A flag hangs from a window in Lewiston's Tree Streets neighborhood.

This is part of an ongoing series about Lewiston housing. Ideas? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

Lewiston wants to transform the housing in its downtown and is seeking $30 million in federal funds to help. It would be the smallest city to ever win a competitive Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant, though Lewiston has already beaten the odds to win a $1.3 million planning grant from the program.

[Read more Lewiston-Auburn coverage here.]

But how, exactly, will Maine’s second largest city tackle the complex housing, economic and health challenges in its downtown? That’s all in a 250-page plan — developed over a year and a half, with input from 400 residents speaking eight different languages — that was unanimously endorsed by the Lewiston City Council last week.

Here’s what’s in it, how it came to be and why it matters.

Why downtown Lewiston?

Downtown Lewiston is the poorest neighborhood in the state. It’s home to three of the four poorest census tracts in Maine. (The fourth is across the Androscoggin River in downtown Auburn.) In the downtown Tree Streets neighborhood, 49 percent of people are living in poverty, according to the city. For families with children, the poverty rate is 62 percent.

Downtown Lewiston’s housing is old, and much of it needs costly maintenance. In its successful planning grant application, the city told the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development its downtown housing was mostly “constructed, cheaply, in the 1890s through 1920s.” Nearly a third of the housing in the Tree Streets is considered “distressed or failing,” according to a recent survey coupled with an analysis of code violations.

The combination of old, decaying housing and demographics has created a dire situation. Because downtown Lewiston is home to the highest concentration of children under 5 in the state, the city is a hotspot for childhood lead poisoning, which can cause lifelong behavioral and cognitive problems. In 2017, the childhood lead poisoning rate in Lewiston was nearly double the state average.

Credit: Piktochart graphic by Erin Rhoda

So, what is in the plan?

The city has centered its attention on a government-subsidized, 41-unit building called Maple Knoll. Today, the structure at the corner of Maple and Blake streets houses 90 people with a median annual household income of $9,120. The city wants to build two replacement sites, which will house current Maple Knoll residents: a 66-unit, mixed-income apartment building along the northern border of Kennedy Park, and 64 new units split across new and rehabbed multifamily buildings around Bartlett and Pine Streets.

In total between the two developments, half of the 130 units will be considered affordable, and half will be offered at market rates.

After construction is complete, Maple Knoll residents will have the option of moving into the new housing. The current Maple Knoll building will then be demolished and replaced by 13 for-sale townhouses.

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

Does the plan only address housing?

While Lewiston’s efforts have centered on housing, officials have said better housing alone is not enough to revitalize the downtown. The city has proposed a variety of safety, health, education, beautificiation and workforce development initiatives to complement its housing efforts.

Some of those proposals include: starting a volunteer program to safely walk residents home at night, expanding day care services and after-school and summer programming for kids, performing health care outreach efforts to residents, planting 250 trees in the downtown, creating a tenants union and a network of block captains, building workforce development programs tailored to the needs of local employers, and implementing an annual World Cup style soccer tournament.

Who created the plan?

The development of the plan was funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods program. The City of Lewiston was the lead applicant for the planning grant, and Community Concepts, a social services nonprofit serving western Maine, was a co-applicant. The plan was developed as a collaboration between representatives from those groups and the 16-member Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, which was composed of representatives from a variety of organizations, professions and communities located in and around downtown Lewiston.

Organizations outside the downtown, including Bates College and the John T. Gorman Foundation, also worked on the plan, as well as consultants.

The vision for the downtown was led by data and input from community members, according to organizers, which was made possible by public meetings, pop up events and interviews with residents. Many of the organizers who worked on the plan have touted the inclusion of the residents who will be affected by the transformation as the plan’s greatest strength.

“This is the most transparent and inclusive community development plan I’ve ever been a part of,” Craig Saddlemire, manager of the downtown Raise-Op Housing Co-op and former city councilor, told the City Council last week.

How is the federal government involved?

In 2010, the Obama administration launched the Choice Neighborhoods program to revitalize distressed areas. It has continued under President Donald Trump. Since its inception, the program has awarded $900 million in grants.

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In February 2018, the program awarded Lewiston a planning grant to develop the plan the City Council approved last Tuesday. The plan will be incorporated into an implementation grant application that city officials anticipate submitting to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development next year.

Implementation grants have typically been worth about $30 million. Since 2010, they have been awarded to 30 cities and agencies across the U.S., including the city governments of Boston, Milwaukee and Flint, Michigan, as well as housing authorities in Kansas City, Tampa and Norwalk, Connecticut.

How difficult is it to get a Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant?

It’s difficult. In 2018, 32 cities applied for implementation funds. But HUD awarded just three cities the grants, which ranged in value between $25 and $30 million. In 2017, 20 cities applied and five earned grants worth a total of $144 million.

But Lewiston has beaten the odds so far. The city won a $1.3 million Choice Neighborhood planning grant over stiff competition in 2018. Out of 29 applicants, only Lewiston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles earned a $1.3 million planning grant. (Three other cities won $350,000 each.)

Isn’t Lewiston much smaller than those other cities?

If Lewiston earns an implementation grant, it would be the smallest city to do so and the only one in Maine. The current smallest city to have received an implementation grant is Norwalk, Connecticut, which is roughly two and a half times the size of Lewiston.

“I think our small size is an asset,” Parker said, noting that, for larger cities, the Choice grants only address problems in a relatively small area of the city. Not so in Lewiston, where the neighborhood poised to be revitalized encompasses much of the center of the city. “If we can be successful, the impacts are going to be felt broadly,” Parker said.

When will we find out if Lewiston is selected for the grant?

The city will submit its application next year, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to announce winners in 2021. If it wins the grant, construction will start sometime in the next few years.

Will the grant cover all the proposed work?

No. While the city has not yet determined the total cost of the project, the plan states that the city will need to partner with a private developer in order to complete the project, even with Choice implementation funds and a variety of tax breaks and credits.

The city intends to issue a request for proposals from developers before the end of the year, and once a partner is selected the city will work with it to develop specific cost figures that will be included in its grant application to the federal government. The city has not yet issued any estimates or projections on how much the project will cost.

What if Lewiston doesn’t get the grant?

The City of Lewiston and Community Concepts plan on implementing the transformation plan with or without the grant. But Parker said it might have to be scaled back without the help of federal dollars.

“There are other options of putting financing together,” Parker said. “We might not do the full breadth of what we hope to build.” She explained that, without the grant, the project might include fewer units, or perhaps more units if that would make the project more attractive to a private developer. She also added that the mix of affordable- to market-rate units might have to be changed.

Do the grants work?

There is as yet little research on how Choice grants change the lives of the people living in targeted neighborhoods over the long term or if the people living in those neighborhoods stay there long term. The Choice Neighborhood program started in 2010, and the involved construction takes many years. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has contracted with the Urban Institute to publish research on outcomes in the coming years.

The positive impact of the Choice Neighborhood program is evident to Thomas Ivers, director of the Choice Neighborhoods Initiatives at Norwalk Housing Authority in Norwalk, Connecticut. Norwalk Housing Authority received a $30 million implementation grant in 2013. Construction of new housing is still ongoing, but the benefits are already clear, Ivers said.

“It’s unbelievable how it changes people’s lives,” Ivers said. “We’ve transformed the area into a highly pedestrian-friendly, attractive green community. It’s like night and day.”

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

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.