Over the past two years, elected officials in Maine’s second-largest city have been plagued by division and inaction as the demand for affordable housing and homeless services has increased.
The Lewiston City Council has rejected or delayed votes on several proposals for homeless shelters or affordable housing projects.
It passed a six-month moratorium on new homeless shelters and approved a “homeless shelter overlay district” that restricts where shelters can be built. It banned camping on public property and briefly considered creating regulations or a moratorium on transitional housing, among other decisions.
On Tuesday, the council is scheduled to take up a proposal to redevelop a former elementary school into affordable senior housing. The project has come up repeatedly since 2020 without much movement.
“It has been frustrating. I mean, I am not planning to run again for another term,” Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said. “But it’s my hope that, you know, I can impact change from a different platform because I have felt like from this platform, there’s not a whole lot that’s being done.”
The entire council and the mayor are up for re-election next month. Gelinas, Linda Scott and Larry Pease are not running; Mayor Carl Sheline and councilors Lee Clement, Bob McCarthy, Rick LaChapelle and Scott Harriman are seeking another term.
The recent flashpoints on the city council include the ongoing saga to redevelop the former Martel Elementary School into affordable senior housing, a proposal to turn the former Sun Journal building on Park Street into an emergency shelter and an attempt to convert the Ramada Inn on Pleasant Street into housing.
In interviews, LaChapelle, McCarthy and Pease each said they voted against several of these proposals because they weren’t the right fit for Lewiston.
They questioned spending millions of dollars to start a temporary emergency shelter with about two dozen beds at the former Sun Journal building. They each also questioned why it was Lewiston’s responsibility alone to tackle these issues.
The City Council in June voted 5-2 to deny a coalition of organizations that included Lewiston Housing Authority a license for a proposed homeless shelter over concerns surrounding the project’s funding and sustainability. The project lost a $3.7 million grant from MaineHousing after the group missed a key deadline.
LaChappelle said if he’s going to be asked about being a conservative steward of Lewiston taxpayers’ money, “Is anybody going to question why Sabattus doesn’t have a shelter? Why doesn’t Greene have a shelter? Why doesn’t Auburn have a shelter? Why doesn’t Lisbon have a shelter?”
Downtown Lewiston represents four of the five poorest census tracts in Maine, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About half of the people who live in an area encompassing most of the city’s Tree Streets neighborhood live below the poverty line. Nearly 100% of them are renters.
The city’s vacancy rate — a measure of available housing units — hovered around 5% in 2021, which put it behind both Maine and the country in terms of available housing stock. And from 2021 to 2022, Lewiston saw a paltry two-unit increase to multi-family buildings and a decrease in one- and two-family units, according to tax assessment data compiled by the city’s housing committee.
In an August 2022 report, an ad hoc shelter committee composed of city staff, the police chief, community members, healthcare professionals and representatives from several community services organizations found that more than 1,000 Lewiston residents experienced homelessness in the prior year.
The primary factor was the lack of affordable housing.
Though Lewiston has a number of privately run shelters, the report said even when beds are available, “there are many people who cannot receive help in Lewiston when they find themselves to be homeless, especially adults living with a physical disability or serious mental illness.”
The committee recommended that Lewiston add 51 to 119 shelter beds to serve its homeless population. That has yet to happen.
On Tuesday, the Martel school project will go before the council again. The proposal from Lewiston Housing Authority is to demolish the former school at 880 Lisbon St., and build 36 age- and income-restricted apartment units by June 2024 and an additional 33 units by 2026.
In May, Lewiston Housing entered into an option agreement to purchase the building – the second time it has held the option. It entered into a two-year agreement in 2020 but the city council chose not to renew the agreement when it expired.
A year earlier, Lewiston Housing and its then-partner Avesta Housing said they had secured housing tax credits from MaineHousing and an affordable housing program award from the Federal Loan Bank of Boston.
However, for a “variety of reasons, largely related to impacts of the pandemic, they were not able to move forward with their redevelopment plans,” Economic and Community Development Director Lincoln Jeffers said in a January memo to the Planning Board.
The council at its last meeting approved an extension for the housing authority to redevelop the property so it could apply for financing and grants, but delayed discussion on Lewiston Housing’s request for an additional $200,000 until the Oct. 3 meeting.
Council meetings can be tense with disagreements over a variety of matters, often splitting the seven councilors and mayor along ideological lines. Disagreements have effectively stalled some proposed housing projects, but the disputes also surface other issues.
One of the most recent examples was during the council’s Sept. 19 meeting, when Clement made a motion to table Sheline’s nomination of Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Democrat and former school committee member, city councilor and mayor, to fill a vacant seat on the school committee until after the November election.
When McCarthy mentioned details that were not in Clement’s motion, Linda Scott, the council president, questioned if some councilors had discussed tabling the nomination prior to the meeting. Her question led to some tense exchanges.
It wasn’t the first time councilors accused each other of collaborating outside of public meetings or bringing politics into what are supposed to be nonpolitical decisions.
The mayor and other councilors have said on other occasions or in interviews with The Maine Monitor that Clement, McCarthy, Pease and LaChapelle have been conspicuously prepared to entertain certain motions or give prepared statements on items not on the agenda, especially when related to housing.
“I have a right to talk to a councilor any time. So if I’m talking to one councilor because we’re all playing basketball or something like that, and then later on I have an opportunity to talk to another one, there’s nothing wrong with that,” LaChapelle said.
“It’s called freedom of speech and my ability to do that. They’re just upset because it didn’t go their way.”
McCarthy and Pease had similar responses: One councilor will call another for clarification on something or to chat about an upcoming agenda item, the second councilor will then call another, and so on. But they denied meeting as a group outside of council meetings to discuss matters, which would constitute a quorum and violate Maine statute on public meetings.
“The reality is — and we catch this all the time — the four old white men,” McCarthy said. “But the reality is we come from similar backgrounds, we have similar beliefs and of course we’re going to vote” the same way often.
Clement did not respond to an interview request.
But personal politics in council business is what worries the other councilors, like Scott, who said there needs to be more conversations about “thinking outside the box” to find solutions to the housing and homelessness crises.
“I don’t feel that people are willing to have the bigger conversations that need to be had. And when the conversations are brought up, it seems to become very political, in my opinion, and that’s why things are not progressing the way they should,” she said.
Sheline, the mayor, said there has been “stark disagreement” among the council about how to move forward on various projects.
“It’s unfortunate that politics have played a part in this … It’s been difficult to move things forward for a number of reasons,” he said.
Councilors and the mayor are not affiliated with political parties, per the Lewiston City Charter. With the exception of the mayor, who represents the entire city, councilors are only identified by their ward.
Harriman said “plain-old classism” has prevented the council from finding solutions to homelessness.
Some councilors don’t see the “dire need to house these people,” he said, but acknowledged there doesn’t seem to be “that many people, you know, beating down our door trying to build things.”
“I don’t know if that’s just the market or if it’s just the uncertainty about Lewiston … If I were a developer, I’d be hesitant to want to build in Lewiston with this current city council just because of the uncertainty and the shifting positions they’ve had.”