Lewiston’s diverse population is what makes the city a vibrant and dynamic community. Many of these same Lewiston residents, though, struggle to find and maintain stable and safe housing.
On Nov. 1, as part of the Harward Center’s “Theory into Practice” series, the Bates community and public were addressed by three prominent women on the forefront of solving housing issues in Lewiston and beyond. The panel discussion was titled; “Housing Matters: Challenges to Housing Security for Low-Income Families,” and sought to unbox some of the problems and pose solutions for housing concerns in Maine communities.
The first remarks of the afternoon came from Bettyann Sheats. Sheats is serving her first term in the Maine House of Representatives and is currently seeking re-election. Sheats has brought her experience as a landlord and community member to the Maine State Legislature to advocate for safer and more affordable housing options.
During her remarks, Sheats stressed the need for reliable housing. She cited statistics claiming that the best predictor of childhood success in school is access to reliable housing, with the same concept applying to recently released prisoners. When individuals are in a stable living environment they can become more productive workers and active members of their communities.
A plethora of factors are required for people to keep steady housing. Often times, the problems people face with their housing stem from external factors. “It’s not about the tenants, and the landlords, and the housing; it’s about losing their housing because of economics, job insecurity, low wages, not enough affordable access to health care,” said Sheats. Fixing the toilets and touching up the paint on the walls isn’t what makes a good landlord, but rather being able to actively listen to the greater needs of your tenants. According to Sheats, in order to cultivate a working relationship between landlords and tenants, communication is a necessity.
As far as solutions go, Sheats says, “It’s not one issue that got people into a problem, it’s not one fix that is going to get them out.” For Sheats, throwing money at only one area like healthcare or education won’t do anything to solve housing predicaments. It’s going to take a system-wide reform before the community will see improvements. In her opinion, collaboration between community members and policy makers will be key to procuring safe, affordable housing alternatives for Maine residents.
Amy Smith discussed her experiences as a landlord and founder of Healthy Homeworks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building healthy homes and relationships between low income tenants and landlords. Smith is committed to providing safe and healthy living conditions for her tenants, but notes that it isn’t always easy. “It is really hard to create and maintain safe and affordable housing,” says Smith, “The health and safety of thousands of Lewiston residents relies on the health and safety of very, very old housing stock.” The real estate in Lewiston is dated, and inadequate conditions can lead to serious health complications.
As well as talking about the challenges of being an effective landlord, Smith described some of the difficulties her tenants have faced with housing assistance. The Section 8 Housing Voucher is one of the best options low income families have for housing assistance, but it isn’t perfect. The waiting list is very long, and once someone reaches the point where they can pay their full rent the assistance is taken away. “After just a few months at that level, your voucher is done, and you’re left without a safety net,” says Smith. If a person loses their job, or something else goes wrong, they’re back at the end of the waiting list. Smith recommends policy reform for housing assistance.
Both Bettyann Sheats and Amy Smith are role-model landlords who strive to provide affordable and safe housing for their clients. As Patricia Ender – an Attorney for Pine Tree Legal, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to justice and fairness for low income Mainers – says, “Landlords provide an essential service, and good landlords are worth their weight in gold.” Following that statement, Ender shared some horror stories from cases she has had dealing with housing discrimination and sexual harassment. Ender said that housing insecurity creates a scenario where tenants are very vulnerable to sexual harassment from landlords, owners, and neighbors. Ender also described the prevalence of housing discrimination based on race.
Thankfully, there are many opportunities for Bates students to get involved in Lewiston housing concerns. All three speakers agree that it is important to embrace the Lewiston community. Students can attend community meetings dealing with housing issues. Students can also be on the lookout for internships at nonprofits that deal with affordable housing, and the Harward Center is always a good place to look if you want to get involved.