Lewiston city staff, tenants spar over housing issues

LEWISTON — Downtown tenants Monday complained of bad living conditions, unsafe buildings, vengeful landlords and city officials who didn't respond when they were told about problems.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Shawn Simard tells the Lewiston mayor and city officials Monday about a bad experience he had with a landlord.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Gil Arsenault, Director of Planning and Code Enforcement for the city of Lewiston, listens to tenants voice their complaints about landords and the laws they have to deal with during Monday morning's meeting with the mayor in the council chambers.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard listens to residents talk about the issues they have with landlords during Monday morning's meeting with the mayor in the City Council Chambers.

City officials complained about tight budgets that make it hard to inspect downtown apartments and respond to tenant complaints, and about an economic situation that's far more complex and difficult to solve than the tenants allow.

But both sides in the City Council Chamber of City Hall agreed on one thing: more money could be spent to fix Lewiston's downtown housing.

"It's not a simple issue," Gil Arsenault, Lewiston's director of Planning Code Enforcement, said. "It's not just the landlords and it's not just the tenant. It's a litany of issues."

Members of the city's Neighborhood Housing League met with Mayor Robert Macdonald and the city's code enforcement staff for almost two hours Monday in an intense discussion that occasionally turned into a debate.

"I have seen full rehabilitation projects done in this community and a year later the building is uninhabitable," Arsenault said. "The condemned buildings, by and large, were reasonable buildings until the landlord got so jammed financially that they couldn't do what they needed to do and they walked away. The next thing you know, that building is being stripped of copper and destroyed."

Melissa Dunn, resident coordinator for the league, said the meeting was called to let tenants tell the mayor and city officials what they were seeing in their neighborhoods.

Shawn Simard, 27, said he was evicted from his Bartlett Street apartment after he complained about bed bugs and a broken stove.

Paul Nickerson, 35, complained that fire officials helping with housing inspections might not be certified housing inspectors. Ray Polley said inspectors frequently miss problems with the buildings.

"Mr. Mayor, I think you ought to send your code enforcement people to school," Polley said.

Arsenault said his staff is educated, trained and certified and they work hard. The problem is, there are three of them and they are trying to do the work of six.

"We are never going to get to everything," Arsenault said. "We just do not have the overtime budget. It means that when you call because you have no heat, we are going to deal with that call. Something has to give. We try to handle all the calls but not everything is going to make it."

Dunn pushed Arsenault and the city to agree to fine every landlord whenever a code violation is found, but Arsenault would not. He said there's little point in fining a landlord that is on the verge of bankruptcy. And sometimes, a fine could be the last step that pushes a landlord into walking away from a building, leaving tenants homeless.

Jeff Baril, the city's police and code enforcement liaison, said that was the situation last winter. A landlord, faced with a city fine and court case, said he would walk away from the building. That would have forced the eviction of all the landlord's tenants — 75 families, in the middle of the winter. The city held off on issuing a fine.

"Instead, we worked with him until the spring," Baril said. "It was more of a controlled landing instead of crash."

But Arsenault said tenants need to tell the city when there are problems. If they see code issues, they should call his office. If they see fire dangers and broken smoke alarms, they should call the Fire Department. And if they feel their landlord is retaliating, they should call an attorney.

"It does me no good if you are talking amongst ourselves," Arsenault said. "If you have an issue, you have to call. And if it doesn't get corrected you have to call again."

One woman asked if tenants could volunteer to help his office. It might be better if they'd volunteer to help their neighborhood, Arsenault said.

"We'd love to see volunteers in the downtown," Arsenault said. "Police your own neighborhood. Pick the trash up in your neighborhood. Talk to your landlord and have him give you some paint and paintbrushes and paint the porches. There is so much people can do."

staylor@sunjournal.com

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Melissa Dunn, resident coordinator for Lewiston's neighborhood housing league, reflects what tenants are dealing with while addressing mayor Robert Macdonald, foreground, and other city officials, includin Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard, left, Monday morning in city hall.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Melissa Dunn, resident coordinator for Lewiston's neighborhood housing league, reflects what tenants are dealing with while addressing mayor Robert Macdonald, foreground, and other city officials, includin Code Enforcement Officer Tom Maynard, left, Monday morning in city hall.

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Comments

Tina Ouellette's picture

Clean up Lewiston

I totally agree, Clean up the Drug addicts!! Tenants work together with there landlords to get lewiston cleaned up and back to were it used to be

Robert McQueeney's picture

Landlords get blamed in this report for what is not their fault

I see tenants complaining in this report about smoke detectors not working. When you wire one in and do nothing else, they work and they work well for a very long time. Replace them every ten years. No problems. Why are they not working? Are the tenants smoking so much in their apartments that they set them off? So what do they do so they can smoke? Many have battery back ups. They need to be replaced once a year. I can't tell you the number of times I have gone to (annually) replace the batteries to find the batteries already missing. They didn't just magically disappear. Or the detectors are removed and sitting atop the refrigerator.

Now what about the bedbugs. Does anyone think the landlord brings them in? Seriously? A little cleanliness and housecleaning (even common sense) can go a long ways towards preventing this. Every time we had them, we dealt with them, and invariably, the tenant had caused them to come in. Got a used mattress, or allowed a "friend" to live in the spare bedroom who brought them in. I can assure you that the landlord does nothing to cause bedbugs. But it's the landlords fault???

And then you have tenants who want nothing more than for their landlord to get fined? Really? You want to increase your landlords operating costs by doing this. A fine for every single violation that can be found. (I'm not excusing violations here mind you). Suppose enforcement found cluttered exit hallways. Do you really think the landlord piled all that stuff in the hallway? But you want to fine him for it? If it's okay to fine a landlord for every single violation would it also be okay to evict the tenant for any single violation on their part?

I've been a renter and I've been an apartment manager. It is not hard to be a considerate renter, but many cannot seem to manage to do so. As an apartment manager, I finally had to take to immediately removing debris from exit hallways and placing it in the dumpster without asking the tenants to take care of it. They'd always say they just placed it there "for a minute" right beneath the sign that says do not leave anything in this area for any length of time for any reason. Or they clog up the fire escape. Really? Yes really. When I cleaned these out weekly, invariably, I'd get an irate phone call with in an hour complaining I threw away their stuff. I'd ask them if that was their stuff right beneath the sign and they sheepishly say yes. Would it have been alright for me as the manager to assess them a fine or evict them (as it was written in the lease)? I never did, although I can't tell you how many times I wanted to.

I'm starting to ramble. There are good landlords out there getting hurt by all these renters laws. Ultimately this is a business for the landlords. They need to make a profit just like any other business. It is from this profit that the units and common areas are maintained and taken care of. Deny the landlord the ability to make a profit with destructive tenants protected by law and other issues, and we can all see already what is going to happen.

Tina Ouellette's picture

Robert

I agree with you at some point, Landlords do take a bad rap when it comes to buildings looking like crap, Tenants disrespect there living arrangments which make it harder for the owners to maintain. But then you have the landlords that just don't care about there tentants, Just the money that comes in. I have lived in lewiston since i was 16 years old and so much has changed down there. You have drug addicts/Prostitutions on every corner!! Thank the dear lord i was able to move out of Lewiston and into a safer town for my children. So i guess we must place laws and regulations for both Landlords and Tenants.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Just a thought

I really have great sympathy for landlords as I was one for a very short time and got out quickly. I get the frustration, I really do. It occurs to me that most of the problems occur in buildings that have absentee landlords. You seldom hear of these things occurring when the landlord lives in the building. Perhaps this would indicate that the absentee landlord is too much absent and needs to be around more. Also as an ex educator I am of the opinion that having a rule and then making exceptions to that rule is worse than having no rule at all. If you have a dog and make a rule he cannot sleep on the bed but let him do it just once you will never be able to enforce that rule again. He will find a way on the bed one way or the other and you will be endlessly punishing him for something that is really your fault. . People are no different. If you have a rule that says no pets or no guests and tenants break it I would say one warning and then out they go. If you say no trash in the hall and take it all to the dump weekly without warning or exception I think people would quickly learn to be careful what they leave there. I learned a long time ago that you cannot enforce rules and be buddies at the same time. As long as you are fair and consistent in your enforcement there should not be a problem. The problems occur when enforcement is based on who you like or is sporadic. There are also problems that naturally occur when you put a lot of people in the same building. Landlords need to look at this as the cost of doing business and not as a personal attack.

RAYMOND FRECHETTE's picture

There are so many issues

There are so many issues here, most revolving around money esp. the lack of it. As a result of Lewiston's high vacancy rate landlords simply cannot afford to maintain their buildings. Empty apartments do not contribute to cash flow needed to maintain properties. Why does this high vacancy rate exist? Because for years every empty building that could no longer be used for its intended purpose, be it an old school or car dealership or store was turned into housing subsidised by generous subsidies by HUD. This was great and took away an eye sore, but as the city's population shrunk and more units were added a high vacancy rate was created and owners in Lewiston were not able to raise rents and did not always have funds to maintain buildings. Yes, this city has had its share of landlords who either through mismanagement or greed did not meet their obligations, but there has been many good owners who just could not make it due to oversupply and difficult competition. It is hard to compete with subsidised units where the tenants of those units pay a very low rent and the owners of those units get much higher income from a combination of HUD subsidy and tenant contribution. With the oversupply of rentals in this City it should be apparent that if we are to continue the construction of additional subsidised units a condition of this addition would be that the developers of these additional units would have to demolish an equal, or better yet, more units than they replace until the vacancy rate in the city comes to 4% to 6% of the total amount of units in town. A 5% vacancy rate has always been used as the ideal situation. A logical starting point would be those deemed by the city to most in need of demolition. This is a point where the city could tell the owners to either fix up or tear down the building putting pressure on the owner to sell at a reasonable price. This would bee a sticking point of making the curreent owner and developer come to an agreed price fair to both. In counting vacancy rate all units in the city must be counted whether habitable or not. Only when we balance the available supply of units with the available number of need will the housing situation begin to improve. A simple look at comparable rental rates in Portland, Bangor, and Manchester NH will help one see why Lewiston landlords cannot afford to maintain their apartments. When this is done, the next step to affordable housing can be done and that is to attract industry to Lewiston that pays a salary that their employees can afford to pay a more substantial rent. Also, both tenant and landlord need to do their homework in selecting which apartment they chose to rent or who to rent to.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Tenants can be destructive or parents ignore the obvious

I have had tenants children destroy my outdoor concrete steps with roller blades, breaking the bullnose and stucco coverage. You tell them and they still allow them to continue. Destroyed the new carpeting on the indoor stairs, from same abuse.

Tenants children had stolen batteries out of smoke detectors for their personal devices. Guess who would of been blamed on an inspection or worse, fire?.
When the city LFD made it a law to have detectors directly wired, it was an intelligent move for all.

When you have a tenant enter the basement and bled the air out of the furnace system because it made a little noise and thought he had the knowledge and right to do so and cost hundreds to fix the damage.

When you have tenants leave opens windows in the winter and have the heat up to 80 and are forced to lock thermostats? Tenants sneaking in other boarders not paying for water use and heat, with a signed lease for only those stated, and they violate that agreement?

When you have tenants or visitors punch holes in the walls and kick out doors and rip open screens?

So I ask where is the protection for the landlord?

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Sounds good

Those all sound to me like very good reasons to evict tenants, keep their deposit and pass the word to anybody you know as to what they are like. It also sounds like a good reason to require extensive references before you rent and to ask for substantial deposits. The ones that don't have references and can't pay the deposit are probably most likely to give you this kind of grief. You could probably have rules about children and pets and charges for damages. Kids will break things. I recall breaking a window in our apartment building when I was a child and my parents paying for a new window. That should probably be one of the questions you ask in your references is whether or not tenants take responsibility for anything they damage.

RAYMOND FRECHETTE's picture

Sounds good, but the reality

Sounds good, but the reality of the situation is when you keep the deposit, the tenant goes to legal aid and with help of free lawyer sues you to get deposit back. Same when you want to evict someone. Lawyers charge a substantial hourly fee and two to three hours of lawyer time costs more than deposit money; most cases are dragged out by legal aid and the court system to allow the tenant time to find a "suitable" rent. By the time you evict someone your costs in legal fees and lost rents can easily be quite a few thousand dollars. Doing their homework and checking out tenants is something all landlords should do, but this is a difficult situation with privacy laws. While many tenants will pay for their damages, many will not and it is difficult to prove who damaged what. Being an owner is not an easy thing. I was one for many years and enjoyed it, and have recently become one again. I always did my homework, but find that it is harder now to check on tenants than it was 15 or 16 years ago when I left the business. Not too many people can afford to leave an apartment empty until the right tenant comes along. Mortgage payments have to be met and bills paid.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Trust me

I have a typed agreement that covers all that and more now. I also remodeled and put in all new appliances and washer/dryer for each. Since then I also require 3 months security rent with the third being collected within 6 months on the agreement or increased by 25 a month until paid. Also any other unauthorized tenants are an automatic $30 increase on rents without prior notice of new person. Where a new lease is signed in any changes and tenants are responsible for all damages to be repaired within 2 weeks. One vehicle per garage and one in driveway only, no other vehicles or boats etc allowed.

I want to be fair yet I want them to respect my place since I provide them with utmost services and attention when needed. I keep an open door for issues and resolve is normally quick.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Both sides

It's good that both sides of this issue are being aired. It is a problem that has been years in the making and it won't be solved overnight but talking about it is a good place to start. There is a lot of blame to go around. If the city is not doing code inspections then they are remiss. There is a reason we have those codes and I think we are seeing it first hand. If the city sees violations and ignores them I would think they would liable to be sued. If landlords are walking away from their responsibilities then they have no reason to complain if tenants don't pay their rent. Probably things could be worked out if both sides made a good faith effort. If tenants trash the property, don't pay the rent, disturb their neighbors, violate the landlord's rules and break the law then they should expect to be evicted. It's sort of like traffic laws. So long as everybody obeys them all is well. One person decides to do their own thing and a chain reaction occurs that hurts a whole bunch of people. Keep up the talking and I suspect you will make things better in the end.

Bob Wright's picture

How many of these people that

How many of these people that are complaining are at least 60 to 90 days behind on their rents. Most landlords do not creat squalor and eventually landlords just get overwhelmed.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Why do you always look at the

Why do you always look at the negative aspect? Lets reverse that...how many pay their rents on time and the landlord pays his bills late so that the tenant suffers? It goes both ways....it is a good start to air ALL sides of the situation as long as people put their biases aside and participate honestly.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Negativity is a repubs/teabaggers way of life

Negative people can find something wrong in any situation. They are expert complainers, cynics, tyrants, worriers and/or victims. Unfortunately, negative people may not be concerned with the effect their behavior has on others; they simply want to get rid of their own uncomfortable feelings in the fastest way possible.

Some people seem to thrive on making themselves or others miserable. Nothing you do or say can change that fact. After employing various productive communication strategies with a person like this and finding that nothing seems to work, ending conversations might be the best thing you can do with persons like him.

RAYMOND FRECHETTE's picture

Where do "repubs & tea

Where do "repubs & tea baggers" come out of this? Sounds like a narrow minded comment.

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