Dave Caston Sr., 65, has lived at Franklin Towers for 13 years and considers himself an unofficial community watchman. He and another resident collect photos of the problems at the 16-story public housing complex. “My job’s not done here,” Caston says. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The four women gathered for their Wednesday scat game at the round table near the lobby vending machines in Franklin Towers. They kept a card pile in the middle and dollar bills at the ready for the winner.

Three of them had not had full power in their apartments for more than a week, since the electrical system on the upper floors failed during a thunderstorm. A couple of their outlets and appliances had been restored, but they said they still could not use their stoves or air conditioners. The Portland Housing Authority, which owns Franklin Towers and other public housing in the city, has said the repair will not be completed until the middle of this week.

The women have all lived here for more than a decade. (At 20 years, Beverly Collins has the group’s longest tenure.)

The power outage has put Franklin Towers in the spotlight now, and they figured some would chalk it up to age. But they know residents have been trying for years to bring attention to the building’s many issues, which right now include bugs, only one working elevator for 200 apartments, random leaks and dirty hallways.

From top clockwise, Patty Cote, Sue Leathers, Beverly Collins and Gail Leighton play a card game together in a common space at Franklin Towers on Wednesday. The group of friends, who have known each other for more a decade, play scat on Wednesdays and a board game together on Thursdays. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“People are always saying, it’s so old, it’s so old,” said Collins, 83.

“But it really isn’t,” said Sue Leathers, 63.


“It really isn’t,” said Collins.

The 16-story high rise is, in fact, just over half a century old. It is home to 210 low-income elderly and disabled people, many of whom look out for one another but say they feel forgotten both by the city around them and the agency that oversees the building. 

“We feel like we don’t matter,” said Samantha Hashey, who moved in six years ago.

Cheryl Sessions, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, said the agency is planning a $35 million renovation and is doing everything it can to keep up such a large property with limited federal resources and a shortage of staff.

Samantha Hashey in her apartment on the second floor at Franklin Towers on Thursday. Hashey has lived in the building for six years and said it has been frustrating to see how little care has gone into maintaining it. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It’s certainly not being neglected,” Sessions said of the complex. “It’s not a situation where we just don’t go to Franklin Towers. It’s just a matter of having a workforce and having an opportunity to really go in and do a major rehab.”

Sessions could not say exactly when that project might begin. She wants to apply to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant example of urban renewal and early public housing. (“You’ll get a chuckle out of architects when you tell them that Franklin Towers could be on the National Register,” she said.) Getting that designation could allow the housing authority to finance a renovation with historic preservation tax credits in addition to other federal aid. But the agency still needs to submit all those applications and firm up plans, including where residents would go while their apartments are gutted.


In the meantime, however, Sessions said the building is in good condition and the staff is responsive to complaints.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds and regulates public housing, has inspected Franklin Towers three times since 2018. The Portland Housing Authority provided the scores from those inspections, but said it could not share the detailed reports Friday because large sections would need to be redacted to protect residents’ privacy. Officials said a score of 60 or higher is considered passing. In all three inspections, Franklin Towers scored in the 70s, high enough to pass but low enough to require an inspection once a year instead of every two or three years.

The most recent score from August, just weeks before the electrical failure, noted “non-life threatening health and safety deficiencies.” When asked for more information about those deficiencies, Portland Housing Authority officials did not explain all of them, but said in an email Friday afternoon that some points were taken off for exterior masonry defects that would be addressed during the future rehab and for the building’s inoperable second elevator. (The building has two, but the housing authority has been updating them, so only one has been working at any given time since April. That project won’t be done until the end of October. The housing authority has appealed the points taken off for the elevator because it has been down so it can be replaced, not because of a malfunction.)

“It’s a good, rugged building,” said Sessions. “There are some tired systems that we want to upgrade.”

Beverly Collins, 83, holds Bella, the dog she pet-sits, during her regular Wednesday card game last week. A 20-year resident at Franklin Towers, she acknowledges the challenge of a single elevator: “People’s tempers are getting bad.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Hashey, 40, said she has been hearing about the possible renovation for years. She used to work in nursing and is now disabled because of medical issues, and she was glad to find a place that she could afford on her limited income that would also accept her pet boa constrictor. She decorated her apartment with personal mementos and hung a bird feeder outside her window.


Soon she noticed leaks in common spaces and learned about bug infestations in other units. She began to feel concerned about the air quality and the grainy dust she cleans regularly from her shelves. She heard about possible drug dealing and saw people coming into the building who don’t live there. Now the feeling of serenity she has worked so hard to create inside her apartment evaporates when she walks out her door.

“The energy when you’re in this building, you feel like you weigh a ton,” Hashey said.

She found an ally across the hall in Dave Caston Sr. They’ve teamed up to collect photos of building problems – cigarette butts left on the floor, window sills blocked with rags to prevent rain from coming inside, puddles on the floors – and to write to public officials. Last week, they stood in their respective doorways trading complaints and talking about residents who have been evicted. When they turned to go back inside their apartments, they parted like family.

“I love you,” Hashey called after Caston.

Neighbors Dave Caston Sr. and Samantha Hashey have become friends and look out for each other, as well as other residents at Franklin Towers, documenting some of the issues with the aging building, such as leaks in common areas. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Caston has lived in the building for 13 years and considers himself an unofficial community watchman. Inside his apartment, he keeps a folder thick with copies of complaints about other residents’ suspected criminal activity and newspaper clippings related to the building. The folder contains a letter from his doctor, who has talked with Caston about how his problems with Franklin Towers have negatively impacted his physical and mental health. One of his handwritten notes from February 2020 says: “We all deserve better.”

Caston, 65, worked for years as a disc jockey at weddings and parties, and the folder also includes the flyers for the Saturday karaoke nights he hosts in the building’s first-floor common room. On one of them, he wrote, “Community always comes first.” He said the number of young people at Franklin Towers has been growing, and has brought more safety concerns, substance use and criminal activity, and he wishes only senior citizens lived there. Franklin Towers is open to anyone who is elderly or disabled, and about half the residents are younger than 62.


Despite his complaints, Caston said, he declined when offered a chance earlier this year to move to a newly renovated unit at another Portland Housing Authority complex.

“My doctor’s office is here and the store is here and we have karaoke here,” he said. “I’ve been here for 13 years. My job’s not done here.”

Seen at dusk, Franklin Towers was built just over half a century ago and is home to 210 older and disabled residents in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The store is the Franklin Mini Mart. Owner Ami DeRienzo keeps the shelves stocked with all the basics: dish soap and toilet paper, brownie mix and cereal, milk and ice cream. On Friday, she brought in pans of homemade pasta, thinking of the residents who could not cook for themselves with their power out. DeRienzo greeted a customer with a quiet smile and rang up his can of Pringles.

“It’s a real strong sense of community,” DeRienzo said. “They notice when someone would not come down for their coffee. They look out for each other.”

Franklin Mini Mart owner Ami DiRienzo behind the counter of her store on Friday. DiRienzo has owned the store for three years and has owned the store inside of 100 State Street, a building for low-income seniors, for five years. The store is open most days from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then DiRienzo heads over to State Street. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Collins, from the card game, sat at a table outside the store and sang praises for DeRienzo’s pasta. She moved into an apartment on Franklin Towers’ top floor after she retired from her career as a nurse and social worker, and she likes to watch the ships in Portland Harbor from her window. She looks after Bella, a little black dog whose owner lives in the building. With her friends, she plays scat on Wednesdays and the board game Gotcha! on Thursdays. She said she misses the days when the building had a tenant council that planned outings and events, but that group hasn’t been active in years.


“I like it still,” Collins said. “But it’s not like it was.”

She is sympathetic to the Portland Housing Authority employees who have to deal with the building’s crises. (“The staff is working their little buns off,” she said.) But she also hears the sharp words exchanged when, for example, too many people try to crowd into the single functioning elevator.

Bonnie Smith buys stuffed shells that Franklin Mini Mart owner Ami DiRienzo makes on Friday. The store is incredibly important for the older residents of the building who may not have a car or are able to get themselves to a grocery store. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She often has to wait for the elevator for some time, she said, until there’s room for her to get on.

“Today it was five elevators for me to get on and go home after lunch,” Collins said. “People’s tempers are getting bad.”

Sameerah Kadhim, at least, was in a good mood when she spotted Collins in the common room. The two women shared a hug. Kadhim, 70, moved into an apartment on the ninth floor in 2014. Her favorite thing about Franklin Towers is its location: close to a bus stop, her classes at Portland Adult Education, the oceanfront path where she walks with her friends.

She said she likes living in the building and feels her own floor is safe and clean, but not all are.


“The building doesn’t have a lot of people for cleaning, for trash,” Kadhim said. “Not enough.”

Sameerah Kadhim, 70, has lived in a ninth-floor apartment since 2014. She likes living at Franklin Towers and appreciates its central location, close to a bus stop, her classes at Portland Adult Education and the oceanfront path where she walks with friends. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The Portland Housing Authority said the routine maintenance in the building includes a weekly visit from a pest control service to inspect for bugs and treat any infested units. Sessions said staying on top of the bugs can be difficult in a large building with many tenants, especially when some people are too embarrassed to complain or don’t want to let strangers inside their apartments. But residents frequently talked about infestations of bedbugs and cockroaches, and at least two displayed red bites all over their arms and legs.

What appeared to be bug bites covered the feet, legs, arms and back of one resident, who did not wish to be identified. The resident thought they were from bedbugs, but hadn’t shown them to a doctor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sue Leathers said she had to give up most of her furniture, including a new double recliner, to put a stop to a recent infestation. She thought the housing authority would return or replace those items, but she has waited for weeks and it hasn’t.

“I’ve been promised and lied to and promised and lied to,” Leathers said.

Brendan Walsh has heard about bedbugs, but so far he isn’t too concerned. He moved into an apartment on the eighth floor just one week before the power went out. He was living in a West End studio when he finally got off the housing authority waitlist after more than two years.


“It’s not cute,” he said of his new apartment, but it is affordable. His previous rent was more than 60 percent of the $1,163 he receives every month from Social Security. In public housing, tenants like Walsh pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. The average monthly cost in Franklin Towers is $383.

Franklin Towers residents load into the single functioning elevator at the 16-story apartment building on Wednesday. The Portland Housing Authority says it is planning a $35 million renovation as it tries to keep up with maintenance with limited resources. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Walsh moved his record collection and his cat, Kagero, to Franklin Towers. He has lived in many places including shelters, and he described his one-bedroom in the complex as “the cake.”

Despite the ongoing outage and the puddle from a ceiling leak he found outside his apartment the other day, he said he likes the building so far.

“There’s this feeling of people taking care of each other,” Walsh, 44, said. “People bringing food by each other, people looking out.”

Walsh said he is surprised by the number of neighbors he has met in just three weeks. One was Bonnie Smith, 67, who lives on the eleventh floor with her roommate, Charles Blake, 79. Smith caught a ride with a friend to Hannaford one day this week to get supplies for chicken salad sandwiches, and Blake greeted her from his rocking chair in front of the TV when she returned. Their refrigerator was running again on their limited power supply, but she was still not allowed to use the air conditioner her doctor said she needs.

Brendan Walsh in his apartment at Franklin Towers on Thursday. Walsh moved onto the 8th floor about a week before the power outage happened. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

This experience has only exacerbated Smith’s feeling that the senior citizens of Franklin Towers have been abandoned.


“We don’t exist anymore,” she said.

She was not the only person feeling hopeless.

Down the hall from Walsh is Anna Hernandez. She raised her kids in Kennedy Park, another Portland Housing Authority property, and has lived in Franklin Towers for six years. Her daughter and granddaughter were staying with her this week because they got evicted from their most recent apartment in Kennedy Park. Hernandez wants them to be able to stay with her until they can find a new apartment, but she isn’t sure the housing authority will allow it.

She once dreamed about buying a home together and leaving Franklin Towers, but she cried as she talked about their uncertain future.

“That’s how it’s always been for me and my kids,” said Hernandez, 59. “We’re always fighting.”

Anna Hernandez cries as she talks about the possibility of her daughter and granddaughter having to leave her apartment and be on the street. Hernandez spoke to someone from Portland Housing Authority that afternoon who told her that her daughter and granddaughter could stay for seven days but then had to leave. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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