I am excited by nearly everything in Lewiston’s proposed comprehensive plan. Public hearings on it have begun. City staff did an incredible job synthesizing a huge amount of feedback into a vision for the city’s future. But for this plan to be more than a paperweight, it must more strongly confront Lewiston’s single greatest obstacle: corporate slumlords.

An earlier draft of the comprehensive plan called for a simple policy change: “all programs, codes, and regulations must be mandatory.” Yes, that would be a new policy. Current city policy lets most housing violations slide. When we go out to eat, we expect restaurants to follow basic public health regulations. Unfortunately, that same consistency does not apply to housing.

For at least the past decades, Lewiston has run a massive experiment: What happens when there are low (or no) standards for housing downtown? The results are clear. While storefronts in Lisbon Street have steadily reopened, apartment buildings have been abandoned, foreclosed and condemned.

Nearly every week during the past harsh winter, I heard stories of people going without heat and hot water — sometimes for a month. Leaking pipes too often permanently damage a building’s structure, erode its value and make life miserable for tenants. With so many fire exits screwed shut, it is amazing no one has died.

That creates an untenable situation for honest landlords, and anyone trying to do real economic development in our city. It is impossible to compete against people who put literally nothing into their buildings — not even oil in the tank. As a result, one-third of downtown property remains underdeveloped, eroding the tax base, bumping up the tax rate, and giving Lewiston a bad name.

That is why it is important to call those bad actors exactly what they are: corporate slumlords.

They use legal and financial structures to shield them from liability, taxes and, apparently, moral decency. When four-unit buildings can be purchased for as little as $30,000, it is completely reasonable to expect landlords to invest at least that much in getting their buildings up to code. Good landlords do this all the time. Letting bad landlords off the hook punishes good landlords as much as the tenants forced to live in awful conditions.

Some might be concerned that high standards will drive corporate slumlords away. To that, I say good riddance. If you want to invest and rebuild our city, great. Stick around. But anyone trying to make a buck by flouting laws and exploiting the poor needs to find somewhere else to do “business.”

That is why I urge all residents of Lewiston to support a return to something like the original language of the comprehensive plan around code enforcement. It included a return to high standards and a simple schedule for fines. It has been replaced with more of a description of the problem than a clear policy solution.

If it passes as is, I am afraid it will be business as usual for corporate slumlords. What is needed is a 180-degree policy change.

It is time to crack down.

To be clear, the comprehensive plan also includes great recommendations about overall code reform. Outdated regulations that serve no real purpose should be eliminated. With a simplified code, Lewiston officials could focus on enforcing the regulations that matter most. For example — heat, hot water, leaks and fire safety are at the top of my list. That, too, would make it easier for high-road landlords to do business.

Ultimately, it is about the public’s collective self-confidence. Residents should refuse to negotiate on what is morally right and economically smart.

If downtown housing can be turned around, making a final break from the old, bad reputation, there is no limit to what the new Lewiston can be.

Ben Chin is the political director for the Maine People’s Alliance. He is on the vestry of Trinity Church and lives in Lewiston. He is a candidate for mayor.

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