In the last couple of weeks, two significant public initiatives were announced in downtowns along the Androscoggin; both involve investments in improving housing with a target of low and moderate income residents and were backed by state or federal money.
While it is hard to be in a position to argue against improving or creating new housing for seniors and low-income residents, there are serious long-term implications when no such project announcements are occurring for modern market-rate housing in those same downtown neighborhoods.
The town of Rumford has landed a $200,000 grant for repairs and fire code improvements in numerous buildings throughout the community. This type of investment, in areas of the town that have likely seen limited investment, is a welcome turn of events. Of particular note are improvements to be made at several of historic brick buildings in Strathglass Park, a spectacular century-old gated community that was among the first such developments in the country.
Similar to what other downtowns and villages in Maine faced with the advent of the automobile, those with the financial means opted to move away from the crowded downtowns, leaving those of limited or modest means behind. This cycle led to residential districts becoming home to most lower income residents, who cannot afford high rents. Those low rents in turn make even basic maintenance and upkeep on buildings beyond the reach of building owners.
The inspections conducted by Rumford concluded that improvements could not be supported by rent levels in the Rumford market. The solution? Bring in state and federal money to pay for this improvements. Though the problem begs the question, how might Rumford increase the economic viability of its downtown?
Yet another project, this one in New Auburn, had the Auburn Housing Authority and city officials championing the conversion of Hulett Square and the old Vincent Bottling plant into 17 apartments for senior citizens. At a cost of over $5 million, it is impressive to think of the quality of these new units when their construction cost in the range of $300,000 a piece.
This project, while serving an important public benefit, will not bring new life to New Auburn after the construction has passed, as many of the likely residents in this renovated building are probably residents of New Auburn already and will move out their existing apartments or homes.
New Auburn, and most of the residential neighborhoods of both cities, are predominantly home to older residents or low-income residents or families. Similar to the scenario in Rumford, those with the financial resources often opted for single-family homes with larger yards outside of this dense neighborhoods. This cycle, which should be all too familiar, left property owners barely securing enough rental income to maintain their properties, starting the cycle of blight.
The Vincent building, like many buildings in downtown Lewiston-Auburn, has sat vacant for many years. Some disgruntled public officials often call for the demolition of these buildings because they are no longer viable and make room for new projects (that may or may not ever come).
The hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in Rumford will have to be used to support housing for low to moderate income residents; the millions in New Auburn fall under the same guidelines. But do these subsidies from state and federal sources do anything to turn around the cycle of blight and under-investment in these communities? I say no.
If the Vincent building truly needed $5 million, it is no wonder a private investor couldn’t make the numbers work to convert it into apartments with storefronts behind those large first floor windows. The $300,000 per unit cost is roughly double the average median home price in Maine, let alone for a downtown rental property in a struggling neighborhood.
It is important to provide assistance for families and our long-time residents to ensure they have safe and comfortable living conditions.
 My fear is that, in our haste to find the millions in capital from the public to infuse into neighborhoods, where generations of property owners have been unable to be profitable, we will firmly cement those areas as low-income neighborhoods, unable to support the types of shops, restaurants and other services that once created the charm in the our downtowns.
Jonathan LaBonte of New Auburn is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin county commissioner. E-mail:

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