A man who declined to give his name sits on the stoop at this home on Horton Street in Lewiston. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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

While one department in the city of Lewiston was taking landlords to court to get them to improve the conditions of their buildings, another city department gave some of the same landlords nearly $1 million in taxpayer money over five years to continue housing tenants.

About a year ago, the city changed course and began requiring inspections of apartments before approving rental assistance to prevent tax money from supporting deteriorating housing. There’s been a corresponding drop in payments to landlords whose properties historically were in disrepair.

The Bangor Daily News compiled all the lawsuits Lewiston filed against landlords over the past 10 years to force them to fix their properties. It then compared the defendants in those cases with the people and companies who received general assistance from the city’s social services department to pay for their tenants’ rent over the last five fiscal years.

General assistance is emergency aid funded with state and city dollars and is often the only thing preventing people from becoming homeless. But the examination of public records shows, for the first time, how much of it went to the very landlords the city had or would sue for operating substandard housing.

One landlord, Debra Sullivan and her associated companies — that she manages with boyfriend Joe Dunne — drew in half a million dollars in general assistance since July 2014. Since 2013, the city has initiated lawsuits against 22 Sullivan-affiliated properties.

[Surveying his shrinking empire, Lewiston’s most notorious landlord questions his tenants’ fate]

Cities usually reserve these lawsuits for the most severe cases where owners continue to ignore problems, despite repeated requests to fix them.

The city has changed its housing policies as part of a larger effort to improve its housing quality. About a year ago, Lewiston started an inspection program for general assistance-backed apartments to specifically curb the flow of tax dollars to shoddy housing.

At the time, the city’s general assistance ordinance already forbid the city from paying rent to landlords whose apartments were known to be in violation of building, fire or property maintenance codes. But those administering general assistance had limited means to know which buildings were in violation.

“You’re putting people in harm’s way and paying for it,” Jay Allen, a local landlord, told the Lewiston City Council in September 2018.

Now, the required inspections allow general assistance administrators to know if there’s a problem.

Since the inspection program started last year, the amount of general assistance flowing to landlords and companies that were sued over their substandard housing has declined.

Landlords also said they are less likely now to take in tenants on general assistance, choosing to reject the money rather than fix up their properties.

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It’s not possible to say whether specific deteriorating apartments whose buildings were the subject of legal action were funded with general assistance. The names of tenants receiving the aid, and therefore the addresses of the apartments they are renting, are confidential. But the names of owners whose tenants received general assistance are public.

Since 2014, a total of 16 companies and individuals whom Lewiston sued over poor living conditions received a combined total of $964,600 in general assistance.

Here are some specifics:

— A total of four of Sullivan’s companies (Cestio LLC, Palatine LLC, Solis Corp. and Sultan Corp.), plus her as an individual, collected about $547,000 in general assistance over the last five fiscal years. Altogether, 22 of her properties were the subject of city lawsuits, mostly in 2018.

— ME 3 Equity Investments LLC, Northern Equity Investments LLC and Arena Equity Investments LLC, controlled by Edward Riekstins, received a combined total of about $42,000 in general assistance to cover tenants’ rent. Nine Lewiston properties owned by the companies were the subject of lawsuits since 2014.

— Investment Properties LLC, controlled by Rick Lockwood, got about $29,000 in general assistance. Six of the company’s properties in Lewiston were the subject of lawsuits since 2015.

The city has seen a dramatic drop in payouts of general assistance for rent: 68 percent less last year than the year before.

[iframe url=”https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vR2tZcch3kgHjFvGbO8egLf2rcwHcGjlcU0FfruPUWCIkiHHv2ApaY8beAJWjUhrjPxihjSICPYmMhB/pubchart?oid=171434745&format=interactive” width=”600″ height=”450″]

Most general assistance payments to landlords are small. Eighty percent of the landlords getting the assistance to cover their tenants’ rent received less than $10,000 across all five fiscal years. More specifically, 175 out of 219 landlords got a combined total of about $456,000.

The 10 biggest receivers, the top 5 percent, meanwhile, got a combined total of $1.45 million in general assistance over that time.

The decline can largely be attributed to them. While they received a combined total of $365,000 in 2014-2015, they got $83,000 in 2018-2019. That’s a decrease of 77 percent.

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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.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...