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Lewiston's Condemned Buildings Under Scrutiny After Rash of Fires
05/09/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

In Lewiston, long before three recent apartment fires displaced dozens of families, a process was underway to identify and tear down unsafe buildings that are often less than a car-length apart. It's estimated that as much as 20 percent of inner-city housing is vacant, with buildings abandoned by landlords who can no longer afford to keep them up, or that are in such poor condition that they can't be rehabed. As Susan Sharon reports, the fires have once again put condemned buildings in the spotlight.

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Lewiston's Condemned Buildings Under Scrutiny Afte Listen

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Piles of trash and debris litter one of Lewiston's abandoned apartment buildings.

Over the past two years, the city of Lewiston has torn down 13 condemned buildings and spent more than half-a-million dollars in the process. Originally constructed in the early 1900's, the buildings were home to hundreds of millworkers.

But the mills have closed. Much of the housing is old. There's a glut of it. And some of it is beyond repair. So, this year another dozen buildings are scheduled for demolition - buildings like this three-story unit on Walnut Street.

Condemned bldgs 2"The copper thieves got in here and destroyed the building," says Cpl. Jeffrey Baril of the Lewiston Police Department. Baril has been assigned full-time to help code enforcement officers deal with what is considered a safety problem. One of the fires last week was started in a building that had been condemned. The Walnut Street residence, which was abandoned after the landlord died, is expected to be torn down in a few weeks.

"This building is definitely one of our most dangerous buildings," Baril says. "And you would ask why - not only does it have a lot of debris in it, but it's the proximity - I mean, I can almost reach out and touch the buiding next door. If you look behind that building, 30 feet away, 50 feet that way, is an eight-unit apartment building."

Inside the small apartments, trash and debris are everywhere. The stairs to the third floor are barely passable, and a toilet, ripped out by copper thieves, lays on its side on the kitchen floor. Baril says that makes it even more challenging for a property owner to fix it up.

"The cost of rehabing the building just tripled," he says. "Instead of just being able to do some minor maintenance maybe, or some little upgrades, now you're talking about gut jobs, the new plumbing systems, heating systems."

Condemned bldgs 4The city has hired a contractor to clean out the debris inside the building before it is boarded up and eventually demolished. So far, the contractor has filled his dump truck three times.

It's a scene that is repeated often around Lewiston. And with the recent fires, police are also actively working to secure abandoned buildings that might be attractive for starting fires.

"There's no quick fix to solve this problem," says Sgt. Robert Ullrich. Ullrich says his community resource team can identify safety hazards, board up buildings and put them on the map for city officials. But that's just the beginning.

"It's not as simple as just identifying a building and say, 'That needs to come down.' and then go to the Council and say, 'Tear it down.' There's a long, legal process that the city has to take in order to do that," Ullrich says.

With limited resources, the city tries to use demolition as a last resort and to recoup as many costs as possible from landlords or mortgage companies. This couple, who declined to give their names, say they'll be happy to see the condemned building next to theirs be torn down. They say it's an eyesore and they're worried about the recent fires.

"I think people were living in there and they weren't supposed to be," the man says.

Police say they are working to remove transients from abandoned property. At the same time the city is also undertaking an effort to provide affordable, new housing downtown. Last year about 100 new units were built.

But, just like tearing down buildings, putting them up also costs money, which is increasinly in short supply.

Photos: Susan Sharon


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