Lewiston program looks to help people traverse 'panicked' housing market

Nov. 19—LEWISTON — Amid a housing crisis, a Lewiston program is offering a first-time homebuyers class and is developing starter homes to help fill the affordable housing void.

Earlier this month, four people completed the first class of the pilot program called “Renter 2 Owner,” which seeks to help Tree Streets residents “realize their dreams of home ownership.”

As part of the new venture, the mother-daughter duo behind the initiative is project managing the rehabilitation of a downtown building into affordable “starter home” condominiums.

According to Amy Smith, a Lewiston landlord and founder of Healthy Homeworks, it’s all part of a goal of creating more housing options at a time when they are becoming scarce or unaffordable and preventing Lewiston residents from being priced out of the market.

The class for potential first-time homebuyers is aimed at helping people navigate the housing market, especially in Lewiston where the aging housing stock adds unique issues.

Smith, along with her daughter, Allie Smith, who is chairwoman of Lewiston’s Housing Committee, said this week that as the pandemic caused the statewide housing market to boil over, it’s left people scrambling, and can lead to decisions people may not be ready for.

“The whole education piece is urgent for anybody who is even remotely thinking about it, or feeling panicked about it because of the nature of the market right now,” she said. “It’s this kind of feeding frenzy and we really want to help people have some perspective on it and figure out what the resources are and what the first few steps are.”

Allie Smith said the pair aren’t trying to dissuade people from entering the market, but rather be informed about the process, as well as the potential “risks and liability” they’re willing to take on.

As part of her work with the Housing Committee, Allie Smith told city officials last week about reports of people with lower budgets being advised to pursue multi-family buildings, because they can more easily qualify for financing if the building is income-generating. She said she’s concerned that “encouraging first-time home buyers to become landlords, especially of lower-cost buildings, could cause people to become quickly overwhelmed with repair and maintenance.”

She also said a member of the Housing Committee was recently forced to resign after being priced out of a rental unit in Lewiston.

According to a news release, the first Renter 2 Owner class included a tour of a 1905 triple-decker apartment building in Lewiston, that highlighted the major systems that keep the home running and the unique anatomy of housing of this age and style.

“We have heard lots of stories of people buying this housing stock without knowing how to care for it and ending up in serious financial trouble and personal distress over it,” Amy Smith said.

Smith said 96% of downtown residents are renters and that a large majority of them did not have parents who grew up owning a home, or did not grow up in the U.S. at all.

During the class, participants also meet with local experts in real estate, cooperative housing and finance, including financial advisors from five local banks who partnered with Healthy Homeworks to provide one-on-one financial counseling to participants.

Heritier Nosso, a member of the first cohort, said it “makes it easier to avoid mistakes when you learn from people who share their own experience and expertise.”

According to the release, Smith owns several multi-family buildings in downtown Lewiston, including one that she lives in herself. Allie Smith also owns and lives in a multi-family building in the downtown, which the two renovated from condemned status in 2017.

Smith said that when complete this spring, the four condominium units will be considered “low-risk” starter homes. The program is partnering with the city and local building professionals to rehab the units to a “five-year standard,” with a goal of avoiding significant maintenance costs or the need for additional investment for the first five years of ownership.”

She said the concept of a starter home itself is something that’s disappearing from the market, but has benefits.

Allie Smith told the City Council last week that, “If you picture it as a staircase, there’s a step missing.” Renter 2 Owner is attempting to rebuild the missing step.

According to the release, the homeownership class will be offered again in December, consisting of six sessions over three weeks.