking to talk. A man wearing a bright red t-shirt with “Donald Trump Sucks Dick” in white block letters waved down Dunne to complain about how tenants were being treated by the new owners of a building that Dunne and Sullivan recently sold.

Later, as Dunne got out of his dented truck, which contained what seemed like a Lowe’s closing sale worth of home maintenance tools, a shirtless young man with headphones around his neck slowly peddled his bike by in a lazy loop.

“You have any more drywall work I can do?” he asked. Dunne told him no. Wearing black velcro sneakers splattered with flecks of white paint, the landlord had been shepherding his crew members from property to property all day. The young man kept pedaling.

Though the city has sued over health and safety issues at 18 Dunne and Sullivan-affiliated properties since the beginning of 2018 — through a process reserved for “the truly difficult enforcement issues and the truly uncooperative violators,” according to the state — the city has not collected much in the way of fines because they usually make the repairs. (The city said it wants to get landlords to put money into properties, not levy fines.)

Dunne and Sullivan have paid out $31,494 in attorney’s fees to the city and just $3,250 in fines since November 2017, according to David Hediger, the city code enforcement director. Other landlords with fewer buildings have been asked to pay far more.

Dunne is critical of code enforcement under Hediger, who took over the department in early 2018, calling the staff there “aggressive thugs.”

“The code guys are horrible right now,” Dunne said. “Would I buy another apartment building in Lewiston? Probably not.”

The code office is merely enforcing the city’s property code, which has been on the books for decades, Hediger said. “None of these rules are new,” he said. “It’s just that we’re choosing to enforce more aspects of it. We’re holding people more accountable.”

Josh Keefe | BDN
Josh Keefe | BDN
Henrique Ramos is one of Joe Dunne’s tenants in Lewiston. He bemoaned his landlord’s unresponsiveness but also had few housing options other than renting from Dunne.

Henrique Ramos, 49, wished Dunne would be more accountable for the conditions in his apartment. Ramos, an asylum seeker from Angola who spoke through a translator in August, bemoaned his landlord’s unresponsiveness. But he also might not have found an apartment without Dunne.

Over Ramos’ stove, there was a hardened orange bouquet of splatter that Ramos said existed when he moved into the one-bedroom apartment more than a year ago. He could not get it off the wall. The windows did not fully close, he said, which let winter wind enter the apartment. The door to his outside porch also would not shut, and he went months without a functioning bathroom sink. He said he told Dunne about these problems again and again.

Ramos would like to move, but he is struggling to save up enough for the first month’s rent and a security deposit.

It is unclear how Ramos would have found housing if not for Dunne. Ramos originally secured the place before he was eligible to work, using general assistance funds from the city. Since general assistance does not cover security deposits, Dunne gave Ramos the apartment without one. And he charged just $450 per month, well below the local market rate for a one-bedroom apartment.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A man who declined to give his name sits on the stoop at 95 Horton St. in Lewiston. Thethe Kabole, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, used to rent an apartment here with the help of a general assistance voucher. 

‘Dramatic decline’

Dunne and Sullivan gradually stopped accepting general assistance payments to cover rent after the city started an inspection program last summer. The program requires code enforcement to make sure apartments are repaired and safe before allowing general assistance recipients to live there. It brings the city in line with all other tax-funded housing assistance programs, which require inspections. (Dunne and Sullivan still accept federal housing vouchers, which come with their own set of inspections.)

Accepting general assistance is “just inviting code into your property,” Dunne said. For him, that means the prospect of being forced to make significant investments in his property or face potential fines and lawsuits. Previously, code only came by if it received a complaint or noticed problems from the outside.

Since the inspection program began, the amount of general assistance funds distributed by the city to landlords as a whole has plummeted due to a combination of factors, including a decline in applicants and a lack of affordable housing.

The improving economy and Trump administration policies have resulted in a “dramatic decline” in refugees and immigrants, which has translated into fewer applicants, according to Elaine Brackett, deputy director of Lewiston’s social services department, which administers general assistance. At the same time, those remaining applicants have fewer places to rent. Some landlords have decided to stop accepting general assistance because of the required inspections, she said.

And since 2010, Lewiston estimates that the city and private owners have demolished as many as 800 housing units as part of an effort to deal with distressed housing. Over that same timeframe, the city added just 71 new units. It currently has about 9,000 rental units.

A shrinking supply of apartments has resulted in a tighter housing market. Prices have started to rise, and affordable homes are hard to find.

While the city needs safe housing, it also needs more housing in general, said Erin Reed, executive director of Lewiston’s Trinity Jubilee Center, which offers services for people who are homeless.

“People who are homeless or need to get out of unsafe housing will come into our office to search for apartments, and almost every landlord will say no, they have nothing available,” Reed said. “Also, people stay homeless even after they get a housing voucher because they can’t find a landlord that accepts vouchers or the unit doesn’t pass inspection.”

Pastor Charles Ernesto said the housing situation in the city had drastically changed since he arrived from Angola in 2013. Then, instead of tenants looking for housing, “it was the landlord who was looking for us,” Ernesto said.

Now, it’s become so hard to find housing that Ernesto said many new arrivals from Africa have given up on Lewiston and headed north to Canada.

As of mid-October, the city completed 97 inspections for general assistance recipients, Brackett said. Code found violations at 29 of the properties, and 16 are now in compliance.

While it is rare for the inspection process to force people out of their home, it happened to Thethe Kabole, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After a three-month trek from Brazil to Mexico, four months in detention on U.S. soil and a stay in Woolwich, Virginia, Kabole eventually made her way to a Dunne-managed apartment on Horton Street with a general assistance voucher.

But there were problems with the apartment, including with the fridge, sink, toilet and windows, Kabole said through a translator. She told Dunne about the issues, but he did not fix them, she said.

Two months passed after the city instructed Dunne to make the necessary fixes, she said. When he did not, the city canceled her general assistance and gave her a new voucher to find another apartment. But she had no luck.

“I didn’t find one because many landlords were not accepting the GA voucher,” Kabole said.

In late summer, Kabole was living with a friend and her children in a different apartment. She had been in the U.S. since mid-2016, but, due to a paperwork mishap, still does not have authorization to work in the country.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A for rent sign with a phone number is permanently posted on a Blake Street building in Lewiston.

Dunne said the city is taking away agency from people on general assistance through its inspection program. Tenants look at the apartment before deciding to live there, he said.

“They’re saying these people are too stupid to decide for themselves,” he said.

With Lewiston’s aging housing stock, landlords, such as Dunne, said they cannot afford to make fixes with the rent they are able to charge.

But there are new landlords moving into Lewiston who believe that attitude is representative of an old business model, one that has hurt the city. Perhaps the most outspoken is Jay Allen, who said he now owns nearly 40 units in Lewiston, as well as a handful in Portland. Allen “can’t sleep,” he said, if he knows a tenant has a leaky faucet.

While Allen is fixing up apartments and providing them at relatively low rates, however, he admitted he cannot afford to accept general assistance. “I can’t rent these apartments for $634 a month,” he said.

Lewiston might be changing, but there is still demand for a Dunne apartment.

After years of tenant organizing and housing activism, Melissa Dunn gets calls when people need help finding a home. A few months ago, Dunn, who sits on the board of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, received a call asking for help for a homeless woman and her family. The woman used a motorized wheelchair, and the battery was dying, Dunn was told. Dunn found the family on the banks of the Androscoggin River with nowhere to go and paid to put the family up in a hotel. Eventually, the family moved in with Dunn, who uses the pronoun “they.”

That family was still living with Dunn when they saw Joe Dunne approach at a Lewiston gas station earlier this month. The landlord struck up a conversation, which both parties described as far more cordial than previous interactions between the two. And despite Melissa Dunn’s many criticisms of Joe Dunne’s style of landlording, they asked him if he had any handicap accessible units he could rent to the family staying at Dunn’s home. He did not.

Recalling the conversation in a downtown Lewiston coffee shop, Dunn said they had asked Lewiston’s most notorious landlord for help because they had no other choice.

“I’m desperate,” Dunn said.

BDN writer Callie Ferguson contributed to this report.

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

 



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