Old housing, poverty plague toughest area

We were surprised to see a headline in another newspaper last week announcing that the three recent fires here "unveil (a) crisis in Lewiston's housing stock."

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

This red and white symbol designating a condemned building on 91 Pine Street is just one of many such buildings throughout Lewiston.

Actually, the fires didn't unveil anything that people living here didn't already know: Much of the housing stock in Lewiston's core is old, poorly maintained and tightly packed.

We have been writing about the problem for well over a decade and the city's administration has been working on it even longer.

The steep economic downturn and housing crisis have, however, hastened a process of decay that has been under way for decades.

It is important to understand that a match in the hand of a malicious 12-year-old is impossible for anyone to predict or prevent.

It's easy to blame parents, but we have seen arson cases in all types of towns and in rural areas. It is also easy to see how a big fire can ignite an idea in a similarly inclined child or adult.

So, we hope that three fires in seven days is just a bizarre and unlikely twist.

But there is no doubt that a neighborhood with condemned or vacant buildings is at particular risk, and the number of those at-risk buildings jumped from 53 last April to 86 this year, and that's even after the demolition of 13 buildings since.

Most of those buildings can be found clustered in a crescent surrounding Kennedy Park.

Some people say landlords are to blame. Landlords will say it's bad tenants who ruin good buildings.

In reality, a rental market is a complex system. Landlords need to attract responsible tenants willing to pay enough money to cover the building's expenses, including heat, maintenance and return on investment.

In a troubled rental market, there are dozens of ways those necessary relationships can break down.

Landlords can overpay for a property, leaving themselves without enough return to properly maintain a building.

Good tenants move out and, as the building declines, it becomes increasingly difficult to attract responsible tenants.

That can begin a cycle of decline that drives down the value of the investment property until it becomes hopeless to recover.

The company owning the building where the first Lewiston fire started, Watkins Property Management, had been dissolved, according to records kept by the Maine Secretary of State.

Even a good landlord who is trying hard can be done in by a neighborhood that is gradually going to ruin. As a block becomes crime-ridden and buildings fall into disrepair, responsible, employed tenants leave for safer environments. They are often replaced by less-responsible tenants and gradually declining rents.

When that happens over several blocks, a once-proud neighborhood can quickly go into decline.

Ultimately, landlords cannot maintain their buildings or make their monthly mortgage payments and either surrender the building to a bank or simply walk away.

Those buildings can be sold at low cost to landlords who will fix them up and seek better tenants. But broken-down buildings are too often sold to landlords who make no improvements and accept irresponsible tenants.

Too often those buildings go from bad to worse, or from foreclosure to condemnation.

There are some things a city and other organizations can do to stop buildings and neighborhoods from sliding into decline, like better code enforcement and making programs available to rehab bad housing.

One is strict code enforcement. Lewiston has tried hard over the years, but it has also lost code-enforcement personnel.

The final stage is condemnation, and Lewiston has had an aggressive program of turning dangerous housing into empty lots.

Some of those lots have been turned into new housing, either for low-income people or the elderly, over the past decade.

A variety of community organizations are working to improve the quality of life in Lewiston's downtown and, by extension, its housing stock.

An improving economy will help, but it will be a long process.


The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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Robert McQueeney's picture

Poverty is not the reason

It's easy to blame poverty, but poverty does no damage to buildings. Abuse and time wearing on building materials do the damage. Roof shingles wear out in the sun and weather. It has nothing to do with poverty.

Doors getting kicked in, breaking the frames has nothing to do with poverty. It has to do with the person losing their keys or forgetting where they put them, and instead of asking the landlord to come unlock the door, or hiring a locksmith, they kick in the door, causing far more damage than a locksmith visit. It's a poor choice by the tenant, not poverty that caused the door to be damaged. And then for the tenant to claim the landlord is not maintaining the building..... this is damage and vandalism repair, not maintenance. The same applies to windows, forced open with the locks breaking out and splitting the rails of the windows.

Barbeques being used to close to a building with vinyl siding cause it to melt off. Again a poor choice, not poverty. If one was impoverished they would not have a grill, they would use the stove provided in the unit they are renting.

All this eats into the operating budget of any landlord, and eventually, all these poor decisions by tenants eat up all the funds that were once set aside for regular maintenance, such a painting to protect from the weather, as well as money set aside for re-roofing.

Let's not forget the piles of debris the tenants place in hallways and common areas (illegally). Again, a bad choice. they block fire egress and it's always the landlord who allows such areas to fill up with debris, it's never the responsibility of the person actually placing the debris there. So the landlord is forced to spend money on cleaning up after his tenants.

Michael Schaedler's picture

Don't you think a major part

Don't you think a major part of failing apartment buildings are the laws that deal with tenants?
If you go to Walmart and steal a pencil you are charged with theft and have to deal with the consequences.
If you trash an apartment you have to be taken through the process of being sued and perhaps through the lengthy expensive process of eviction.
Where is the common sense?
It is lost in Augusta, when the laws keep the owner of the property from protecting their investment in their saleable item, the rental unit, in a quick affordable fashion as anyone selling a pencil would have.
Just something to ponder.


The laws were put into place to protect tenants from landlords who were to quick to evict someone for random reasons. When it comes to the pencil, Walmart has no claim on it once it has been sold, however, with an apartment tenant and landlord enter into an agreement. The landlord is responsible for upkeep of the property and the tenant is required to pay rent. If the landlord refuses to make repairs to save money and then a tenant files complaints against him, removing those laws makes it all to easy for the landlord to remove the tenant and get someone into the unit who is more concerned with having housing than fighting the system. There does need to be a better balance of the laws and until it is reached we are left with the system that the bad landlords created in the 70s and 80s


Urban blight

For all the moral prognostications about sin and laziness being the cause of urban blight, the real cause lies in economic decline. What we have in Lewiston is the end result of the crash of 2008. People all over Maine,especially rural Maine, lost their jobs and their homes. People who bought in-town properties were under water on their mortgages and stopped the upkeep on their properties or were in foreclosure and their tenants having lost their jobs or lost welfare and unemployment benefits or health insurance stopped paying the rent aggravating the situation. People from rural areas have been flooding the city coming here with not much more than hopes and dreams. They were not aware that the streets are not paved with gold and that prosperity, while it may come, can take a long time sometimes more than one generation. Nevertheless, many people who have come here with nothing, in the past, have often found the helping hand or job they needed and moved on to a better life. Today, the cities need help. Unless the state restores revenue sharing, I think Lewiston will be the first of many Maine cities living with urban blight.

Carl Kimball's picture


In the early 80's Lewiston chased one landlord not just out of the city, but out of the state. At that time i lived in one of his buildings on Bate St. across from Knapp Shoe. Back then the city and code enforcement seem to have it together, but today the togetherness is lacking. I've used the code enforcement before here in the past five years and the best advice i got was, "if you feel uncomfortable here, move". We had a porch roof buckling in from the weight of ice & snow, we needed to use that porch to get to and from our apartment, we had water coming in through the window frames and ceilings when it rained, we lived on the second floor with only one exit from our apartment, (we were told to jump out the window if need be, good drop on to a tarred parking lot), the code enforcerment officer said that it was okay, even motels & hotels have one exit from the rooms, but he didn't mention that their is a law in Maine saying these kinds of apartments or rooms need a sprinkler system if it is second floor or higher and has only one exit. It's not easy being a landlord, because your main job is to keep your tenants and building safe, but don't think your going to get rich quick. Code enforcement needs to step up and do their jobs, instead of just collecting a pay check. And the law needs to stop candy-coating the punishments of the drug dealers & users and other criminals that our police put their lifes on the line to get off our streets. It's a slap in the face to the police to see these people walk or just get a slap on the hand, some times it get's discouraging...just my pinion and not that of this paper...

MARK GRAVEL's picture

My guess is that many

My guess is that many Lewiston buildings are so old that very few meet present day building and safety codes.

Perhaps the city should throw all tenants in the street and shutter the buildings until they are brought up to code.

Then the buildings can reopen with much higher rents to cover the cost of code enforcement. All of which the Maine economy cannot support.

I think that I’m with the majority and recommend that you move if you feel unsafe.

Steve  Dosh's picture

Old housing, poverty plague toughest areas

Rex, 13.05.07 20:00
Old housing , poverty plague the toughest areas everywhere in these very US of A . Just look at Chicago . Almost all violent crime centers around a ten block area of Cook County and it revolves around drugs , alcohol , and the sex trade . SE Washington DC and Anacostia used to be the same way in 1985 . A murder every single day of the year under Mayor Marion Barry . Cocaine and sex clubs , despair , drugs and destitution
We can all remember when when Loystone [ sic. ] boasted more bars per block than any other small city in America . There's something to be proud of , huh ? 1 9 7 4
When things aren't being burnt down for the insurance money , they are just burnt down for thrills , it seems . One can't point to the homeless in your recent cases , correct ? They weren't buring refuse to keep warm or any thing
No , one can not blame parents for their mis - guided kid's actions either . We have arsonists out here in Hawai'i , too. It's some sort of ' cheap thrill ' sickness . Some people like to see the firemen and police racing to a scene ( until they are caught )
It's a community malaise . If kids are afraid to report to a trusted adult that their friend plays too much with matches , where does it start and when will it ever end ?
The same can be said for many other deviant behavior patterns and chemical dependency personality disorders , adults
hth ? /s, Steve


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