A concept rendering by Bild Architecture for a nine-unit apartment house at 186-198 Blake St. in Lewiston by Raise-Op. Under a new proposal, Raise-Op is looking to build a similar building on a vacant parcel at Walnut and Howe streets. 

LEWISTON — The nonprofit housing cooperative Raise-Op is hoping to expand its footprint in the downtown by doubling the size of its previously proposed housing development in the Tree Streets neighborhood.

The City Council this week approved an updated option agreement with Raise-Op that will allow the organization to purchase additional vacant parcels downtown. Raise-Op is looking to build two, nine-unit buildings, which would boost the housing cooperative’s inventory from 15 units to 33.

In 2020, the Planning Board approved a nine-unit project at 186-198 Blake St., but due to financing setbacks, Raise-Op was forced to reconsider the scope of the project to make it more financially feasible.

The agreement will allow Raise-Op to purchase the city’s vacant lots at 84 Walnut St. and 94 Howe St. to build an additional nine-unit building.

Officials said the type of housing — small scale and owner occupied — is needed in the downtown, especially as Lewiston has lost a significant number of units to demolition. The city demolished a multi-family building previously on 84 Walnut St. in 2015, and the building at 94 Howe St. in 2016.

According to a City Council memo, Raise-Op is pursuing 4% low-income housing tax credits through Maine Housing, which are similar to the 9% tax credits that have been used to build other workforce housing projects in Lewiston.

But, according to Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development, “the nature of (tax credit) projects and the soft costs associated with them requires larger scale projects to be financially viable.”

Craig Saddlemire, Raise-Op coordinator, said the previous financing method, which was primarily fundraising-based, didn’t advance at the rate they were hoping. With tax credit projects, which is how most affordable housing is now financed, “bigger is better,” he said.

But, if successful, the change of plans will allow Raise-Op to hit its goal of doubling in size, marking a big step for the tenant-led cooperative.

Craig Saddlemire, coordinator of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, sits Thursday on a vacant parcel at Walnut and Howe streets where Raise-Op hopes to develop one of two nine-unit apartment buildings. The lot has been vacant since buildings there were demolished in 2015 and 2016. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The cooperative housing model, where tenants come together to own and control the buildings they live in, has seen some momentum in Maine recently, including in Portland, where officials hope it can help address a shortage of affordable housing. Maine Cooperative Development Partners is working on two projects there.

“There’s a growing acceptance of it in Maine as one of the ownership options,” Saddlemire said of cooperative housing. But he said there is still a need for funding systems that encourage housing cooperatives or similar resident-owned organizations.

Saddlemire also said the city will benefit from an additional 18 units as the region deals with its own housing shortage. He said the former multifamily building on Walnut Street was “a really neat-looking building” that was “full of lead paint.”

Jeffers said the scale of the proposed Raise-Op project “is in keeping with the Choice Neighborhood plan, and in keeping with the plan’s goal of developing owner occupied, infill housing in the Tree Streets neighborhood.”

Infill housing is defined new housing constructed on vacant, underused lots interspersed among older, existing properties in established urban neighborhoods.

The Choice Neighborhoods “transformation plan” looks to secure millions in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development toward the redevelopment of multiple public housing sites in the downtown, but also emphasizes neighborhood-level support for safety, health and education.

Prior to Planning Board approval last year, Raise-Op had developed design plans for the Blake Street building, and hired Hebert Construction to develop cost estimates and work with contractors.

In 2020, the City Council agreed to sell the Blake Street parcel to Raise Op for $5,600. The updated option agreement offers the Walnut and Howe street properties for a combined $29,620.

The city assessor estimated the combined market value of the two parcels at between $24,000 and $33,000.

According to the city memo, the option agreement is good for 18 months, and while Raise-Op intends to acquire all three properties, the option is structured so Raise-Op can buy all three, just the Walnut and Howe parcels, or just the Blake Street parcel.

The financing through Maine Housing has not yet been approved. Saddlemire said the earliest construction would begin is the fall with a summer 2022 completion date.

The total project cost is estimated at $5.9 million.

A concept rendering by Bild Architecture for a nine-unit apartment house at 186-198 Blake St. in Lewiston by Raise-Op. Under a new proposal, Raise-Op is looking to build a similar building on a vacant parcel at Walnut and Howe streets. 

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