‘Awful feeling’

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LEWISTON – While temperatures outside hovered around zero, Virginia Rivas opened her oven door and turned up the heat.

Her four children – boys ages 4 to 12 – tried huddling under the covers of their beds, she said. Then, they dressed in the kitchen where the oven door still hung open.

“Cold and hungry is the worst,” she said. “My children are never hungry. But the cold. That’s an awful feeling.”

They need not have been cold, though.

A city code aimed at protecting tenants throughout Lewiston prohibits landlords from letting their rental apartments fall below 66 degrees, no matter how cold it gets outside.

On Wednesday, just hours after Rivas called the city, Lewiston Codes Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard inspected the home. A manager of Rivas’ building, at 50 Knox St., also arrived.

They took temperature readings, checked out the smoke alarm that kept going off and fussed over the thermostat and baseboard heaters in her first-floor apartment.

By the time they left, the coolest spots had risen to 67 and 68 degrees. The kitchen recorded a temperature of 75.

“We’ve been very lucky this winter,” said Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s director of Planning & Code Enforcement.

Few mornings have been as cold as Wednesday. And calls for help, reporting low temperatures in apartments, have been infrequent.

Sometimes landlords are already working to fix troubles in cold homes, Arsenault said. For the most part, they want to be in compliance, he said.

In Rivas’ case, something fell apart.

The mother, who said she is suffering a form of cancer and collects disability, said she tried calling her building managers, Landmark REM, for two-and-a-half to three weeks, looking for help against the cold.

However, the company said Wednesday it had received no such calls from Rivas, who has an outstanding balance on her rent.

“We really respond quickly to that type of thing,” said Paul LaPointe, a manager with Landmark REM. “We do everything we can for folks.”

He said her unpaid rent had nothing to do with the cold in her home.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Sometimes people struggle.”

Arsenault described LaPointe as an exceptional manager. “I think he cares about people,” he said.

Arsenault also believes that some people are getting cold for no reason, he said.

If people are not receiving enough heat in their home, Arsenault suggests that they first try to talk with their landlord.

Often, that’s all it takes.

If that doesn’t work, though, people may call the city for help.

In most cases, officials will respond in a matter of hours.

State help may also be available.

Besides heating oil assistance, the Maine Legislature has passed a law allowing tenants in some cases to divert some of their rent money to purchasing fuel oil or other needed supplies, Arsenault said.

In some cases, landlords have let their rentals’ oil tanks run dry, he said. In others, the problem is merely neglect.

Tenants need to be insistent if they are not getting the heat they need.

“Be polite, but be assertive,” he said. Call and follow up. “Don’t let them forget about you.”

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