The horrific downtown fires have once again put the spotlight on the housing situation in downtown Lewiston. As an attorney who has represented tenants in Lewiston for 19 years, I am very concerned about both the health and safety of Lewiston's housing stock and the rights of low income tenants in this community. There is a lot of misinformation, myths and confusion surrounding those issues.
Fact: The housing stock in downtown Lewiston is abysmal. All anyone has to do is take a walk around the neighborhood that burned. It is difficult to tell the condemned buildings from the occupied ones.
The amount of condemned buildings is actually shocking. That did not happen overnight. You do not see such wreckage in Bangor, or Biddeford, or Augusta, Auburn or Portland. Those municipalities also have concentrations of low income folks, refugees, bad landlords and bad tenants.
The same laws govern landlord-tenant relations in Lewiston as in every other city in Maine.
To borrow a popular phrase, why is this "happening here?"
I will venture a guess: It is because municipal health and safety codes are not being enforced, or they are being enforced against the wrong people.
Code enforcement should not consist primarily of cajoling low income people to move from one substandard apartment to another and then letting the vacant buildings rot.
It should consist of identifying deficient buildings and encouraging the property owner (and that includes banks that have foreclosed) to make necessary repairs, or to relocate the tenants to safe housing at the property owner's expense.
If it is clear that a particular tenant caused the safety violation, that individual can and should be evicted by court action.
Fact: In most cases, if a tenant becomes more than seven days behind in rent, he or she may be served with a notice that gives the tenant seven days to get the back rent paid. If the tenant fails to pay, the landlord may summons the tenant to eviction court.
The eviction court is in session at least two times per month. To illustrate, this month, eviction court was held on May 8 and will be again on May 22. If a tenant in Lewiston did not pay his rent by May 7, a landlord who wanted to could have the tenant in court on May 22. If the landlord won the case, the tenant would be forced to move by May 31. There is no other legal proceeding I am aware of where a court case be commenced and closed in less than a month.
Because people in this nation are governed by the rule of law, tenants are entitled to present a defense at their eviction hearing. In cases where the issue is non-payment of rent — and that is the issue in most of them — the tenant can raise as a defense substandard housing conditions. The tenant must convince the court that they should not have to pay the amount of rent due because the landlord has failed to take care of the apartment.
If the landlord can produce evidence that the tenant caused the problems in the apartment, or that the tenant never told the landlord of the problem, the tenant will lose and have to move.
In addition, destructive or abusive tenants can also be removed under specific emergency provisions or the landlord-tenant laws, in much the same way harassment papers can be taken out on disruptive people.
Maine landlord-tenant law is more friendly toward landlords than many other states. In short, it is not that the landlord-tenant laws encourage urban blight.
The housing problems in the downtown area are serious. I know, I have been in almost every one of the buildings that burned. The present housing policy being pursued by the city is not working. The people who live downtown are just that, people with hopes and dreams, just like the rest of us. They deserve respect and compassion, not scorn.
I wonder if the city had invested the same amount of resources in improving the housing stock as it did in putting out the fires and removing the debris, would there be the predicament there is now?
Maybe we can learn from our mistakes.
Matthew C. Dyer is a staff attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance Inc. in Lewiston. He lives in Turner.