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Op-Ed: Time to Get Our Hous(ing) in Order: Lewiston Voters Demand Change of Course

By Maura Murphy 

Whether you are in favor of or opposed to the new “mixed income” Avesta housing project proposal that has sailed through Lewiston city hearings without much meaningful discussion by the planning board or the city council, it is time for we the people to examine the implications of this project within the wider, deeper context of what we want Lewiston’s development to look like, now and into the future. 

While “mixed income housing” might sound fine upon first hearing, the picture changes when we look beyond the frame developers and supporters of the proposal have used to limit the public’s awareness and understanding of who will really benefit from this project and other similar projects it will pave the way for. 

More than 30% of Lewiston’s land is already non-taxable due to non-profit status. As the footprints of the city’s three largest non-profits (Bates College and the two hospitals) continue to expand, how much sense does it make to continue to enter into TIF (tax increment financing) agreements with developers who will pay only half of their fair share of taxes for 20 years? 

A recent review showed that Lewiston’s untaxed property development is growing at a rate four times that of taxed properties. This is an unsustainable economic trajectory for any city, especially one like Lewiston that has been barely treading water for too long. Under the terms of this project, the out-of-town developers will be paid, the architect will be paid, the builders will be paid, and the out-of-town investors will reap their profits, all while Lewiston tax payers pick up a disproportionate share of the tab. 

If this were a business relocation or expansion that would add lots of new, well-paying jobs to our local economy, it would be an overall benefit to the community. But projects like this one will only ensure that we continue to expand our growing population of those dependent on various taxpayer-funded systems and services. While those already living here in substandard housing upgrade to the new building, the substandard housing they vacate will continue to be a magnet for those desperate and vulnerable enough to move in. 

How would this help the overall picture of well-being and potential for long-awaited prosperity in Lewiston? With a school system that everyone agrees is already beyond capacity and struggling to achieve quality, would it not make sense to stabilize the situation we have now before inviting another influx of new students? Requiring that new subsidized housing be linked to the removal of substandard units from the market could create a meaningful shift in central Lewiston’s housing landscape; but adding it without removing those units, as this project does, guarantees that we will be beckoning new hardships and challenges to the community. 

Building new subsidized housing when we are still so far from “putting our house in order” in so many ways does nothing to remedy our current and numerous problems with housing and beyond. Without confronting the economic, social, and demographic realities that have made Lewiston an unattractive choice for significant investment and relocation at every level, we will continue the one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards shuffle we have been locked in for too many years. 

Does it make sense to anyone that Maine’s second largest city should be passed over repeatedly by even chain stores and restaurants that can be found in Augusta, Bangor, Topsham and Waterville? Does it not sting when visitors notice that the most visible new storefronts seem to be tattoo parlors, marijuana sellers, and dollar stores? Does it not hurt when those who grew up here and return to visit are shocked to see the neglect and decay that characterize much of a central Lewiston they once loved? 

Avesta has requested contract rezoning that will more than triple the currently allowed number of units allowed on its postage-stamp patch of land – 35 units proposed for a space that currently allows 11. The developer and city government have argued that, because nearby properties are not in compliance with city land use regulations, this project should be exempt from them also. 

If Avesta succeeds, the groundwork will be firmly laid for other TIF-seeking developers to demand the same advantage and subsidy from Lewiston’s taxpayers. Real estate inquiries are already being made for as many as seven more developments similar to the Avesta project. Is a central Lewiston packed with new, high-density, low-income housing blocks really the best strategy to improve the current and long-term health of a city that is already slipping off the banks of the Androscoggin in too many ways? 

We cannot talk big about attracting investment but make decisions that repeatedly undermine what we say we aspire to. If we really love Lewiston as much as we say we do, we need to stop the schizophrenia of defensive, manic cheerleading about how wonderful and worthy Lewiston is while simultaneously allowing our leaders to make decisions and policies that harm our broader and longer-term picture. We can’t have it both ways. 

It is imperative that we begin to look at Lewiston’s whole picture when we consider development projects; we must begin to prioritize investments that will improve our overall health and contribute to growth, rather than further depletion. 

A citizens’ petition is currently being circulated to overturn the city council’s recent decision to re-zone property that would triple the maximum density currently allowed at the Avesta development location. For the question to appear as a voter referendum on the November ballot, signatures of 973 registered Lewiston voters must be gathered before June 8. To add your name to the petition, contact Maura Murphy at maurakmurphy@gmail.com or Benjamin Martin at bmartin0285@gmail.com or (207) 333-1084.

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