The 41-unit Maple Knoll apartments at Maple and Blake streets in Lewiston was built in the 1890s.

LEWISTON — The city is seeking a large federal grant that would address housing and other issues in the poorest areas of downtown Lewiston, and neighborhood advocates say the funds could go a long way toward implementing goals they’ve had for years. 

If successful in its bid, Lewiston could receive $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and what’s known as a Choice Neighborhood Planning and Action Grant. The city council approved the application last week, and will commit $237,500 in local Community Development Block Grant funds during implementation if the grant is successful. 

The city hopes the funding can lead to long-term changes in the downtown neighborhood, where nearly half of residents live below the federal poverty level. According to 2015 census figures, the median family incomes in downtown census tracts 201 and 203, are $12,417 and $16,047, respectively. 

The main purpose of the funds is to plan and execute major housing improvements in the downtown “Tree Streets” neighborhood, a 12-block section that intersects each downtown census tract. The majority of the funds would go toward renovating or replacing affordable housing units, while also developing new, market-rate units. 

The grant process is competitive however, and there’s no guarantee Lewiston will receive funding. The city could also be awarded a $350,000 planning grant that would help lay the framework. 

Shanna Cox, founder of Project Tipping Point in Lewiston, said Tuesday that even if the city doesn’t receive the full grant funding, she believes the downtown is “set up for success.” 

Cox is also coordinator for the Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, which is named the “governance structure” in the grant application. The group, which includes a city staff member, has been working since 2012 to identify the single biggest issue that impacts health. Following hundreds of meetings with residents and other members of the community, both in Lewiston and Auburn, it was no surprise that housing was chosen. 

That includes factors like affordable, lead-free housing, access to medical care, safe places to play, and access to food, employment and schools, she said. 

“What’s in your housing and just outside of your housing are going to either contribute to or keep you from being healthy,” she said. 

Right now, she said, all stakeholders involved in the health of the downtown neighborhoods, including city staff, are working toward the same goals. That wasn’t always the case, she added. 

Neighborhood challenges

The city’s language on the application attempts to paint a picture of the major issues and opportunities for the neighborhood.

According to the city’s application, 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. 

It also states that the unemployment rate of 14.6 percent downtown is two-and-a-half times that of the rest of the city. The percentage of children under five in the downtown tracts is greater than any other tract in the state. 

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

Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of economic and community development, said identifying a housing project that fit the application criteria is what kept the city from applying in the past. But, he said, through the help of a consultant working with the John T. Gorman Foundation, which has also been a continued partner downtown, the city was able to locate a project. 

The consultant, Chris Shea, has applied for and run Choice Planning and Implementation grants previously in Baltimore and currently in Pittsburgh.

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

Residents are living in the building, but Jeffers says it requires considerable upgrades and needs enough work that it fits the criteria described in the grant. He said an evaluation was done to look at the deficencies of the property, which include narrow hallways, steep stairwells, and no elevator, among other issues. 

If the city receives the funds, Maple Knoll will either be renovated or it may even be demolished, Jeffers said, though each unit would have to be replaced by other affordable housing units in a new building or elsewhere downtown.

“It opens the door to allow us to apply, and really build things around it,” Jeffers said. 

Any affordable housing units brought in must be matched in half by market rate units, he said, which would add to the diversity in downtown housing. 

The city’s application uses dramatic language to describe the changes that could take place in the neighborhood. 

“The project team will systematically acquire, replace, (or) demolish, and backfill with appropriate housing, retail and open space, then do it again, block by block, until the entire Tree Street community is transformed. Maple Knoll is the ‘target property’ of this proposal and the starting point, but nearly every HUD-assisted property in downtown needs to be recapitalized or replaced, raising market standards and forcing improvements or replacement of the unsubsidized walk-ups that are in far worse condition.” 

The term “walk-ups” refers to much of the downtown housing stock, which are three to six-story buildings featuring multiple units. Another major factor related to the aging buildings is lead paint. Lewiston recently announced it will receive a separate $3.4 million grant for lead abatement

According to Community Concepts, 70 percent of the known cases of elevated blood lead levels in the entire state are in the Tree Streets. 

Community Concepts Inc. will join the city on the grant application. 

Collaborative effort 

Craig Saddlemire, organizer of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, which operates a number of units downtown, said the choice grant “really supports community-driven change, and allows us to bring a lot of different stakeholders to the table to participate in its implementation.”

He said that means “tenants, homeowners, private landlords and nonprofit housing developers working together.” 

Saddlemire has been involved with many of the neighborhood-led efforts to address the downtown housing problem for many years. Many point to these groups as being essential to getting the city to eventually take serious steps to tackle the housing issues in Lewiston. 

He said having neighborhood residents and local groups involved in the grant process and implementation is important.

“We don’t want to see a government box get dropped onto an existing community of people,” he said. “We want to enhance the community that is present and bring tools to the table to fix or replace what needs to change.” 

The deadline to submit the grant application is Aug. 28. Jeffers said the city should hear if the city is awarded the grant by January 2018, and money would become available next summer. 

Cox said when being involved in the nonprofit world, “sometimes you pin your hopes on a grant.” She said no matter what, the work downtown will continue, but if the grant bid is successful, it will happen “faster and with more capital.” 

“There’s already a stake in the ground, and that’s not going away,” she said.

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The 41-unit Maple Knoll apartments at Maple and Blake streets in Lewiston was built in the 1890s.

The foundation of an apartment building at 106 Bartlett St. appeared to be cracking in June. The city is seeking a large federal grant that would address housing and other issues in the poorest downtown census tracts. 

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