LEWISTON — On one hand, Norm Meservier was able to get a nice house for a steal back in 1991: $18,000, plus $2,000 to fix the roof.
“For $20,000, I got a house — not an apartment — clean and fixed up,” he said. “I don’t have upstairs neighbors. I don’t have downstairs neighbors. It’s my house.”
On the other hand, he’s never gotten used to the fear that he could lose it all in a flash.
He owns the structure at 12 Locust St. but not the land it sits on. He pays $190 in rent each month to the Franklin Property Trust for the land, in a month-to-month lease.
“You do worry about what would happen if they changed their minds,” he said, referring to the trust. “They make the rules. You really have no say, so you pay your rent and hope for the best.”
Meservier is one of 89 Lewiston homeowners who will get a chance later this year to become Lewiston landowners.
It’s all thanks to an agreement between the trust and the city to subdivide eight lots into smaller parcels.
The trust owns hundreds of acres around Lewiston and has since the mid-1800s, renting the land to homeowners. The trust had its roots in the mills and power companies that helped develop Lewiston into the early 1900s. Many of the city’s parks and schools are on trust-owned land.
Like Meservier, many of the current residents have spent their lives on Franklin Property Trust-owned lots, built homes there and raised families there.
“It was a good place to raise a family,” said 73-year-old Armand Meservier, Normand’s father and next-door neighbor. “We were all in the same boat. We were all poor, all Franco and we all worked together.”
The homes are small and close together, but most are neatly kept. Their owners kept them in fine repair, passing them on to their children, until the recession hit in 2008. That’s when the local banks and credit unions stopped approving loans on those homes.
“Franklin sent out a letter at that point in time saying from this time forward, any loan you make on a Franklin property should be considered unsecured,” said Mark Samson, executive vice president of lending at Lewiston’s Rainbow Federal Credit Union. He worked in a similar position at Mechanics Savings Bank at the time.
Unsecured loans meant the banks had no incentive to loan money in those areas.
“Up to that point, we could resell if we had a problem,” Samson said. “We had some security. But after that, we stopped. And I believe that everybody at that time stopped.”
Without financing, most of the homeowners had to stop making repairs.
Meservier works two jobs, days at a foundry and nights in a supermarket deli. He can only fix what he can save up for.
“I need to fix my chimney — I know that,” he said. “You can see cracks of light through some parts of it. That’s what I’m saving up for now.”
For Jacqueline Smith and others, the split land-home ownership has kept them in place. If they’d walked away, they would have lost all of the savings they’d put into those structures. They couldn’t sell, either: If they couldn’t finance repairs, how could a potential buyer finance the purchase?
“Anything you wanted to do, you had to do out of pocket — and you can’t sell,” she said. “I have a nice house, but everything I’ve done I’ve had to do out of pocket.”
Smith, 66, lives in the house her parents owned. She bought out her sister’s share in 1998, but she’s lived there since 1947.
The house needs repairs, including new siding.
“But we are in a bracket,” she said. “We make too much money to qualify for city help, but we don’t have enough to do the actual work.”
Some did walk away, and the cloudy titles kept the structures in place. At least 16 of the houses, spread around the downtown, have deteriorated to the point that they’ve landed on the city’s demolition list.
Franklin doesn’t own the structures and didn’t want to pay to tear them down. The city didn’t want to spend taxpayer money to fix up Franklin Trust land.
That’s what the current deal with the city is meant to solve, said Lincoln Jeffers, director of Lewiston’s Economic and Community Development Department.
The trust can subdivide the eight downtown lots, a total of 51 acres, valued by the city at $958,310. The city and the trust will split the cost of demolishing the 16 condemned properties.
“We have negotiated back and forth for years,” Jeffers said. “Franklin finally came to the conclusion that it was time to subdivide this land and let the people purchase the properties.”
Franklin Trust representatives, Zack and Stanley Sclar, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Based on letters sent to Franklin tenants, they’ll have an opportunity to buy the land under and around their buildings from the trust. A land appraiser hired by the trust is looking at the properties and is expected to report the values in the spring.
Samson thinks it could be a huge benefit for the area. Once the tenants own their homes and the land, the banks can start making loans again.
“It’s just a regular mortgage,” Samson said. “It’s just a matter of credit quality. And I think that will open those properties to redevelopment, clean up that blight that’s there and really help the people that have hung on all this time to get their properties back in shape.”
For the tenants, it’s a chance to make their lives a lot better, if they can afford to take advantage of the opportunity, Meservier said.
“I don’t know how I can do it,” he said. “I guess if I can’t, I’ll just keep paying rent.”
Smith said she and other tenant-owners are watching carefully and waiting to see what the appraiser decides their land is worth.
“We have not heard any official word yet on how they’ll divide, how much land we can get or what the costs are,” she said. “We want to buy it, but it has to be reasonable. We want to buy it, but we can’t go into extreme debt to buy any land here.”
FPT subdivision deal
By the Numbers
8: Number of properties being subdivided
51.03: Total acreage
$958,310: Total assessed land value
98: Unique addresses on the lots
89: Tenants/potential buyers
$17,220: Average structure value
Source: City of Lewiston GIS system.