LEWISTON — The owners of four apartment buildings on Pierce and Bartlett streets that were destroyed by fire last week have pledged to rebuild the structures.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has waived subsidy application requirements for fire-affected families and has fast-tracked paperwork to ensure the families receive housing subsidies in time to make June rental payments.

HUD, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine State Housing Authority are working with the city’s General Assistance office to coordinate rental funds for families to bridge the gap between now and the June federal subsidy payments.

All 29 of the units lost in the Pierce Street fire were federally subsidized housing units, which means the tenants in those apartments are eligible for housing aid.

According to Holly Stover, DHHS acting director for multicultural affairs, state agencies have never had to relocate such a large block of subsidized housing clients at one time and they’re creating the process as they go.

“We’ve come together very quickly and very well,” said Denise Lord, director of housing choice vouchers at MSHA, because the state is committed to maintaining the current number of subsidized housing units available in Lewiston.

On Wednesday, representatives of MaineHousing, DHHS, HUD and a collection of property managers and housing authorities hosted a housing fair to try to match an estimated 30 displaced families with available apartments. To do that quickly, HUD has also waived some requirements on the ratio of people to number of bedrooms per apartment.

In a complicated, first-time process, the Pierce and Bartlett street owners — Denis Gilbert and St. Laurent Housing Associates — will have to enter into lease agreements with other landlords on behalf of each of their tenants because federal subsidies are not assigned to tenants; they’re assigned to properties. Once the apartment buildings are replaced, the subsidy payments will move back to Gilbert and St. Laurent specifically for those buildings.

According to Bob Conway, director of asset management for HUD, the buildings were insured and were covered by HUD mortgage insurance, which should allow the owners to finance construction fairly quickly.

He estimated the construction work would take at least a year before families could move back. In the meantime, housing agencies are helping the displaced families find new homes.

Jessica Foster, who was burned out of her apartment on Pine Street on April 29, was at the housing fair with her friend, Adriana Garcia, who had been living in the Bates Street apartment building destroyed the same day.

Both women said they want to move into first-floor apartments because they don’t ever want to have to run down stairs to escape another fire, neither wants to live next to a condemned building and they would like to live as close to each other as possible.

That might not be possible.

With nearly 200 people displaced by the recent fires, and a limited number of apartments in Lewiston available for less than $1,000 a month, not all tenants will get the kind of apartments they want.

Foster said she understood that and would be happy to take what she could get.

Housing managers are willing to work with families to find the best possible matches, though. At Affordable Housing of New England, a Lewiston-based property management company, managers have offered to give fire victims a break on half of the first month’s rent and are willing to negotiate on security deposits. All 22 of the apartments available through this company are pet-friendly.

Property managers Holly Crocker and Leah Pham said they were happy to help match fire victims with available apartments, and said they had a lot of people interested because, with the exception of three apartments, all of their units rent for less than $750 a month, including those with multiple bedrooms.

Deborah Turcotte, MaineHousing’s public information manager, encouraged landlords who have vacancies for Section 8 or market-price apartments anywhere in the state to list them on MaineHousingSearch.org.

Last week, 32 apartments were listed, but since the rash of fires landlords have posted dozens more: 49 in Lewiston and 39 elsewhere in Androscoggin County.

Turcotte said she was pleased to see the “fantastic” turnout at the housing fair and understood the difficulty families were facing in moving to apartments that may be far from their relatives and friends. “It’s hard to lose your community,” she said, but people were clearly thankful for the help.

“Thank you, God. Thank you, people in government,” Katarina Kizyala said. She and her husband and five children had been living in one of the Pierce Street apartments and fled their apartment last Friday night with nothing.

On Saturday, she was able to find clothes and shoes for her children among the donated goods at the YWCA of Central Maine. She said her children were glad to have the distraction of school this week. Asked how the children were coping, she said, “So-so.” They were still unsettled from losing their home and worried about where they’re going to live.

Many of the families displaced by the Pierce Street fire were sheltered at Lewiston High School over the weekend because the Red Cross didn’t have the resources to provide motel vouchers for everyone. On Tuesday, they were moved from the high school to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee until they can move into apartments.

It’s a frightening process for the families, Kizyala said, but she is thankful that the community has been so supportive.

Conway, the HUD asset management director, said families applying for assistance have been cooperative as government agencies attempt to sort out what needs to be done in what he called an unofficial disaster area.

The fire sites are not “residentially declared disaster areas,” he said, “but they’re disaster areas” in reality and people need government to respond quickly with help.

In the meantime, he said, people have really pulled together to help just like they did during the Ice Storm of 1998. “Anytime something really bad happens, people just lift the boats,” Conway said.

On Wednesday, Assistant House Republican Leader Alexander Willette of Mapleton said he has family in Lewiston and visits the city often.

He said he has always admired its history and its people and was “deeply saddened to hear of the devastation caused by the recent fires and want the people of Lewiston to know that state government will do everything it can to ease their suffering during this difficult time.”

However, during a half-hour stop in Lewiston on Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage said he would prefer to hold off on state assistance until he sees whether nonprofits and private donations are adequate to address the city’s needs.

He has named the United Way of Androscoggin County administrator of the Governor’s Lewiston Fire Relief Fund, which is designated to take private and corporate financial donations, but has declined to release funds from his emergency contingency account.

In addition to the agencies already mentioned, attending the housing fair were Lewiston and Auburn housing authorities, Common Ties, New Beginnings, Rural Development (home ownership) and a dozen landlords and property managers.

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