LEWISTON — City officials could do more to ensure that downtown apartment buildings are up to code, a tenants' advocacy group says.
Members of the Visible Community's Neighborhood Housing League pushed city councilors Tuesday night to hire two additional code enforcement officers devoted to housing issues.
Much of Lewiston's downtown housing stock was built before 1950, said Housing League representative Shanna Rogers.
"The deferred maintenance on much, though not all, of this housing stock has put many residents at risk for lead poisoning, electrical fire and other risks," Rogers said. "Our current staffing levels in our code enforcement department are not high enough to deal with the issues our housing stock presents."
Rogers and the league volunteers also presented a video about the housing group and its efforts. The video is available online at YouTube and at the Visible Community's website, www.visiblecommunity.org.
Rogers said the group is not focusing on individual landlords but on downtown housing as a whole.
"There are many circumstances that have led to the current situation and it would be an oversimplification to blame this condition on any one party," Rogers said.
Councilors said they appreciated the group's efforts and looked forward to working with members in the future, but councilors doubted the city would be adding any new employees this year.
"We have the toughest year ever to consider adding staff, and I don't think it's going to happen," Councilor Renee Bernier said. "So, I guess, in that case, with the Visible Community and the Neighborhood League, you are in a great place to start working with residents on education."
She encouraged the group to keep working with residents, getting them to notify city staff when they see problems.
Code Enforcement Director Gil Arsenault said his department has two employees focusing on a wide array of code enforcement issues. With their other responsibilities, Arsenault said they are able to devote about one full-time employee's worth of work to downtown housing issues.
"When I started working with the city back in 1984, we had three full-time inspectors who did nothing but housing," Arsenault said. "Obviously, with three full-time people, you can get a lot of work done."
Arsenault said his department is not able to go out looking for problems in downtown buildings.
"We are not proactive; we are reactive," he said. "When there are issues of live wires or dangerous porches, we need to hear about it before we can do anything."
While staffing would help his department, Arsenault said he understood that it might not be something councilors could do.
"We understand that the more we spend on the city budget, the more we have to raise taxes," Arsenault said. "Which means that the landlords that are already struggling in the downtown have to pay more. They have to make up that difference, which means higher rents."
Fire Chief Paul LeClair said his department tries to inspect one-quarter of all downtown apartments each year for fire safety issues. They notify Arsenault and his staff if they find code issues, he said.
Mayor Larry Gilbert suggested training firefighters and police officers to recognize code enforcement issues.
"That might be a way to get what you we need without hiring more people," he said.