May 9, 2013

Housing event helps relocate fire victims

Meanwhile, site cleanup goes on where damaged buildings were razed, and donations are collected.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON - After three devastating fires in just over a week, the city began to focus on recovery Wednesday, and made finding housing for people who lost their apartments a priority.

click image to enlarge

Kheyko Jama, center, fills out paperwork at a state agency branch office in Lewiston during a housing fair Wednesday for residents who were displaced by three fires.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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A key part of that effort was a "housing fair," pulled together by city and state officials, seeking to pair landlords with potential tenants who are now staying in a city-operated shelter or with their friends and families.

Most of the more than 30 families who attended the fair lived in three apartment buildings on Pierce Street that were heavily damaged by a fire that began Friday night and raged into Saturday morning.

Three buildings on Blake and Bates streets were destroyed by the first fire, on April 29, and two vacant buildings were gutted by fire Monday on Bartlett Street. In all, 79 apartments were destroyed, leaving more than 200 people homeless.

Fire investigators say the first two fires were arson.

Brody Covey, a 12-year-old boy from Lewiston, faces three counts of felony arson in the first fire. Another 12-year-old boy, whose identity has not been released, faces four felony counts in Friday's blaze.

Investigators have said they don't believe that the boys knew each other or that there was any connection between those fires.

State fire officials said they are still investigating Monday's fire, and hope to be able to say what caused it in the next day or two.

Federal rent subsidies for the apartment buildings that were destroyed on Pierce Street adds a layer of red tape to efforts to find new apartments for the residents.

Normally, federal aid is tied to the property, but state officials have asked for a waiver of that requirement, said Denise Lord, director of housing vouchers for the Maine State Housing Authority.

Lord said federal officials have indicated that the waiver, which would essentially allow displaced families to take the housing aid with them when they resettle, is likely to be approved.

"These waivers are few and far between," she said.

Housing authority officials said relief from the rules normally requires a presidential disaster declaration. A waiver without that declaration would show that federal authorities appreciate the devastation the fires have caused in Lewiston, said Bob Conroy, director of asset management for the housing authority.

Another waiver requirement, Lord said, is that the owners of the burned buildings agree to rebuild, and they have indicated they plan to do so. Lord said the tenants would be required to move back into the rebuilt units as a condition of continuing to receive aid.

If the federal waiver is approved, she said, the aid will begin flowing in time for June rents. Housing officials are still trying to determine if they can help the residents move in earlier, but some landlords aren't waiting for that decision.

Darcy Reed, who owns an apartment building and manages others, said she began meeting with displaced residents at Lewiston City Hall on Sunday and found apartments for five families.

She said a couple of those fell through because of paperwork requirements related to the waiver, but she hoped they would be back on track after the housing fair, where officials helped residents with the forms.

"I feel good about it," she said of the effort to find housing, adding that many will move into nicer units than those they left behind.

Reed said she agreed to cut security deposits and lower rents to help the families move into the apartments this month instead of waiting for June.

Cleanup efforts also moved ahead Wednesday. Most of the fire sites have been cleared of rubble, and workers spread truckloads of topsoil in what had been the foundations of two buildings between Blake and Bates streets.

Officials said demolition of the heavily damaged buildings that remain standing is expected to begin in two or three days.

Private efforts to raise money for relief also continued Wednesday. Hundreds of residents and businesses have donated goods -- enough clothing, toiletries and household goods have been provided that most officials are saying cash is now the most urgent need.

L.L. Bean donated $50,000 this week to the Lewiston Fire Department Relief Fund, and some anonymous donors have pledged to match parts of that donation.

Catholic Charities Maine and the Salvation Army were urging donors to donate online at www.volunteermaine.org. They said the money would go to the United Way of Androscoggin County. 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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