May 6, 2013

Fires unveil crisis in Lewiston's housing stock

In an area already stricken by poverty, the economic downturn left scores of downtown properties at risk and often uninhabitable.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Shawn Greeley checks out the abandoned structure at 139 Bartlett St., across the street from his Lewiston apartment. He said he periodically visits the dwelling because homeless people sometimes occupy it.

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Johnny Pair, left, and Andy Callie of Lewiston talk about housing issues in the city while at the Trinity Jubilee Center on Bates Street. Vacancy rates downtown hover around 20 percent to 25 percent, according to city officials’ estimates.

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Empty and abandoned residential buildings in Lewiston
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"I wouldn't take a free building in downtown Lewiston right now," said Breton.

Lewiston City Councilor Craig Saddlemire, whose Ward 5 district includes some of the areas with the highest number of troubled properties, said he wants the city to be more proactive in addressing code violations, while acknowledging the neglect the city's aging housing stock has suffered.

"The business risks that some landlords took have been externalized to the people living downtown," Saddlemire said.

Currently, the fire department is the only city agency that performs routine, proactive inspections of buildings. But because of the number of so-called tenement structures that must be inspected, the time between routine inspections can stretch to two years or more.

"I think some landlords have gotten comfortable about code (enforcement) not breathing down their neck," Saddlemire said.

The city has struggled to provide services with fewer staff and less funding. Arsenault said staffing levels are down by half from 10 years ago. To staff a full-time code enforcement officer more than a year ago, the city opted to use grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, effectively protecting the position from municipal budget cuts.

"I think we've been a magnet for area poor people to relocate in the downtown," Arsenault said.

"Some tenants know they can get away with behavior that they otherwise would not be able to get away with in a tight market," he said.

Matthew Dyer, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal Services in Lewiston, bristles at that suggestion, and said code enforcement, while understaffed, used to take landlords to court to extract either fines or improvements to their buildings. Code enforcement officers had visited the Blake Street property that burned Monday to push people to leave, but Dyer said that is not their job.

"I'm very frustrated that this narrowly averted tragedy is being spun around to blame the tenants," said Dyer, who represented one resident of the burned property in a 2010 dispute over bedbugs and cockroach infestations. Dyer's client won that suit.

"A municipal code enforcement body has the authority, and I would say the duty, to bring enforcement actions against landlords, " he said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Roland Hamel of Lewiston walks past a condemned multi-unit dwelling on Walnut Street in a city where officials say abandoned buildings often hide in plain sight.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Carl D. Walsh

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The building at 139 Bartlett St. wears the signature red square with a white “X,” designating it as a condemned property.



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