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Fed Up Lewiston Tenants Blame Landlords for Poor Living Conditions

Patty Wight
Lewiston tenant Shawn Greeley protests his living conditions outside his apartment building Tuesday.

LEWISTON, Maine - Lewiston tenants and grassroots community organizations say three landlords in Lewiston are responsible for some of the city's worst code violations at 71 properties. The Maine People's Alliance and the Neighborhood Housing League released a report Tuesday detailing the health and safety concerns at the apartments, and are calling on city officials to get tougher on serial code violators.

It may be good advice to not judge a book by its cover, but the outside of this three-story, gray apartment building in downtown Lewiston, says Melissa Dunne, is a good indicator of what the inside holds.

A missing shingle to the left of the front door exposes crumbling insulation. There's a notice of termination for natural gas service due to non-payment hanging on the door. And Dunne, who belongs to the Neighborhood Housing League, points to the cracked paint on the door itself. "A lot of people don't understand that cracked paint that looks like alligator skin or crackle paint - this is lead paint."

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
Melissa Dunne points out lead paint on the front door.

Step inside the first floor efficiency apartment of tenant Shawn Greeley, and he'll show you faulty outlets, holes in the walls, and leaky, stained ceilings. Cockroaches scurry in cabinets and along the sink. Greely lifts a dish out to reveal even more. "See? Look at the little guys."

"There's no excuse for people to live in these types of conditions," says Genevieve Lysen of the Maine People's Alliance.

The Neighborhood Housing League and the Maine People's Alliance used the Horton Street building as the backdrop for the release a report about the conditions some Lewiston tenants have to live with every day: insect infestations, water leaks, black mold, no heat or hot water. Lysen says three landlords in particular are responsible for some of the most egregious violations in the city.

"There are 71 buildings in total which are controlled by 12 shell corporations that are affiliated with three landlords - Ted West, Rick Lockwood, and Joe Dunne - that we're talking about today," Lysen says. Ted West and Joe Dunne did not return requests for comment, and Rick Lockwood's voicemail box was full and would not accept messages on Tuesday.

The Maine People's Alliance and the Neighborhood Housing League want city officials to create more transparency as to the true owners of rental properties and to step up code enforcement with serial violators. Gil Arsenault, the director of code enforcement for Lewiston, says the city is taking action against bad landlords. "Thirty-two Horton Street, as a matter of fact, we made the decision internally to file suit on that property last week," he says.

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
Lewiston Director of Code Enforcement Gil Arsenault, right, and Code Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Baril.

Arsenault says the city has also filed suit on another property owned by Lockwood. He says code enforcement is serious about code violators and cleaning up the city. "We make money available to rehab properties. We have a $3.4 million lead grant that we're administering as we speak. We've demolished about 75 dangerous buildings in the community within the last three years, with more in the pipeline," he says.

Arsenault says he's frustrated that the activist community groups didn't contact him about the problems outlined in their report. With three code enforcement officers to cover the more than 16,000 rental units in the city, Arsenault says it's not enough to do systematic inspections, but officers do respond to complaints.

But Matt Dyer of the free legal assistance organization, Pine Tree Legal, says his clients tell a different story - that the city is not responsive. "I just can't believe that every one of them is making this up."

Dyer says he believes city code officers are working hard, but if the goal is to clean up the city, they need to be tougher on landlords who let properties fall into disarray. "What I see is tenants moving from one terrible apartment to another, just trying to find someplace they can afford and be comfortable. It's almost like there's a nomadic population."

Dyer says there are good landlords in Lewiston, and good housing. A lot of that, he says, is federally subsidized, and he believes the city should encourage more of it.