This story is part of an ongoing series about Lewiston housing. Ideas? Write to email@example.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.”
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.
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.
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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.
‘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.”