Local residents and members of the Neighborhood Housing League and Visible Community rallied outside 91 Knox St. on April 20 to highlight decrepit housing conditions in the downtown and to urge the Lewiston City Council to add two housing code officers to the city’s code enforcement department.
Residents complained that current staffing levels are well below half of the national average, while Lewiston’s housing stock is older and less safe than state averages.
“Unsafe housing conditions in Lewiston have a great cost, not only to residents, but to the whole community: through lowered property values, through healthcare issues like lead poisoning and by the strain our police and fire departments experience with frequent emergency calls,” said Shanna Rogers, resident coordinator of the Neighborhood Housing League.
“Lewiston has the highest amount of elevated lead blood levels in the state, a direct result of the age of our housing stock, and each year hazard calls represent more than half of the calls placed to the city’s fire department,” Rogers said. “For decades our code enforcement office has been understaffed, making it difficult for current officers to follow up and follow through with code-violation complaints. We need our councilors to prioritize the health and safety of residents and commit to funding two housing code officers!”
Protesters argued that code enforcers do not engage community housing issues proactively, contributing to dangerous life-safety issues for residents. They cited poor housing conditions as a significant life-safety concern, and they asserted that the code enforcement department is as important as other city public safety forces, like the fire and police departments.
Nancy Gallant, a former resident of 91 Knox St., shared her personal experience with poor housing conditions. “When I lived here, it was cold all the time,” she said. “It was freezing. My windows were cracked and in disrepair, and my neighbors moved in and out all the time because it was too cold for their children. Some of them would call code enforcement, but there was only one officer handling all of the complaints; they were never able to follow up with us. And, of course, the problem didn’t get resolved.”
Hussein Muktar, a block captain with the Neighborhood Housing League, shared his experience as well. “In the past four months we have worked with tenants with lack of heat, hot water, problems with electricity and stoves,” he said. “I have also worked with residents in the downtown that complain of broken windows and lead paint that makes their children ill. These conditions cause our kids learning delays. When we have no heat, the cold causes our children to go to the hospital for their breathing.
“Most of the people I work with have already contacted their landlords many times,” he said. “Even after Code Enforcement becomes involved, it often isn’t enough to change the problem. We need a stronger, better-staffed code office to enforce the current city housing codes.”
The Community Development Block Grant committee has recommended that the City Council use CDBG funds for enhancing the code enforcement office by adding one housing code officer for two years. While the Neighborhood Housing League members agree that this is a good start, they urge the City of Lewiston to prioritize the safety of its residents by funding both positions in the general budget.
For more information, contact Genevieve Lysen at Maine People’s Alliance, 145 Lisbon St., Suite 200, Lewiston, ME 04240 or 782-7876.
Downtown residents protest unsafe housing conditions.