Melissa Dunn: Fire victim supporters urge ‘no’ vote on Lewiston Question 1

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Lewiston residents visited empty lots on Pierce Street recently, where two former buildings once offered safe and healthy housing to their occupants.

After the devastating fires that took place more than one year ago, what remains today are massive vacant lots that serve as a constant visual reminder of the tragedy that destroyed 110-114 Pierce St., leaving nearly 100 people homeless.

Those in attendance gathered to send one clear message to the voters of Lewiston: “Please let us rebuild after the fire. Please vote ‘no’ on Lewiston Ballot Question 1.”

On Nov. 4, voters will decide whether or not to repeal a City Council decision to enter into a joint development agreement with the owner of the buildings lost in the fire, Phyllis St. Laurent.

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The agreement supports the project by transferring land to St. Laurent and also leveraging state and federal grant dollars to help fund the $5 million development, without requiring any increase in the city budget or local property taxes.

The result would be 29 quality living units restored in the downtown; increased property tax revenue of $37,000 per year; and a drastic visual improvement to the neighborhood, where many property owners have neglected the maintenance of their rental buildings.

The development would provide a housing solution for many of the families displaced by the fire, whose housing futures still remain uncertain.

On the Lewiston ballot Question 1, a vote of “yes” will repeal the agreement and stop the project. A vote of “no” will allow the project to move forward.

It takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home. The residents had built homes for themselves in those buildings. They helped care for each other’s kids, they had good relationships with the manager, and they were working hard to support their families. All they want is to have safe and stable housing again, and for other residents to have that same opportunity.

But the fire victims are being dehumanized because of their race and income level, as well as the fact that they choose to live in the downtown. The voters of Lewiston know that it is wrong to treat our neighbors this way, especially after the loss they have suffered.

Ashley Medina,  a mother, certified nursing assistant, and a resident who was displaced by the fire, is also a full-time student at Kaplan University, pursuing her dreams of becoming a medical assistant. “Because of the fire, the property management of Pierce Street is paying another landlord for my rent so that my family can be temporarily housed until Pierce Street is rebuilt. If the referendum passes then my family will lose our temporary housing and have no place to call home,” she said.

The Neighborhood Housing League hears from many residents like Medina, who struggle to find safe and healthy rental housing in Lewiston. Since 2012, more than 40 condemned buildings have been demolished in downtown Lewiston, while not a single new home has been constructed in the neighborhood during the same period.

Code enforcement has increased its efforts to hold landlords accountable for the condition of their buildings, but many families still face the regular hardship of no heat, lead poisoning, leaking ceilings, pest infestations, and unaffordable rental rates.

Amidst those circumstances, some of the best housing options for senior citizens, veterans, low-wage workers, and people with disabilities are affordable housing projects like the one that Phyllis St. Laurent offered on Pierce Street. Rather than place additional pressure on people already living below the poverty line, affordable housing creates a stable environment for people to heal and work their way out of poverty.

“Question 1 is a hateful and reactionary veto of an important development project for this neighborhood,” said Craig Saddlemire, a neighborhood resident, Visible Community member, and friend of some of the fire victims.

“If we want to see things change in Lewiston, we need to support people who are willing to make positive investments in the community. If we don’t rebuild, we are only allowing the cycle of deterioration and neglect to persist, and that is not going to do anything to improve our local economy. I hope the voters of Lewiston recognize both the moral and economic realities of this issue, and allow us to rebuild by voting ‘no’ on Lewiston Ballot Question 1.”

Melissa Dun is tenants’ rights community organizer for the Neighborhood Housing League, a project of The Visible Community.

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