Susan Collins celebrates Lewiston housing grant

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LEWISTON — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins stopped in Lewiston on Tuesday to help celebrate a $1.3 million grant that many believe will spark a transformation of the downtown Tree Streets neighborhood.

Lewiston recently became the first city in Maine to be awarded a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a program that aims to provide a comprehensive approach to revitalization projects.

The main purpose of the grant is to plan and execute major housing improvements in a 12-block section where nearly half of the residents live below the federal poverty level and the childhood lead-poisoning rate is three times that of the entire state.

During her remarks at a news conference Tuesday at Community Concepts, Collins said the grant will allow the city to plan renovations and take initial steps to transform the downtown neighborhood by improving affordable housing, addressing lead hazards and boosting the local economy.

“It doesn’t just focus on one aspect,” she said. “It looks at the entire neighborhood and what that neighborhood needs to be successful — to be a place where people want to live.”

The city applied for the federal grant in August 2017, during which time Collins sent a letter to HUD in support of the application. Collins serves as chairwoman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Collins said the number of community partners in the project is what ultimately made it a successful application. Representatives from the John T. Gorman Foundation, Community Concepts and Healthy Neighborhoods also spoke during the event Tuesday.

Many said the grant will allow years of planning to finally turn into action.

The majority of the funds would go toward renovating or replacing affordable housing units, while also developing new market-rate units.

“It illustrates that this truly is a community effort. That is why you were successful. Plus, I helped,” she said to laughter.

Collins said Tuesday that the federal appropriations bill that was recently passed includes $150 million for the Choice Neighborhoods program, the most funding it’s had since it began in 2011.

According to 2015 census figures, the median family incomes in downtown census tracts 201 and 203, are $12,417 and $16,047, respectively.

According to the city’s grant application last year, the downtown has a population of 10,904 in 4,832 households. Despite only having 30 percent of the city’s population, it is home to 56 percent of people of a race other than Caucasian, and 58 percent of city residents in poverty.

The unemployment rate of 14.6 percent downtown is two and a half times that of the rest of the city, according to the application. The percentage of children under the age of 5 in the downtown tracts is greater than any other tract in the state.

Collins told the crowd Tuesday, which included many downtown residents, that Lewiston’s focus on the downtown neighborhood was “an easy case to make” to HUD for funding.

Much of the focus on rehabbing downtown housing has included lead-paint abatement. Collins also advocated for a $3.4 million lead-abatement grant the city was awarded last year.

Following the news conference, Collins toured a nearby building on Blake Street that’s undergoing lead abatement.

To be eligible to apply for a Choice Neighborhood Planning and Action Grant, a “distressed” public housing project that has a property owner who is willing to sell or reinvest in the building to bring it up to quality standards must be identified.

The owners of Maple Knoll, a 41-unit apartment building on Maple Street, agreed to work with the city in the application. The apartments were built in the 1890s and were rehabbed in the 1970s using Section 8 or Housing Assisted Payment contracts, thus making it eligible as public housing for the grant.

At the time, city officials said if Lewiston received the grant, Maple Knoll would be renovated or maybe even demolished, though each unit would have to be replaced by other affordable housing units in a new building or elsewhere downtown.

Collins said Tuesday that the lives of the roughly 60 residents at Maple Knoll will be “immeasurably improved” by the grant.

She said the overall revitalization of Lewiston is “heartening” and that the city is “becoming better and better.”

Neighborhood housing advocates, including Craig Saddlemire and Paige Wagner of Healthy Neighborhoods, asked that the future grant-funded projects include neighborhood residents in the planning discussions.

“Everyone in this neighborhood deserves a voice,” Wagner said. “I can’t wait to see what we accomplish in the next few years.”

Saddlemire, who also serves as coordinator for Raise-Op Housing Collaborative, has long advocated for more focus on housing as a public health issue.

He praised Collins for her focus on housing and lead issues and for her advocacy in Washington for maintaining and even increasing funding for housing programs.

As for the upcoming work, he said, “We’ve been doing a lot of planning, and this grant is going to give us more power to implement those ideas.”

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