LEWISTON — Ann and Paul Rivers moved to Lewiston for “a fresh start,” but have been living in a tiny attic apartment with no kitchen or bathroom.

Ann Rivers holds her dog, Gizmo, as she and her husband, Paul, relax Friday in Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston. They have been frustrated trying to find a safe and affordable apartment in the Twin Cities. Because their attic apartment has no air conditioning, they spend a lot of time outdoors. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The couple, who are in their 60s, have looked into some 20 apartment listings since the spring with no luck. For one apartment, the Rivers’ were one of 30 respondents to the landlord, but the unit was gone within an hour. And they’ve suddenly noticed steep prices.

“Nothing’s ever easy,” Paul Rivers said this week. “The prices I’m seeing are ridiculous.”

The pair has limited income, and are paying between $300 to $500 a month for the attic room. Paul has multiple sclerosis and wears a leg brace, and said “it’s getting harder” for him to climb the stairs. A recent application to an affordable housing unit in Lewiston was denied — a decision they are appealing.

Now the couple is simply waiting and hoping something they can afford becomes available.

The Rivers’ situation isn’t isolated. Local housing advocates and officials say a housing shortage and the state’s overall housing market are causing upward pressure on rental properties, inflating prices.

A one-bedroom apartment that might have been in the $800 range in Lewiston two years ago is now probably closer to $1,100. The Rivers’ said they’ve seen rents for two-bedrooms in the $2,000-a-month range.

Greg Payne, the new senior adviser on housing policy for Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, said rents are rising in many areas of the state. Ultimately, he said, it’s an issue of supply and demand, and the reality is that more people are competing for a limited number of quality rental units.

“This would appear to include many of those who planned to purchase a home but are now finding themselves unable to compete with rapidly rising home prices,” he said this week.

AFFORDABILITY

A number of large-scale apartment complexes are underway in the Lewiston-Auburn area, including this one on North River Road in Auburn that officials hope will help relieve the housing shortage. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Chris Kilmurry, executive director of the Lewiston Housing Authority, said they are seeing firsthand a record number of people struggling to find housing in the area. The authority has 157 Section 8 vouchers issued to individuals and families in the area, which Kilmurry said “is by far the most we have ever had on the street at once.”

MaineHousing’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program provides rental assistance to income-eligible tenants by subsidizing part of their monthly rent and utilities, and paying it directly to their landlords.

According to MaineHousing’s rental affordability index, only one county in Maine — Franklin — was considered affordable in 2020. The report states that the median cost of a two-bedroom in Androscoggin County as of 2020 was $1,029. Based on the renter household median income at the time, a two-bedroom rent would have to be $864 to be considered affordable.

Since then, the numbers have only risen.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development each year develops “fair market rent” for metropolitan areas based on a variety of metrics. In fiscal year 2021, according to HUD, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom in Lewiston-Auburn was $947. For 2022, HUD says it’s $999.

This year’s “Out of Reach” report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition states that renters in Lewiston-Auburn must make a wage of $18.21 an hour in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate. At minimum wage, a renter would have to work one and a half full-time jobs to afford it.

The numbers are based on the “affordable” threshold of not paying more than 30% of income on housing. The report says that statewide, fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,112, and that in order to afford it, a household must earn $3,707 monthly or $44,488 annually.

Kilmurry said that in response to the need for affordable housing, incentive programs are being rolled out. The Lewiston Housing Authority will begin offering landlords a $750 leasing bonus if they rent to a new Section 8 voucher holder. Earlier this week, MaineHousing and the Maine Association of Public Housing Directors announced a partnership for a similar incentive program.

LACK OF INVENTORY

A quick glance at Craigslist listings in Lewiston doesn’t show much.

There’s a listing for a two-bedroom “luxury” apartment near the corner of Lisbon and Pine streets for $1,500, and a three-bedroom in the same building for $1,750. Another listing shows $1,400 for a three-bedroom on Horton Street.

Area officials say the issue isn’t just affordability, it’s a lack of a diverse inventory of housing across the board. A huge range of renters across several socioeconomic groups are competing in a market that’s mostly aging rental housing and single-family homes.

The competition for limited available housing is also not helping the area’s workforce shortages.

At the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, officials are constantly talking about the relationship between the housing market and workforce. If people can’t find the type of housing they’re looking for in the region, they may not take an available job.

Shanna Cox, chamber president, said the organization receives between two and four calls per week from employers or people moving to the area asking for a comprehensive rental list.

“They want to find a place, the job is happening quickly and they want to just move into a rental,” she said.

Cox said there’s a huge need for various types of housing, including short-term rentals and senior housing. She said the chamber sees many older professionals who move into the area and would prefer a rental or condo, but are faced with a regional housing market that has limited options. When chamber officials met recently to come up with its priorities for 2022, housing was a unanimous choice.

“We’re going to continue to struggle with our workforce needs if we recruit people here and they can’t move here,” she said, adding that the same people “are ending up in communities that are developing rental housing.”

“This region has tended historically to think of the rental market as for only people who are low-income or young who would only rent because it’s a stepping stone to be able to afford a mortgage,” she said.

But, she said, at this point, “there’s just a gap in the assumptions this region makes about who the rental market serves, and we’re underserving a target audience that our business sector needs.”

The “luxury” units on the market are relatively new for Lewiston.

Cox said there was a time in Lewiston where many argued that a “high-end” rental had no market, but she said that’s proven to be false. She pointed to developments like The Lofts at Bates Mill and new projects by Jules Patry and other owners downtown.

Asked about the affordability of rental housing for the average renter, Cox said Lewiston has seen the introduction of units in the market that have higher price points. There are some units fetching $1,100 to $1,250 for a one-bedroom and $1,500 to $1,800 for a two-bedroom, but Cox said those are generally considered luxury units, featuring new appliances, a dishwasher, granite countertops, walk-in closets and more.

“As far as the long-held inventory in the area, we have seen an upward pressure on prices,” she said, particularly because “there’s so many people getting priced out of the market south of us.” But, she added, the rate of increase has not been the same as other similar markets in Maine, such as Biddeford-Saco.

Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s director of economic and community development, said Lewiston has very high occupancy rates, which tends to result in rent increases. He said he’s seen confidential market studies done for projects “indicating that rents have been increasing over the last several years.”

NEW HOUSING

A drawing shows a proposed 66-unit, mixed-use development on Pine Street in Lewiston that’s included in Lewiston’s Choice Neighborhoods “transformation plan.” Submitted photo

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, who has spent much of his last two-year term advocating for officials to reconsider housing and zoning policies, said there’s been a “breakdown in housing evolution” in Maine and the Lewiston-Auburn area.

He believes rental prices are rising because people who may normally be looking to buy a home are staying in apartments a lot longer. The increase in home price and the lack of availability is creating a “backlog that’s driving rents up,” he said.

The housing crunch has led the city to consider changes to its Comprehensive Plan that would increase density limits in most zones, including rural ones, which is a controversial subject in Auburn.

He believes Auburn alone could “alleviate” the area housing issues due to the amount of land it has.

“Auburn has more land locked up than Portland has land,” he said.

But, the city has already seen several large housing developments come forward, both for market rate and affordable units.

There are the new apartment complexes on Hampshire and Spring streets, but also market rate units under construction on Gracelawn and North River Road. The Planning Board is reviewing plans for a 128-unit market rate complex near BJ’s.

“I truly believe Auburn is the solution for southern Maine,” Levesque said. “We just have to be smart about it.”

Cox said people watching the Lewiston-Auburn market should also be paying attention to the rate at which new units are being added to the inventory.

In Lewiston, an Avesta Housing project under construction on the corner of Blake and Pine streets will add 35 mixed-income units. There’s potentially hundreds more in the pipeline, with the Continental Mill redevelopment moving forward, as well as the recently approved 19-unit redevelopment of the Dominican Block.

Lewiston is also on the cusp of rolling out work plans related to the $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant that is slated to bring more than 100 housing units to the downtown.

This week, the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative was in front of the Planning Board regarding a nine-unit apartment complex on Walnut Street. The group has been ringing the bell on the issue of housing affordability for some time, and has argued that cooperative housing is one solution.

Craig Saddlemire, the group’s coordinator, told the Sun Journal this summer he’s concerned that rising prices could force out the very people that have been invested in making improvements to the downtown neighborhood.

Payne, who up until this month was director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said the state “will be focusing a great deal of our energy in the coming months on ways to increase the supply of rented and owned homes, especially with the benefit of new federal resources and a partnership with municipalities to improve zoning and land use laws.”

At this point, Ann and Paul Rivers are hoping for a little luck. They’re on several waiting lists. Their affordable housing application in Lewiston was denied due to questions over their references and ability to pay rent, but Paul Rivers said he’s always paid his rent on time.

Rivers said this week that he’s just waiting for a hearing on his appeal, and now has the help of Pine Tree Legal. The couple spends most of their days at a nearby dog park with their two service dogs. Lately, it’s been too hot to be in their room during the day.

He was already looking ahead to winter, though.

“At least we’ll stay warm,” he said.

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