Ahmed Alasow, left, gets a tour Thursday during an open house for a new program called Renter 2 Owner in Lewiston. The building owner and president of Healthy Homeworks, Amy Smith, center, as well as Allie Smith, chair of the Lewiston Housing Committee, started the program to create more pathways to home ownership, which is one of the goals of the Choice Neighborhoods initiative. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A neighborhood that people want to live in.

That’s what some residents of the Tree Streets neighborhood envision when they hear the word “transformation.”

It’s a term that’s become ubiquitous with Lewiston’s multi-year Choice Neighborhoods initiative — months of community planning and an application process that became a $30 million reality in late May.

The redevelopment grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is slated to bring $100 million worth of investment into the city, creating 185 new housing units in an area where the rate of childhood lead poisoning is higher than anywhere else in Maine.

But while three ambitious housing projects are at the center of the plan, those involved know transforming Maine’s poorest neighborhood will take more than new housing. That’s why other sections of the plan and a portion of funding focus on health, education and neighborhood beautification efforts.

The people who have been closely involved since the process began in 2017 have high hopes. They have seen a passionate neighborhood galvanized by the planning effort, and now, on the cusp of actual change.

But what does transforming the neighborhood mean for the people who live there, and will it have an impact on the entire city?

“I do believe it will be transformational, as long as we adhere to the spirit of the plan where new rental housing is only one piece of the solution,” said Amy Smith, founder of Healthy Homeworks and a member of the Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, which organized the planning effort.

She said the other two pieces of the plan — investing in neighborhood amenities and in the residents themselves — are the real “keys to success.”

Growing Our Tree Streets by sunjournal on Scribd

The Sun Journal spoke with people who led the neighborhood planning effort, as well as officials from another U.S. city that started undertaking a similar project in 2018, about how, and when, Choice Neighborhoods can deliver on the changes that are promised.

‘TRANSFORMATIVE’

When talking to those involved, it’s clear there are differing views on what “transformation” will mean for Lewiston’s inner-city neighborhood.

The plan, completed and adopted by the City Council in 2019, lays out nine goals, ranging from removing lead and growing a diverse inventory of housing options, to a focus on health and wellness, bolstering educational outcomes and career skills, and providing more recreational opportunities for youth.

Mayor Mark Cayer said he recognizes it can be easy for the effort to sound like a marketing campaign. But, he said, the fact that the plan means so many different things to different people speaks to how comprehensive it is.

He said by itself the focus on removing lead paint from homes will have a “transformative” impact on the entire city. With instances of childhood lead poisoning decreasing, educational outcomes will rise, he said.

Ashley Medina, who served on the Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, said her brother suffered from childhood lead poisoning, so she’s seen the “horrible health effects caused by lead” and the stress it brings to families that are often already living in poverty.

Medina also had her home destroyed by fire in 2013, part of a string of fires involving downtown apartment buildings at that time.

“It really excites me to know that people will have homes that are safe to live in and lead free,” she said. “Our homes should be our safe space. If you aren’t happy or comfortable in your home it can make it very hard to thrive.”

Even when completed, the new housing will be just a start to the plan’s goal of either removing or remediating lead from some 1,500 units built prior to 1950.

Medina said outside of housing, she believes the added resources in the plan for job training, child care, transportation, access to healthier food and other projects will directly impact people in the community who are struggling and living in poverty.

More than half of the residents in the neighborhood are considered to be in poverty.

“My hope is that people living in this community will feel heard and seen,” she said. “I hope it will help people feel more empowered that their community cares.”

A map included in Lewiston’s Choice Neighborhoods plan shows the outline of the Tree Streets neighborhood.

For Craig Saddlemire, who has been involved in community-building efforts in the neighborhood for more than 15 years, the Choice Neighborhoods effort has already been transformational.

He said the planning process was “the most inclusive, transparent, and resident-centered planning effort this neighborhood has likely ever experienced.”

But on top of that, he said, the new housing will change how people view the neighborhood. The new block of housing between Pine and Walnut streets will “give us a chance to promote more enjoyable walking space, green space, and family homes,” he said.

The plans also place parking and waste disposal between buildings, away from the street.

“When people visit that section of the neighborhood, it’s going to offer a real vision of change, and also a place where local families will want to raise their children,” he said.

Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager who has led the effort from City Hall, said, “Transformation will be seeing a neighborhood people want to live in,” both for the people who live there now and for those looking to find a home in Lewiston. “Transformation will be seen when our childhood lead poisoning incidents are decreasing because property owners have the ability to invest in their buildings … and when parents feel their neighborhood is a place where their children can thrive.”

TAKING SHAPE

While the first phase of redevelopment, a 66-unit housing complex with ground floor commercial space on Pine Street, isn’t slated to start until 2023, there are small signs the plan is already moving forward.

The first step for city officials and the city’s partner, the Lewiston Housing Authority, is to sign the grant agreement. According to Parker, officials from HUD will conduct a site visit in July where city staff “will get more direction on how we need to refine our proposal and develop work plans.”

Each section of the plan will now require more detailed work plans with defined metrics and timelines to be established and submitted to HUD within the first year.

For example, the “people” section of the plan, focused on the residents of the target housing sites, has five specific metrics. They include increasing regular wage income of nonelderly nondisabled households; increasing the number of children under the age of 6 ready for kindergarten; increasing children performing at or above expected state average grade levels, and more.

“As we dive into developing each plan with HUD and our partners, we’ll be working to define our metrics and set targets so that we can report out the progress we are making in each area and to the goals of the transformation plan,” she said.

Parker and others said that while the most visible development is still far off, work on the other goals is already happening.

She said there are plans to expand Promise Early Education Center, now on Bates Street, to 1 College St. within the first year, including the addition of an outdoor play space.

Ahmed Alasow, left, gets a tour Thursday during a Renter 2 Owner open house in Lewiston from building owner and president of Healthy Homeworks, Amy Smith. The condominium is being renovated for first-time home buyers in the hopes that the new homeowners will not have any significant repairs in the first five years. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Last week, Smith, who is also a Lewiston landlord, hosted an open house on Howard Street for a new program she created called “Renter 2 Owner,” meant to create “durable starter homes” in the neighborhood.

With roughly 96% of residents in the neighborhood renting, creating more pathways to home ownership is another goal of the Choice Neighborhoods plan.

Also getting a facelift last week was a public play area at the corner of Pine and Bartlett streets, where a new fence was installed. Smith said it fit the plan’s goals of making the neighborhood a safer, cleaner place and one that has more options for youth.

The “Pop Up Park” is located where much of the new housing will eventually be situated as part of Phase 2 of new construction, but Smith said “by activating this large green space now instead of letting it sit idle until construction begins, Healthy Neighborhoods is creating positive change immediately, contributing to the excitement, momentum, and validity of the plan.”

Saddlemire said by this winter, the city will have a new sledding hill behind Longley Elementary School that will provide outdoor winter recreation “when many kids feel stuck indoors and are really looking for convenient ways to play outside.”

“That’s just one example of visible changes that are going to give others more confidence to invest in the neighborhood in other ways,” he said. “I think it will give people a lot of hope.”

Medina said the plan’s focus on youth will “make a huge difference” and give them, as well as others, a new perspective on the area.

“A lot of youth decide to leave this community because they feel ‘there is nothing here,'” she said. “Lewiston has the most youth in the state of Maine, and they are literally the future. If they feel like they don’t matter, why would they want to stay?”

Smith added that while the neighborhood awaits the official grant process to gain steam, the plan and its goals are there for residents to get to work on.

“Now everyone can understand the goals and get creative about strategies and tactics to achieve those goals, aligned with the Choice grant but outside of its specifics and timeline,” she said.

NEWPORT NEWS, VIRGINIA

When HUD announced the grant award last month, Lewiston became the first city of its size to receive the $30 million implementation grant.

Since the program was launched in 2009, the smallest city to receive an implementation grant was Newport News, Virginia, in 2018. The city has a population of about 180,000.

In Newport News, the Marshall-Ridley neighborhood plan shares many of the same goals as Lewiston. Its housing stock was in desperate need of updating. In the three years since the award, the neighborhood known as southeast has seen two new health clinics, one a mobile clinic and the other in a former apartment unit.

There are education and workforce development initiatives, including new Headstart programs and a career center.

A new boardwalk on Pinkett’s Beach — the first interracial beach in the region after segregation ended — was part of early Choice Neighborhood efforts. There are new community gardens, streetscape improvements, neighborhood banners and murals.

But all of that has come before any new housing was built.

According to Eoghan Miller, assistant to the city manager in Newport News, a groundbreaking for Phase 1 of housing development in the city was held just last week. From there, he said, it will be on schedule for a fall 2022 completion.

Like Lewiston, the plan involves several phases. It calls for developing single-family homes and mixed-use buildings in its first phase, along with renovations to public apartment units. Some renovations to public housing have already occurred.

A rendering in Lewiston’s “transformation plan” shows what the redevelopment on Pine and Pierce streets could look like. The first phase of construction will not likely occur until at least 2023. Submitted photo

In Lewiston, officials have said the long timeline before construction can begin here is tied to financing. While 70% of the funding is earmarked for the three redevelopment sites, the projects will still require financing. That job will fall on the Lewiston Housing Authority and its development partner Avesta Housing.

When asked about the financing process in Newport News, Miller said the city “had some success seeking a number of funding sources,” but the bulk stemmed from Virginia Housing tax credits and city funds.

Officials in Lewiston have said they plan to use the $30 million grant to leverage a variety of funding sources for housing construction.

Parker said that when Lewiston received an initial planning grant in 2018 to pursue the larger Choice Neighborhoods grant, the city reached out to several cities that had been through the process to learn from them. She said staff has met with its HUD team coordinators to learn about “the complexity of beginning the implementation program.”

INVESTMENT

One of the key hopes of city officials is that the federal grant can attract more private investment in the neighborhood. If developers or investors see the momentum building in the neighborhood, they might be more likely to pursue redevelopment projects, renovations, construction or new businesses.

“Obviously we’re going to get some new housing, but I truly believe that it will generate investment there from the private sector,” Cayer said.

The mayor also believes the added investment in the downtown area will benefit the entire city.

“If that area becomes stable, it provides better opportunity,” he said. “If you have a struggling neighborhood in the core of the downtown area, that dramatically impacts the entire city. That alone is what makes this transformational.”

This image shows Phase 1, left, and Phase 2 (both in orange) of new housing tied to the $30 million Choice Neighborhoods effort.

Parker said one of the central ideas of the program is that the investments made through Choice Neighborhoods will “create the conditions necessary for public and private reinvestment in the neighborhood that will create healthier, safer housing with neighborhood amenities and assets important to families.”

Saddlemire also believes the neighborhood will see more private investment, but he believes it could have drawbacks. He said he has some concern over “the long-term impacts of real estate speculation, which is often a way that people from outside the community profit from the social investment we’ve all put in, many of us as volunteers.”

“When someone buys up an old building and then raises the rent because the community has been making improvements around that building, I think that’s wrong,” he said.

The concern is tied to the idea of gentrification, which describes the process of a poor urban area that, through revitalization, can lead to current inhabitants being priced out.

Saddlemire, through Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, is currently expanding its reach of community-controlled housing. The nonprofit has plans to double its footprint in the downtown by building two, nine-unit apartment buildings on separate vacant lots.

When that project was announced, Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development for the city, said the project was “in keeping with the Choice Neighborhood plan, and in keeping with the plan’s goal of developing owner-occupied, in-fill housing in the Tree Streets neighborhood.”

Phase 3 of redevelopment will occur last, replacing the Maple Knoll housing complex on Maple and Blake streets.

“We want every person who lives here today to stay and enjoy these improvements we are making together,” Saddlemire said. “More projects like ours and the efforts of Lewiston Housing and Community Concepts will ensure the neighborhood remains a place where everyone who wants to live here can find a home. That’s what the Choice grant is all about.”

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