More inspectors. More enforcement. More court time. More demolitions. Lewiston is cracking down on unsafe housing like never before, angering some landlords and pleasing others.

LEWISTON — Rick Lockwood, a Lewiston landlord who at one time controlled more than 10 buildings in the downtown, wants out of the city. 

He believes he’s being targeted by unfair code enforcement procedures and constant pressure from city staff to comply, or else. His four remaining properties are either on the market or under contract to be sold. 

An already contentious relationship with the city deteriorated further on May 11, when Lockwood filed a police complaint accusing a Lewiston code enforcement officer of assault during a court proceeding that day.

Lockwood claims the city is overstepping its authority and “strong-arming” him and other landlords out of their properties in order to regain control of the housing stock. 

“They’re intentionally pressuring us because they want all the landlords out,” Lockwood told the Sun Journal recently. He claims the city is out to demolish all the old housing stock, out for a fresh start in the downtown. 

Code enforcement staff don’t deny they have Lockwood in their sights. In fact, they say they’re targeting out-of-compliance landlords like never before.

Far from overstepping their authority, however, they say they’re finally responding to code violations and dangerous situations with the kind of adequate staffing and resources necessary to force long-overdue upgrades in the city’s housing stock.

For code enforcement and fire officials, safety has been an ongoing issue for many years due to the city’s aging housing, particularly in the downtown.

But a renewed focus on downtown housing unofficially began in 2013 after a series of fires destroyed multiple buildings, displacing hundreds. The prevalence of lead paint in many of the older buildings also sharpened the focus. After years of false starts, the city dedicated more funding to face the issues.

In the past five years, more than 70 buildings in Lewiston have been condemned, with roughly half that number eventually demolished. Legal battles between the city and some landlords have become the norm.

While the pressure has upset Lockwood and some building owners, other landlords in the city, including Stan Pelletier, who owns 21 units in Lewiston, are supportive of the city’s efforts.

Pelletier said he agrees “100 percent” with what the city has been doing over the last few years, noting that if the city finds code issues, staff will work with landlords to develop a suitable timeline that won’t break the bank. 

Like ‘no other community’

Gil Arsenault, director of Planning and Code Enforcement for Lewiston, grew up in the area and remembers when downtown housing was largely in good condition. As it worsened over the years, efforts to address problem properties — normally following a tragic event like a fire — didn’t yield enough changes. 

For the Code Enforcement department, two additional employees have strengthened its ability to enforce violations over the past few years. The most recent hire was in July 2016. 

Between May 1, 2016, and April 30, 2017, the city issued 300 code violation notices and condemned 27 buildings under the city’s codes. Since 2015, 23 buildings have been demolished.

“No other community in the state is doing what we’re doing,” Arsenault said. 

He said the Fire Department, which has its own code enforcement employee, has also issued “a considerable number” of violation notices during that time. 

“We’ve been very aggressive,” he said, adding that it’s a comprehensive effort that includes the fire and economic development departments, and Community Development Block Grant funding for issues like lead abatement.  

Referring to the additional staff and support in Lewiston, Arsenault said, “the (City) Council recognized we needed boots on the ground.” 

Craig Saddlemire is a former city councilor and coordinator for the Raise-Op housing collaborative, which allows tenants to share ownership of a building. The group owns 15 units. 

“I think code (enforcement) has clearly had an impact over the past four years, and is helping to identify and address the most dangerous buildings in our city,” he said in an email. “They are also helping connect landlords with resources like the lead grant and renovation financing. As a result, we are seeing new investment and property improvements, which is a good thing.”

‘They’re strong-arming me out’ 

The topic of housing takes up a number of pages in the city’s newly adopted “Legacy Lewiston” master plan. It goes into detail on how the city’s housing stock deteriorated during the ’70s and ’80s, and outlines the city’s approach since.

The Code Enforcement office has generally “placed a premium on working cooperatively with landlords in an effort to address the most serious issues without forcing abandonment,” the report states, and goes on to say “the city has periodically been criticized by both landlords and tenant advocates for this approach – some complaining it is too strict; others that it is too lenient.”

In 1999, Lewiston’s Downtown Master Plan named the destruction of the area’s worst tenements as its primary goal. 

After the 2013 fires, efforts ramped up further to meet that goal. For instance, Arsenault said that these days, the city is “in court on a regular basis.” The city files lawsuits in district court under rule 80K, which can order violators to pay fines and to stop or correct a violation.

Since 2014, the city has initiated 56 lawsuits via 80K, including eight so far this year. Lockwood has been a frequent combatant. 

Over that time, Arsenault said the city has continually been in “legal entanglements” with Lockwood over all but one of his properties. According to city records, the city has secured 12 court judgments against Lockwood’s Investment Properties LLC. Investment Properties currently owes the city civil penalties of $185,678 and $20,747 in court-ordered costs and attorney’s fees, respectively.

In April, Lockwood spoke during a public comment period at a City Council meeting, pleading with councilors to stop his former building at 32 Horton St. from being demolished after the city said Lockwood failed to address violations. He was ordered to demolish the building, did not comply, and the city has since taken it down. 

Lockwood’s complaint that he was assaulted by a code enforcement employee in court two months ago is indicative of the rising tensions. He said Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard struck him in the stomach. 

Lewiston Police Department spokesman Lt. Dave St. Pierre said the police officer looking into the assault complaint said it was unfounded. He said a videotape of the action that Lockwood claimed was an assault was viewed by District Attorney’s Office personnel and no charges will be pursued. 

Arsenault also refuted the assault claim, stating Richard was merely passing Lockwood a folder containing documents. 

Asked at that time about the incident, Lockwood said the city has gone too far, and claimed they are using him as an example to other downtown landlords. He said Code Enforcement staff continually “set the goal posts back,” handing him new violations once he’s complied with others. He said he’s put hundreds of thousands of dollars into his Lewiston properties. 

“How dare they?” he asked. “I’ve been a good soldier up there as far as I’m concerned.”  

Multiple attempts by the Sun Journal to follow up with Lockwood for this story over the past few weeks were unsuccessful.

‘We have turned a corner’ 

Lockwood is by far not the only property owner dealing with the increased enforcement. Some are established owners, while others come and go, which can present its own set of problems.

At a Bartlett Street apartment building recently, Code Enforcement Officer Richard was following up on a code violation notice that was handed to the landlord last August.

During the inspection, he found that none of the violations listed on last year’s seven-page notice had been addressed. In addition, ownership had changed hands and the city wasn’t notified, as is required by law.

Richard said such a drawn-out situation isn’t as common these days. Today, he said, the city either issues violation notices and gains compliance from landlords, or court action is initiated.

Last year, code enforcement issued 273 notices of violation. In 2015, 243 were issued. So far in 2017 the department has handed down 102. 

“We have turned a corner with respect to the backlog of dangerous buildings and we are engaged in greater … inspections of occupied buildings,” Arsenault said. 

Building owner Pelletier, who is also secretary of the Lewiston-Auburn Landlord Association, said that other than a few landlords who are known to be noncompliant regularly, most in the area are hardworking people who care about their buildings and tenants. He added that code enforcement staff “don’t bother you unless they’re right.”

Pelletier owns nine buildings in Lewiston and Auburn. For the past 30 years, he said, he’s avoided buying a building in Lewiston’s downtown neighborhood.

“I avoid any street named after a tree,” he said, referring to the densely packed housing in the “tree streets” neighborhood, which includes Spruce, Maple and Birch. 

A level playing field

For landlords such as Amy Smith, who founded the nonprofit Healthy Homeworks, which seeks to educate and unite landlords to create healthier buildings, there are some lingering negative perceptions regarding landlords in Lewiston.

One of them, she said, is the idea that the majority of landlords are “raking in the dough.”

Smith, who runs four buildings with 13 units, said most landlords she’s familiar with are honest people, who often operate on a “shoestring” budget. 

“There are plenty of folks who are doing their best to run these small businesses honestly and fairly,” she said, adding it’s a very difficult business in Lewiston because of the age and deferred maintenance of most buildings. 

She said in her experience, landlords are treated the same by the city, based on the property code, whether they’re complying with the city or ignoring it.

That said, Smith acknowledged there may be concern among some landlords when doing any improvements or renovations that code enforcement will come in and find violations and require immediate, and costly, fixes. 

She said she’s hoping communication can continue to get better, which can help landlords work with the city to develop practical timelines to complete needed work on buildings.

Richard said prior to the Bartlett Street building recently changing hands, an agreement had been made with the previous owner to have the roof replaced by June, and the siding replaced by September. 

City Councilor Jim Lysen, who was recently one of the organizers of a summit on the issue of housing in Lewiston, said he’s hoping a registration program will proceed to create a landlord contact list, based on a similar program in Portland designed to make landlords easier to reach. 

The contact list would be beneficial for tenants, who sometimes have trouble just getting in touch with their landlords, as well as for code enforcement, for such things as scheduling inspections. The city has not yet initiated the program despite recommendations from the Finance Committee two years in a row.

The program would also charge landlords a fee based on number of units owned. In Portland, proceeds have gone toward establishing a new Housing Safety Office. 

Lysen said he is pleased with the progress that’s been made by code enforcement staff, but believes more can be done. A Downtown Neighborhood Action Committee, formed in the late 2000s, is no longer active. 

He said a panel of landlords, which included Smith, was put together for the recent summit, where they discussed issues surrounding code enforcement. Many landlords, he said, are glad to see the increased city efforts to enforce violations.

“Landlords that do comply look at others who don’t comply and feel it’s not a level playing field,” he said. 

The next challenge

Overall, officials see progress being made in Lewiston, but a side effect of fewer buildings is fewer rental units.

Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s director of Economic and Community Development, estimated there are roughly 5,800 rental units in the downtown census blocks, down from more than 6,000. 

Arsenault said the decreased housing stock is “absolutely” a concern, but he said buildings that eventually are razed are most often owned by banks, which, for a variety of reasons, are not always willing to turn buildings over to investors for rehabilitation. The result is that the buildings can fall into such disrepair they must be razed.

“All the demolished buildings were first deemed dangerous by the Lewiston City Council, were abandoned and severely vandalized once they became vacant,” he said.

But even buildings available for rehabbing may end up being razed. Before recently demolishing two city buildings at 147 Sabattus St., Arsenault said the city, “with a good title … could not attract any investors to rehabilitate the two buildings and 10 units on said property despite possible rehab funding.” 

Saddlemire recently agreed that while more investments are being made in housing, the next challenge is addressing the reduced housing supply, which he said has created an “upward pressure on rent and also reduced some of our tax base.” 

Saddlemire gave an emotional speech in May during a ribbon-cutting for the Pierce Place affordable housing complex, which was built at the site of one of the devastating fires in 2013. The destruction was caused when fires set in nearby vacant buildings spread to occupied apartment buildings. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it, in terms of the amount of people on the streets, the camaraderie among neighbors, and the fear,” he said about the fires. 

Organizations like Raise-Op and Smith’s Healthy Homeworks are popping up in direct response to the long struggle to address Lewiston’s housing, in an attempt to move the city forward in a positive way.

They’re also asking questions about what led to the problem.  

“We also need to think about who is going to own and operate our housing in a manner that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and what conditions they need to succeed,” Saddlemire said. 

[email protected] 

Chad Roy of Auburn operates an excavator while demolishing the apartment building at 143 Pine St. in Lewiston in December 2016. As part of its more vigorous effort to improve substandard housing in the downtown, Lewiston’s Code Enforcement office has condemned 66 buildings and demolished 23 since the beginning of 2015, many in the downtown.

“No other community in the state is doing what we’re doing.”

— Gil Arsenault, director of Planning and Code Enforcement in Lewiston

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard checks the condition of an apartment building at 106 Bartlett St. during a property maintenance inspection. Richard wrote a seven-page notice of violation and gave it to the property landlord in August 2016. Richard returned to the same property on June 2, 2017, and noticed that none of the violations have been addressed. “These are life safety issues,” he said. “Our end goal is compliance.” 

Code enforcement by the numbers:

* Since January 2015, Lewiston’s Code Enforcement Office has condemned 66 buildings and demolished 23. 

* According to the “Legacy Lewiston” comprehensive plan, 262 housing units were demolished between 2004 and 2016.

* Between May 1, 2016, and April 30, 2017, the city issued 300 code violation notices. In 2015, 243 were issued.  

* Since 2014, the city has initiated 56 lawsuits against noncompliant landlords, including eight so far this year. 

Matthew Ray, working for Ray Corporation of Lewiston, repairs a porch on a formerly condemned building at Bates and Birch streets in Lewiston on Thursday afternoon. The building was previously owned by Investment Properties. 

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard talks with Heidi Asselin about the condition of a Bartlett Street apartment building during a property maintenance inspection in June. Asselin is a daily living support provider for a man who lives in the apartment. 

Exposed wires and a light socket hang from the ceiling in an upstairs apartment at 106 Bartlett St. in Lewiston during a recent inspection by city staff. 

An apartment building at 106 Bartlett St. in Lewiston shows signs of neglect. 

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard looks underneath the sink during a recent property maintenance inspection at 108 Bartlett St. Richard made sure the hot and cold water faucets worked and that the sink did not leak. 

The foundation of the apartment building at 106 Bartlett St. is a concern for Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard. 

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard inspects the upper floor of an apartment at 106 Bartlett St. while looking for a second means of egress. Richard said smoke alarms and two exits are key to meeting code enforcement compliance. 

Lewiston Code Enforcement Officer Nick Richard talks with Ruth Carney about the condition of a Bartlett Street apartment building during a property maintenance inspection. Carney said the inside condition of her apartment was good. 

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