Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series about Lewiston housing. Ideas? Write to email@example.com.
For a few brief months, Katelynn Davis had a home.
The once-stately apartment building at 120 College St. in Lewiston was, like much of the housing in the city’s downtown, in need of work. The paint was chipping, leaving dust on the window sills, and the appliances were old and dirty. But for only $700 a month, the spacious three-bedroom felt far superior to the motel room where she had been living with her 2-year-old daughter, Emily, in the late fall of 2017.
Emily made a best friend at the new apartment. One of Davis’ roommates, Storm Stevens, also had a toddler who stayed over on the weekends, 3-year-old Storm Jr. Emily and Storm Jr. passed the time playing with blocks, watching cartoons and chatting in a toddler dialect their parents enjoyed trying to decipher, Davis said. They were so inseparable that Storm Jr. used to coo messages through the closed bathroom door while Davis gave her daughter a bath.
“We basically formed a family,” she said.
Then, in mid-June, a doctor discovered elevated levels of lead in Storm Jr.’s bloodstream, according to Davis and Stevens. They were afraid. Toddlers, they realized, can get permanent neurological damage from ingesting lead paint dust and chips from old buildings like theirs. Indeed, Lewiston is so dense with deteriorating buildings that children there are poisoned by lead at almost twice the rate of Maine as a whole.
“It freaked me out,” Davis said. After the blood test, the roommates decided not to pay July rent until they knew whether the apartment was safe for the kids living there. They were already a little behind, too.
That’s how the home they created began to fall apart.
In downtown Lewiston, the economics that keep a healthy rental market afloat have largely collapsed, according to local officials and property owners. Instead of owners investing in their buildings and, over time, turning a profit from the rent and appreciation of the property’s value, a significant number have struggled to keep up with basic maintenance and health standards that are required by city code ordinances.
The value of residential real estate in Lewiston as a whole has flatlined since 2009, according to city financial reports. That means, in general, property owners could not recoup their investments into Lewiston buildings over the past decade by reselling them. Instead, they have to rely on rent paid by tenants.
But rent payments often aren’t enough. Lewiston landlords said that the cost of maintaining the city’s challenging housing stock — which is old, decaying and full of lead paint — exceeds what they can charge for rent in a neighborhood where residents live at the highest levels of concentrated poverty in Maine.
Tenants, meanwhile, pay a different cost, often with their health and well-being.
In July, a state inspector confirmed lead hazards not only in Davis and Stevens’ apartment, but also in the painted windows and door jambs of all three units, as well as the back porches, according to the building’s owner, John Conde. It frightened Davis to learn that it was especially toxic in the floor of the bathroom where Storm Jr. and Emily walked in bare feet and played.
But the discovery of lead was a terrible surprise for Conde, the landlord, too.
The lead abatement job, based on estimates he later received, would cost around $75,000 — well beyond what the 67-year-old landlord could immediately afford based on his income and what he charged for rent, he said.
The job would cost as much as the building is worth today, about $80,000, he said. That’s half of what he purchased it for in 2002 — $162,500, according to city records — after he lost his manufacturing job and needed another source of income, he said. Since then, Conde has taken care of maintenance issues himself.
“[Lead issues] can be a real problem in terms of getting people to come in and invest or getting people to upgrade their properties or buy properties,” said Allan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “It’s a huge problem everywhere.”
But it doesn’t just take a costly surprise like a lead abatement order to stop landlords from investing in buildings that will primarily serve as homes for those who have very low incomes.
“When rental rates are low, profit margins are slim. And if profit margins are slim, the amount of money a landlord has to make capital improvements are slim. That’s part of the cycle,” said Lewiston landlord Chris Aceto, who argued that landlords are often unfairly vilified in the limelight of grassroots activism against the city’s poor housing conditions.
Indeed, tenants in recent years have not suffered quietly. In City Council meetings and on the trail of local political campaigns, they have complained about lead paint as well as pest infestations, leaking roofs, no heat in the winter, broken smoke detectors, and garbage piled in their hallways and on their sidewalks.
These problems can be especially difficult for Lewiston’s large immigrant population, many of whom are refugees with limited means, who have to navigate the same issues while overcoming language and cultural barriers.
Over the past decade, residents have successfully pressured the city’s code enforcement office to crack down harder on landlords who operate unsafe and squalid housing. The tougher enforcement coincided with the city’s push to tear down blighted and abandoned buildings, many of which were left behind after the foreclosure crisis in 2008 and 2009.
But the scale of the problem deserves a more dramatic kind of public intervention, in addition to local remedies, officials said.
“We have distressed neighborhoods, and we don’t have a housing market to do the improvements at the rate and scale that we need,” said Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development director.
That’s why, on Sept. 17, the Lewiston City Council unanimously voted to approve a massive plan that would enlist the federal government’s help in solving its housing crisis.
Stating that the downtown housing market “requires aggressive, disruptive intervention,” the 250-page document outlines how Lewiston would use up to $30 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish poor housing and rebuild it anew, among other initiatives to boost the economic and social health of the area’s renters. The city was shortlisted to apply for the competitive grant program, called Choice Neighborhoods, in 2017.
It is yet another sign of the rescue effort ongoing in Maine’s most distressed neighborhood, where daily life, at least in the case of 120 College St., doesn’t always gleam with the same kind of promise and where some kinds of damage cannot be undone.
‘There’s a crack in my roof, and it’s raining’
On July 17, 2018, Conde sent Davis an eviction notice for unpaid rent. Even before she and her roommates had decided to withhold that month’s payment following Storm Jr.’s blood test, they were already behind. According to documents filed in Lewiston District Court, where evictions are processed, they owed Conde more than $1,000.
Evictions happen frequently in Lewiston. Residents there are twice as likely to be evicted from their home than in other cities in Maine, according to data from Eviction Lab. In interviews, landlords said failure to pay rent is the biggest reason.
In what becomes a worsening spiral, it is harder for landlords to invest in their buildings when renters don’t pay for their housing. But as that housing decays over time, often the only people willing to live in the units are tenants who cannot afford to go anywhere else.
By the early summer of 2018, residents on the third floor of 120 College St. divvied up rent based on what people could pay, Davis said.
Like many residents of the former mill city, their household struggled to find good, consistent jobs. The unemployment rate in the Tree Streets is nearly twice that of the rest of Lewiston, according to the city’s Choice Neighborhoods downtown housing plan.
Nearly 50 percent of people in the Tree Streets neighborhood live in poverty, compared with about 11 percent in Maine.
Stevens worked intermittent temporary jobs at the time and pitched in what he could, Davis said. Tyler D’Auteuil, who moved in in the spring, was unemployed after a year sleeping on people’s couches while battling drug addiction, but he helped with groceries. Davis’ boyfriend, Ricardo Juco, stayed home to care for her daughter, Emily. (It was D’Auteuil, however, who made sure Emily was safely away from the windows on the morning there was a shooting in front of their building, he recalled.)
That left Davis to chip in the most every month, she said: about half of the $600 paycheck she received twice a month for working in the kitchen of an assisted living home in Auburn and far above what federal guidelines recommend a person should pay in monthly housing costs. More than half of the residents in the Tree Streets are considered cost burdened, according to the city’s Choice Neighborhoods downtown housing plan.
When Davis received the eviction notice — which named only her because she was the only tenant on the lease — she felt angry. She still does.
“I literally wish I could scream it from the mountaintop and have an audience of every single landlord in this area: You will get your rent paid if you take care of your tenants,” she said. “That’s all you have to do. If you invest your money [in rental property] and want to get your money back by getting rent paid, invest in your building.”
At the time, she was unaware of the financial predicament the lead abatement order posed for her landlord.
What felt more familiar was the time she had been served eviction papers a year or two earlier when she was living on nearby Horton Street. She told her landlord that the roof was leaking and had caused the water-damaged ceiling of her apartment to bulge above where her daughter played, Davis said.
Her landlord said it would take him a week or two before he could fix it. “I know landlords have lives, and they can’t always jump [on a problem]. But there’s a crack in my roof, and it’s raining. You think you would act kind of faster,” she said.
Eventually, the bubble in her ceiling split open, exposing “black, fuzzy” mold that made their apartment smell terrible, she said. Davis covered it with a sheet.
“He gave me a notice, and I just left. I didn’t feel like dealing with [an eviction],” Davis said.
Lead is perhaps the most pressing issue of housing-related public health in Lewiston, Mayor Kristen Cloutier said. Downtown, 90 percent of housing units were built before 1978 when lead paint was allowed in homes. A city committee estimated it would cost more than $63 million to remove all the lead from Lewiston.
In recognition of the fact that making Lewiston’s housing stock lead safe is often beyond what landlords like Conde can easily afford, the city has made grant money available to people whose properties have been flagged for lead hazards.
Such grant programs also recognize the risk that doing nothing would pose to children, especially in a place like downtown Lewiston, which has the highest concentration of kids under 5 in Maine, according to the city’s downtown housing plan.
As parents like Stevens have come to find out, the behavioral effects of lead poisoning typically appear after a child has been exposed to lead, meaning it’s often too late to reverse the damage. A year after he tested positive for lead poisoning, Storm Jr. started attending speech therapy, which the toddler’s doctor attributed to lead poisoning, his father said in a brief interview during a break from working a double shift in the kitchen at a local Denny’s.
But that fear had not yet materialized in the summer of 2018. With the eviction from Conde looming, Davis decided she would go to court, even if she did not want to live at 120 College St. by the time of her hearing.
The apartment’s lead hazards were the primary reason, she said, but the final straw occurred after the eviction process was already underway. The morning after she received the July 17 eviction notice, Davis woke up around 3:30 a.m. for her early kitchen shift and found her bed polka dotted with tiny black spots — bed bugs, she said.
“I ran into the bathroom, and I puked,” she said.
‘I may have to let the building go’
Davis didn’t realize how little time her case would get before a judge when she appeared in Lewiston eviction court early in the morning July 25, 2018. Her case was one of many being processed under the yellow lights of the second floor courtroom, where she and Conde agreed that she and her roommates would be out of the apartment in 30 days.
Evictions are a black spot that can hamper renters when they search for future housing, limiting their options to substandard places. While eviction is a symptom of poverty, it can also cause and perpetuate poverty.
Afraid that bugs infested their furniture, Davis said the roommates left most of their belongings behind in 120 College St., before splitting off to find various new places to live.
It was Conde’s problem, although none compared to what he stared down in abatement costs, he said in a brief interview, which he ended after he grew stressed by talking about the situation.
The landlord took a four-day lead certification course last year, so he could chip away at the abatement work himself, he said.
So far, he has completed $10,000 worth of abatement work on the third floor apartment where Davis, Juco, D’Auteuil and Stevens lived. For the remaining work, he has been approved to receive money through Lewiston’s Lead Hazard Control Grant, according to a spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
But, in the meantime, Conde said he cannot rent the two units sitting empty until the entire building is done, meaning he is only collecting rent from the tenants on the second floor.
“I may have to let the building go,” he said, either by selling it or letting the city claim it, if he cannot keep up with the taxes.
For all the city’s housing woes, some buyers have noticed an opportunity in Lewiston’s relatively cheap apartment buildings. Northeast Rental Housing of Central Maine has bought up inexpensive apartment buildings in the downtown area in the past few years and has been repairing them, owner Anthony Jolicoeur said.
It has earned him praise from other landlords and tenants advocates in the city, but the apartments may not be available to everyone.
“We’re not the cheapest company in town to rent from,” Jolicoeur said.
Lewiston’s rental market is tightening, despite its problematic housing stock. With renters getting priced out of nearby Portland, more are coming to places such as Lewiston, according to city officials, developers and tenants. While it presents an opportunity for developers with the capital to fix up old buildings to cash in on tenants with more to spend on rent, it leaves open the question about what will happen to lower-income tenants.
Some buyers have been shocked by the reality of the costs associated with ownership, said Parker, Lewiston’s economic development director, especially in cases where those costs are known by the seller and not communicated to the buyer.
That happened to landlord Amy Smith. She felt duped when she bought her first building in Lewiston, paying $92,000 for a triple decker but not knowing that it came with a lead abatement order. As a result, she said she paid roughly $50,000 — in lost rent and lead abatement costs that were not covered by a grant — in addition to the purchase price.
“It was brutal,” said Smith, who thought about suing but realized the previous owner did not have any money himself.
Lewiston Mayor Cloutier, who also represents Lewiston in Augusta as a Democratic state representative, introduced a bill that passed earlier this year that requires the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to file notices of lead hazards into the relevant county’s registry of deeds.
Not wanting another buyer to fall into the same trap, Smith is now developing a software platform that would allow users to search Lewiston properties and find lead abatement and code violation data. Smith anticipates launching the Property Health Report early next year. She envisions franchising the platform to nonprofit partners across the country.
‘Afford that? Insane.’
In the year since their eviction, Davis, her daughter and Juco, her boyfriend, have not yet found a stable place to live. Over the same period of time, a coalition of community members were hard at work on the city’s Choice Neighborhoods downtown housing plan — its vision for clean, affordable housing still a long way off.
At a Lewiston Dunkin Donuts on the afternoon of Sept. 4, Davis scrolled through listings on her phone’s Facebook app, looking dismayed.
She, Emily and Juco were couch surfing while they searched for an affordable rental. They had been staying with Juco’s mother, who lives in a low-income senior housing complex downtown, but they were asked to leave because it violated her lease agreement, Davis said. On a more hopeful note, she said her daughter had not shown signs of lead poisoning.
“I don’t know if you guys ever take a look at the Facebook marketplace, but I just found a one-bedroom in Lewiston, [and] the guy wanted $1,000 a month,” Davis said.
D’Auteuil, who sat beside her, nodded. He and his girlfriend were sleeping on a full-size mattress on her parents’ porch, he said.
Davis put her phone down. “To be able to afford that? Insane.”
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.