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Lewiston Tenants: We're not to Blame for Shoddy Conditions
06/24/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

There's a spotlight on housing in Lewiston, after three arson fires this spring tore through nine apartment buildings over the span of a week. In the aftermath, Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald held a meeting with landlords to discuss how to handle what some had characterized as disorderly tenants, as part of an effort to clean up the city. But some tenants say they're unfairly taking the blame for shoddy apartment conditions, and today, they met with the mayor and code enforcement officials to give their side of the story. Patty Wight reports.

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Melissa Dunn

Melissa Dunn speaks at a meeting of Lewiston tenants with mayor Bob Macdonald (left) and code enforcement officers.

Lewiston is Melissa Dunn's hometown. And while she welcomes the new found attention to the city's housing issues, she says the problems are nothing new.

"This has been going on for quite some time," Dunn says. "We work with tenants constantly that face retaliation just for asking for a simple repair - for a smoke detector in their home."

Dunn is the resident coordinator of the Neighborhood Housing League, an advocacy group for fair, safe, and affordable housing. She says the majority of Lewiston's tenants are responsible residents. Yet, too often, they face unsafe housing conditions and neglect from landlords.

At the meeting at City Hall, about about a dozen-and-a-half tenants told Mayor Bob Macdonald and three code enforcement officers stories of faulty stoves, mold issues, and pests - everything from cockroaches, to rats, to bedbugs.

"I did get evicted for a very surprising reason: I got evicted for getting bedbugs, and I didn't think that was right," says Sirri Cressey.

Cressey says she was kicked out after inadvertantly bringing home bedbugs from friends she visited. Another prime area of concern for tenants are demolitions. There are over 100 distressed properties in Lewiston. About a dozen were demolished last year, and at least a dozen more are slated for demolition this year.

But these are old buildings that present health hazards, says Jim Lysen. He's the executive director of Community Clinical Services in Lewiston.

"When a building gets torn down, if it's not done properly, you've got asbestos, you've got lead, you've got stuff going into the air," Lysen says. "And, of course, it's a spectacle that people want to go see."

Tenants complained that the city doesn't give adequate notice and warnings of these demolitions, so the task falls to organizations like the Neighborhood Housing League. Mayor Macdonald thanked them for their help, and asked them to continue because the city is strapped for resources.

"We can't hire any more people. We're trying not to lay off any people right now, okay? Because the tax rate's going up," Macdonald said.

This was the recurring theme of the meeting: Tenants complained, city officials said their hands are tied.

"I can appreciate the anger," says Gil Arsenault, Lewiston's director of Code Enforcement, "bcause there are people that believe that the city doesn't care, and the city hasn't stepped to the plate. And that is absolutely untrue."

Arsenault says the city's code enforcement officers do everything they can to follow up with complaints and ensure safe housing conditions. He says most landlords want to do the right thing, but they struggle with the cost of upkeep in old buildings.

The meeting was mostly an opportunity to air grievances, with little resolution to the issues that surfaced. But Fatuma Hussein of United Somali Women of Maine offered one suggestion: engaging help from organizations like hers.

"Code enforcement, I know you're very short-staffed, but I think there's a lot of folks that you can use out there, whether it's interpretation, or awareness or education, so there's a partnership that's built," Hussein said.

Arsenault agrees that the job of improving conditions in Lewiston's apartments can't rest on code enforcement alone - it will take the entire community.

Photo Caption: Melissa Dunn speaks at a meeting of Lewiston tenants with mayor Bob Macdonald (left) and code enforcement officers.

Photo:  Patty Wight


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