Old schools, a mill, even former orphanage eyed for new subsidized housing in Lewiston-Auburn

Some of the windows are boarded up. The red concrete steps are broken and chipped. Even the “Fallout shelter” sign in the basement looks a little rough.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Rick Whiting, the executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, stands in the old Webster School auditorium. Whiting attended junior high at the school.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The three-story Webster School was built in 1915-1916 in Auburn.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Rick Whiting, the executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, stands in the old Webster School auditorium. Whiting attended junior high at the school.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

A former classroom will be converted into a three-room apartment.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The school's auditorium will remain when the building is converted to subsidized housing.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Inside the hallways of the Webster School.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The Webster Grammar School was built in 1915-1916 in Auburn.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Water damage has caused the paint to peel inside the Webster School.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Rick Whiting, the executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, opens the front door to the old Webster School. Whiting attended junior high at the school.

Vincent Square
File Photo

Anita Fournier of Auburn tours the kitchen area of the new Vincent Square housing complex in Auburn during an open house on last December. The project is the newly renovated Vincent Bottling Co. building with 17 units for seniors.

Vincent Square
File Photo

The Vincent Square senior housing complex held an open house last December. The 17-unit complex is the newly renovated Vincent Bottling Co. building in Auburn.

No matter. When Rick Whiting sees Auburn’s former Webster School, he sees potential.

Webster closed down four years ago. A water leak and time have taken some toll on the nearly 100-year-old, three-story brick building in a tight, busy neighborhood. On the inside, carpet is bumpy from warped wood floors underneath and green lockers hang open, at attention.

Whiting, executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, hopes to buy Webster from the city at the end of summer for $350,000 and start work this fall creating 28 apartments for low-income residents. Families will live in classrooms and in a gym.

Webster is one of five subsidized housing projects in various stages around the Twin Cities, which finds itself in the midst of a subsidized housing bubble. Two others opened earlier this year.

Officials say it’s part coincidence — at least two projects were conceived five years ago. Part of the renovation push is due to the Legislature — a historic tax credit passed into law has heated up interest in turning old properties into housing. Part is demand — some 8,000 families here can’t comfortably afford the average two-bedroom rent, according to the state.

And part is the area’s potential. Developers want in.

“The same sort of concentration that’s happening in Lewiston now happened in Portland maybe 10 years ago,” said Dale McCormick, director of the Maine State Housing Authority.

Already in the pipeline:

• Blake Street Apartments in Lewiston, 10 units for the former homeless, families living in shelters or in cars, breaks ground next month on a vacant lot;

• Franklin School apartments in Auburn, six units for the former homeless and disabled, starts renovation this fall;

• Webster, with a mix of one, two and three-bedrooms, starts renovation this fall;

• Intown Manor in Lewiston, 32 units of senior housing in the former assisted living facility and former orphanage, could start renovation in 2011;

• The Lofts at Bates Mill, at 52 units, the only project mixing market rate and low-income housing, could also start renovation in 2011.

Opened earlier this year:

• Vincent Square in Auburn, 17 senior housing units, in January; and

• Birch Hill Elderly Housing in Lewiston, 20 units, in April.

Saving the old, making new

Combined, the projects would add 147 subsidized housing units to L-A, on top of roughly 2,900 already here. Most of the new development counts as below-market affordable housing, available at a flat, low rate to those who earn under a certain amount. (The alternative, Section 8 housing projects or vouchers, charge 30 percent of a renter’s income.)

“We think we’ll easily fill them,” said Don Kniseley, executive director at Tedford Housing in Brunswick, behind the two former homeless projects.

The Lewiston effort is five years old, the Auburn one three-and-a-half. He’d hoped to have both open by now, but various delays slowed the works.

Kniseley said someone at the city encouraged him to consider the old Franklin School, which closed in November 2005.

“It’s pretty run down and sad looking,” he said. “It’s a little expensive because we have to do asbestos and lead paint abatement and those kind of things, but we think it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful project and a real compliment to that neighborhood.”

At Webster, Whiting said he’ll do as much as possible to keep the character and original appearance, leaving some lockers and blackboards. It needs new windows, sound-proofing, insulation, an elevator. A Headstart program will use one of the two gyms and the restored auditorium.

“This was a state-of-the-art building in 1916,” he said.

Right now, Whiting’s trying to get Webster on the National Register of Historic Places, a step toward state and federal tax credits that could cover almost half the project.

Mike D. Johnson at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission said that since January 2008, when the state expanded its historic tax credits, more than $100 million worth of projects have applied.

“We’ve seen a lot of activity, particularly with mill buildings and schools,” said Johnson, a historic preservationist.

When it’s used to create affordable housing, the state credit is 30 percent, paired with a federal credit of 20 percent — but the building has to be on the historic register, he said.

“That’s definitely an important piece of our project; our project wouldn’t be feasible without it,” said Nathan Szanton of Maine Workforce Housing, the developer behind the Bates Mill proposal.

He’s looking to get the mill on the historic register.

Also influencing his timing, Szanton said: the four-year-old Brookings Institution report that drew attention to preserving historic structures.

“In order for Maine to do well economically, we need to invest in and bring out places that make us special, unique,” he said. “Turning them from a liability into an asset.”

The whys, why now

Dan Brennan, MSHA director of development, said the pace of new subsidized housing statewide has held steady. The federal government gives Maine between $2.5 million and $3 million each year in low-income housing tax credits, making way for 150 to 200 units.

Areas are studied for need and saturation before new projects get a green light.

"Developers come to us with their projects and compete,” Brennan said, getting points for projects in downtown spaces, something that’s helped Lewiston.

In the past, developers promised to keep new units affordable for so many decades, scoring more points the longer they pledged, according to Peter Merrill, MSHA’s communications and planning director. Six years ago, the requirement became a flat 90 years.

Twin Cities project costs range from $166,000 to $243,000 per unit, including costs like escrow for maintenance.

“When I first got here, the debate we used to have, for instance, (was) you could build one apartment unit in Portland or two houses in Cornish, so what is the best public policy?” Merrill said.

Subsidized housing can have the side effect of keeping local private rents down, Merrill said, but that’s not the goal.

With roughly half of the people living in subsidized housing being elderly or disabled, “society has to have just a modicum of compassion for people who are unable to take care of themselves,” Merrill said.

It’s housing for those who need help, McCormick said, along with making good economic development sense.

“Lack of housing where jobs are stresses the roads, stresses the family, stresses the budget, stresses the city services,” she said.

There's also the issue of eyesore.

“Having a big empty building in the middle of a neighborhood, it’s a real negative impact on people,” said Whiting. It attracts vandals, graffiti.

In the late 1960s, Whiting attended the seventh, eighth and ninth grades in the old Webster School, the school he's looking to revitalize now.

“My sister was my teacher (one year), which was horrifying,” he said, walking its old halls in early June. “She couldn’t give me an A.”

He remembers passing instead with a B-plus.


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 's picture

Glad to see

Mac you have a narrow minded apathetic strain for htiumanity glad to see that you use the justification to put it to use. Glad to see Jo put it to use that we do not need another shelter, guess that means goodbye to homeless shelters, abused women shelters, and every other shelter simply because it is a welfare excuse. Pardon me Mac but most of the violence comes from white class kids trying to make it more and more a ghetto. There are Somalis who work harder then anyone else here but it is the common strain of racism which gets in the way. Also, Jo we vote businesses out and use the Somali's as an example when we have the Russians moving into Portland heading up little Mafioso business here and there. Of, course since they are white and Russian it does not matter, then we have the Jamaicans, and the Latin Kings slowly moving in. Which passes by unmentioned because they are not Muslim nor are they Somali. Not to mention the other gangs and outfit influences moving in slowly. Was not that long ago that I walked by a club packed with Neo-Nazi skinheads who were all W-H-I-T-E!

 's picture

Why are they making such a

Why are they making such a success story of furthering the Ghettofication of L/A? As for the money at stake for slum lords, the government pays even bigger money to those who offer housing to Somalis. Can't we put a stop to this before the few legitimate property owners see further market devaluation?!

 's picture

Also wondering aloud

Could it be because so many of the current vacancies are in terribly run down buildings? And many of the apartments provide sub-standard housing?


Are any of these projects

Are any of these projects contemplated to be built with private financing, or are they only to be built with taxpayers picking up the tab via subsidies? In an area with an overabundance of VACANT apartments surely these developers cannot seriously expect to get government assistance of any type, or do they? A quick look at the classifieds in today's or any edition of the Sun Journal should convince anyone that there is no need for additional housing in the twin cities. Maybe tenants do need help in paying their rent, but that is not a reason to create more housing. The local governments should be looking at ways to help these tenants find ways to afford their housing either by getting more rental assistance for them or by making the twin cities more attractive to prospective employers bringing in well paying employment. To create new subsidised apartments that the owners of the current housing stock cannot possibly compete with is a waste of taxpayer monies and creates a future problem for the cities. When owners cannot rent their units they cannot generate enough funds to maintain them and eventually walk away from them. We are all then left holding the proverbial bag as these deserted buildings become eyesores, magnets for derelicts, and fire hazards. No one can afford to build or convert these units without subsidies and reent them in the $500 TO $900 per month range; it is physically impossible to do. The Sun Journal should send out a reporter to City Hall in both Lewisotn and Auburn and ask them how these projects are to be funded, what impact these projects will have on existing housing and on the tax base of the Cities.

 's picture

even with abatement-i would

even with abatement-i would think that there still would be traces there no?


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