By Robert E. Macdonald
Mayor of Lewiston
They arrived wearing tailored suits and well-coiffed hair, carrying expensive designer briefcases. To us simple folks in the room, they presented an air of stature, an air of importance. An air of superiority—airs found solely in representatives of the United States Government.
Present in the room were the mayors of Lewiston-Auburn and the economic development staffs of both cities.
Each representative from the federal government introduced himself or herself, informing those present of their individual expertise. Each explained how the magical mystical drug they had brought, known as taxpayers’ money, could be used to elevate our cities into a modern low- to no-income metropolis even more desirable for those wishing to live as recipients of Maine’s generous entitlement programs.
Mayor LaBonté and I thanked them for their concerns, but opted out of any federal funds designed to build additional low- to moderate-income housing. They were thanked for their concerns. It was pointed out that although this perennial gift of money was well intended, it has destroyed the character of our once-thriving working-class neighborhoods, turning them into a warren of abandoned buildings, drugs and filth, creating pockets of crime-ridden areas throughout our cities.
We asked for money to tear down vacant buildings, especially those located in areas in which the potential for fire would set off a conflagration, resulting in destruction of many occupied multi-units buildings and possibly the deaths of residents, fire or police personnel.
The federal boys and girls from Boston advised they would talk it over and get back to us. Well, a year has almost gone by. Surprise! We have not heard from them. Maybe that check’s in the mail.
But, even as we wait for help, our benevolent federal government in Washington still lovingly thinks of Lewiston. Since 1974 Lewiston has received Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) each year. These funds, lapped up in the past by prior city councils and administrators, have resulted in Lewiston being branded as a renowned “Entitlement Community.” Other entitlement communities in Maine include Auburn, Bangor, Biddeford and Portland.
However, Lewiston is the only community among the aforementioned that has the honor of being renowned. This year our status has brought us $760,000 in federal aid. Lewiston staff is responsible for administrating and distributing these funds. Up to 20% of the yearly funds can be used for administration. Social-service agencies compete for 15% of CDBG money. Last year approximately $150,000 was distributed to various agencies.
Perhaps this year we should become more proactive with these funds in our quest to stabilize neighborhoods and provide safety for those living there. Instead of resurfacing roads in neighborhoods where most people don’t own vehicles or providing additional parks and other amenities intended to improve the “quality of life” in these areas, perhaps it is time to use the money to take down abandoned buildings. This would go a long way to revitalizing these areas.
Next, it’s time to start helping responsible local landlords make their buildings more marketable. This would insure they are in a position to retain their current tenants, not lose them to well-funded out-of-town developers. Money for weatherization, siding, roof repairs, etc. should be made available.
Hopefully, this upgrading would attract and keep tenants, giving landlords a stream of revenue to upkeep their buildings and further prevent them from joining a growing list of uninhabited and condemned buildings.
Local landlords cannot survive competing with developers that are collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds to create low-income housing that is locked in for 99 years. Ridiculous rules like that take away local government control that may be needed in the future to improve those areas.
Do you think the federal government cares or realizes what this money is doing to our inner cities? The answer—well, it’s a rhetorical question.