“They had approval, but the feedback we heard was nobody liked that plan very much,” Hatch said.
So when he helped create property owner Phyllis St. Laurent’s plan to rebuild three buildings she lost in the May 2013 fires, he made sure the project was very different from the one VOA put forth six months earlier — with less public money needed and a local developer on the team.
“They wanted a local developer? All right, Phyllis will do it herself,” Hatch said. “They didn’t like the way it looked; it was too institutional. So we came back with something more in keeping with the neighbors.”
So it came as a surprise to both Hatch and St. Laurent that their project narrowly passed the City Council by a 4-3 vote.
“There is a huge need for subsidized housing in Lewiston,” Hatch said. “Some people just can’t afford the market rents. Any little hiccup in their life, and they can’t make rent. So this project is taking the people who are rent-burdened, they don’t make enough. Those are the people we want to help.”
It was an even bigger surprise when the project’s opponents collected enough signatures to force a citywide vote on the project.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, said Stan Pelletier, the Lewiston landlord who led the petition drive to negate the project.
“We have enough of that now,” Pelletier said. “We have enough immigrants, and we are having enough problems as it is. The welfare system is drained, and that means the middle-class taxpayer just ends up paying more.”
Lewiston residents — and especially Lewiston landlords — are tired of having to compete with newly built, taxpayer-subsidized housing.
“Landlords, we’re the ones that need help, and we’re not getting it,” Pelletier said. “We’re not getting help from the state, not from the city, not from the country. We are out there, on our own.”
City voters will go to the polls Nov. 4 to decide the fate of the project. A yes vote on Lewiston Question 1 is to overturn the City Council’s approval of the project.
A no vote is to allow it to proceed, with plans to begin construction next summer and move in tenants in 2016.
The St. Laurent project calls for 29 units in three buildings on eight lots. Her apartments would replace buildings she owned at 149 Bartlett St., and 110 and 114 Pierce St. that were destroyed in a rash of downtown fires in May 2013. The project also includes five empty lots owned by the city that had been tax-acquired.
The project would have 77 bedrooms spread over three buildings, 32 off-street parking spaces and a large green space among the buildings. Apartments would be a mix of single-bedroom units, two-bedroom units and larger apartments.
It would be a $5 million project with subsidized rents and federal Section 8 housing vouchers tied to the development.
The project would be aimed at families making 60 percent of the median income, which is about $33,700 for a family of four.
The Volunteers of America project relied on city help — namely, a 15-year tax-increment financing rebate. St. Laurent’s proposal does not include a city property-tax subsidy. It even creates a fund other Lewiston landlords can tap into to repair, renovate and fix up their properties. That’s something landlords mentioned they wanted when the VOA project was proposed.
“They’ve said this project was going to make local taxes go up, but that’s not true,” St. Laurent said. “Taxes have gone up since the fires just because this property has not been there, paying property taxes. When this property is built, we’ll be back, paying our share.”
Hatch estimated the project would pay between $30,000 and $40,000 per year in property taxes. Half would be dedicated to a city loan fund other landlords could apply to for renovation help on their own properties.
Pelletier said he doubted local landlords would see any of that money.
“I guess I’ll believe that when I see it,” Pelletier said. “Anyway, $20,000 is a drop in the bucket for local landlords. What can you do with $20,000?”
Thomas Peters, another local landlord, said the problem is economics. Landlords should be able to afford repairs and upkeep on their own, but they can’t.
“Rents are too low, and they can’t get ahead,” Peters said. “Add on top of that water and sewer fees, heating oil, trash collection and bedbug infestations. And then they can’t afford to do repairs.”
The answer is fewer units on the market, not more, he said. The city has been demolishing abandoned and condemned units since 2012 and has knocked down 44 condemned tenements so far.
“We need to not increase the number of units, get rid of the blight and stop building up new ones,” Peters said. “If there are fewer apartments, maybe the rents can come up and be reasonable, and then landlords are not on the edge if we have a bad winter or need to do repairs.”
But members of the Neighborhood Housing League, a tenant advocacy group affiliated with the Visible Community and the Maine People’s Alliance, said poor residents need help.
Ashley Medina, 25, was one of St. Laurent’s low-income tenants ousted by the fires. She works as a certified nursing assistant and is studying to be medical assistant, but said she wouldn’t be able to take classes without financial assistance.
“I have goals in my life,” she said. “I know where I want to get in my life. This has been temporary to help me get there, and it’s been a great opportunity. So that’s my main reason for speaking out: I want people to have the same kind of opportunity I had.”
Housing league member Craig Saddlemire agreed. People need good housing first.
“To suggest that raising the rents on worse housing is going to somehow teach people to be less dependent, that doesn’t make any sense,” Saddlemire said. “It produces more homelessness, more poverty and more stress on people who are already trying very hard to survive.”
Hatch said he was confident St. Laurent’s development would make her neighbors’ lots more valuable.
“Anytime somebody does this kind of investment, it has to rub off,” Hatch said. “I think it’s economic development. Where else will the city find someone to make a multimillion-dollar investment in a pretty rough neighborhood? How else do you turn those neighborhoods around if you don’t make some of these initial investments?”
Peters disagreed. He’d rather see the city put a new elementary school on the vacant lots.
“This is not economic development,” he said. “These are things that appear to be nice for other people. I think we need to stop doing these kind of things and get down to business doing something else. We have enough places, good apartments, that can take care of folks who need lower-income apartments.”
Lewiston Question 1 forums
Sun Journal.com will host an online forum with supporters and opponents of the St. Laurent housing development at noon Monday, Oct. 20, at www.sunjournal.com.
Bates College will sponsor a public forum at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 27, at the Root Cellar, 89 Birch St. Both opponents and supporters of the project have been invited, and at least five people have agreed to sit on the panel.