Next week, Municipal Question One on the election ballot will decide the fate of a proposed low-income housing project in Lewiston.
Last Thursday, through a panel organized by a coalition of Bates students, Batesies and members of the Lewiston community gathered to discuss Question One’s implications for the city. Present among the thirty-plus Bates women and five Bates men was City Council member and Harward Center Assistant Director Kristen Cloutier, Neighborhood Housing League organizer Melissa Dunn, and several Lewiston residents.
The panel centered on the discussion of rebuilding of several subsidized housing units burned in the rash of fires in Lewiston’s downtown in the spring of 2013—twenty-nine families and two hundred people displaced, and an empty lot now sits in the heart of Lewiston’s Census Tract 204. This is the second poorest community in the state of Maine, in which 50.10 percent of families live below the federal poverty line of $11,640 in annual income. The poorest community in Maine is also in Lewiston. Along the western border of Tract 204 lies Census Tract 201, in which 56.04 percent of families live below the federal poverty line. These areas lie in what the Federal Census Bureau deems “extreme poverty,” where more than 40 percent of residents are below the poverty line.
Question One addresses a petition to repeal the Lewiston City Council’s 4-3 approval for landlord and developer Phyllis St. Laurent to rebuild on the empty lot, approved originally in the Spring of 2014. The petition was headed by rival landlord Stan Pelletier, and consists of the signatures of 824 landlords from the Lewiston area. Pelletier openly cites the undesired increase in competition amongst local landlords, noting the existence of approximately three hundred vacancies in Lewiston, but fails to acknowledge how many of those vacancies are safe for habitation.
The $5 million, federally-funded project proposed by St. Laurent would include three buildings with seventy seven bedrooms collectively, a large green space, and a family resource center which will provide aspirations programming for the development’s younger residents, while also making available other regular enrichment activities to senior and disabled residents.
A rebuilt Pierce Place would host several substantial transitions to the Lewiston community. As previously mentioned, the proposed project will be centered in an area where over 50 percent of the current population lives below the poverty line. This project intends to turn the empty lot, which is currently generating $3,533 in tax revenue to the city into, when built upon, $37,226 in tax revenue, 50 percent of which will be used in assisting local landlords in maintenance of safe, reliable housing. The Joint Development Agreement between St. Laurent and the City would increase the minimum future assessed value of the empty lot from $132,890 to $1,400,000.
Tracts 204 and 201 also contain some of the oldest housing in the city, the majority of which, as stated by the recently-issued sample ballot, was built prior to 1940. Before the 1950s, lead paint was commonplace in coating both the interiors and exteriors of homes, and can still be found in Lewiston’s older subsidized housing today. Surprisingly however, a 2003 report prepared by Bates’ own Heather Lindkvist entitled “Lead Hazard Awareness in Lewiston, ME”, found that among seventy-five surveyed families in Tract 204, “respondents expressed concern that if they point out the potential lead hazards in their apartment, the landlord will evict rather than perform a lead abatement.”
The apparent paradox connecting the petition headed by Pelletier and the seeming necessity of new subsidized
housing in Lewiston may have deeper undercurrents than those financial reasons alluded to in debate. Deemed by Dunn a “racist and classist” campaign against the poor, venues for informal debate and discussion veers toward a racialized view of the controversy surrounding the rebuilding of Pierce Place.
In the Skelton Lounge last Thursday, Ashley Medina, a nursing student, single mother of two and Lewiston resident displaced by the 2013 fires, concisely answered for many Batesies whether or not she thought safe housing was a human right.
“We’re all human and we all deserve a place to live,” Medina said.
Lewiston residents will vote on whether to repeal the federal funding or uphold the project next Tuesday.