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  • Bangor Daily News

    She wants to boost homeownership in Maine’s poorest neighborhood

    By Zara Norman,

    26 days ago

    LEWISTON, Maine — Everybody in the Tree Streets seems to know Amy Smith.

    That’s in part because Smith, 61, is a landlord who’s owned a six-unit apartment building in the neighborhood since 2020. She’s also a neighbor, living in one of her units with an office down the street. And for a select few families, Smith is the reason they can own their home.

    She’s running a group with an ambitious mission: converting distressed apartments into condos priced low enough for middle-income renters to afford them. Smith finished her first four units this April on Howard Street, and she has identified more than 100 other properties in Lewiston’s Tree Streets neighborhood that could be similarly converted.

    The novel program could add more than 300 starter homes in a neighborhood that sits at the intersection of the three poorest census tracts in Maine. Only 4 percent people here own their homes, which are mostly dilapidated triple-deckers originally built as mill housing. Many residents are immigrants and young children, and many homes are tainted with lead .

    Smith, a New York native, moved to southern Maine in 1991 to raise her three children. She first started working in Lewiston in 2016 to create lead-safe housing and went on to work with the city to implement a landmark $30 million federal grant program aimed at creating more rental housing on the Tree Streets. She views her condo program as complementary.

    “We wanted to know what this neighborhood could look like if everyone owned their own home,” Smith said. “But people making $50,000 a year can’t get into the real estate market.”

    As a landlord, Smith knew that it was cheaper to own than to rent in this neighborhood. She wanted to have a hand in transforming renters into homeowners building wealth. As a part of that, she’s offering homebuyer education classes on financial literacy and the housing market.

    On the other side, she’s creating inventory by buying and retrofitting run-down buildings and transforming them into condos. Smith said she’s preserving these buildings’ historic design elements and providing the kinds of upgrades that typically “a landlord would never do.”

    “They’d never get the money back,” she said.

    That’s why Smith started her nonprofit group, Healthy Homeworks. It loses $50,000 on each unit it constructs and relies on philanthropic donations to make up that difference. The group avoids federal funding that often comes with restrictive affordability covenants that limit the amount a homeowner can profit off their unit by the time they sell it.

    Limiting the equity a first-generation homebuyer can make on their starter home while keeping a unit affordable inverts the purpose of programs like Smith’s, which is to build equity and generational wealth through property ownership. To further that aim, the nonprofit has built protections into the condos’ declarations that prevent the units from being flipped, Smith said.

    “We want these first time homebuyers to fully participate in the free market,” Smith said. “I would not do this work if the homebuyers were not going to get intergenerational financial stability.”

    Program participant Jessica Archer, 41, dreams of owning her own home but can’t save enough for a down payment while working two jobs and renting her one-bedroom apartment on Bartlett Street. She was homeless for four months this year.

    Since taking Smith’s two-day homebuyer class in April, Archer feels homeownership is more attainable. She learned how to talk to a loan officer and knows more about financing, basic home repairs and the different types of homes you can own.

    She hopes to find a place within the year, but it won’t be one of Smith’s condos. Archer said she’s not a city person and needs space for four pets. Smith is still helping with her search.

    “She wants to do what she can to help people and fix up the community and make it a better place,” Archer said.

    Smith now wants to convert three more distressed buildings in the Tree Streets into condo buildings in the next three years. She needs to “lose $50,000 twenty times on purpose,” which means she needs $1 million in capital.

    So far, the group has raised $230,000, Smith said. She’s hoping that state and local officials might rally to help her raise the rest. Staffers from MaineHousing, the state housing authority, toured the site of her first completed condo conversion earlier this month.

    A MaineHousing spokesperson suggested that the nonprofit might submit a proposal for funding through their Affordable Homeownership Program, which received $10 million in renewed funding this year from Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature.

    “MaineHousing sees promise and success in the innovative approaches Healthy Homeworks and Amy Smith are taking in Lewiston,” said Scott Thistle, the agency’s spokesperson.

    Smith sees the promise and success of her program herself as she walks around her neighborhood. Last week, Smith was showing off her first completed condos when the young child of one of her tenants cycled by.

    “You’re my landlord,” the girl said, whizzing down Howard Street.

    “Am I an evil landlord?” Smith joked.

    “Yes!” the girl shouted gleefully, wheeling off in a streak of purple.

    The exchange made Smith chuckle. It’s an inside joke, she explained.

    “I hate being a landlord. I hate the power dynamic,” she said. “But I love creating housing.”

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