Mailboxes at Tasker's former building - He says he stopped paying rent when he found out his building's new owner was going to rehab it and turn a dozen apartments into multiple, smaller units, rooms that will be rented by the week. Now he's being evicted. (Maine Public photo by Susan Sharon)
This is part of a series Eviction: Life Unpacked.
By Susan Sharon, Maine Public August 11, 2018
In Maine, like the rest of the country, there is a shortage of affordable housing, and it affects extremely low-income people the most.
According to the U.S. Census, nearly 30,000 Maine renter households are experiencing "a severe rent burden." That means they're spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
Some of them are seniors, people like Andy Tasker.
As a coffee pot percolates on the kitchen counter, Tasker puffs on a cigarette and explains his predicament. He says he stopped paying rent when he found out his building's new owner was going to rehab it and turn a dozen apartments into multiple, smaller units, rooms that will be rented by the week. Now he's being evicted.
"My idea was, someone who screws me over enough to throw me out of my house doesn't deserve my money, and if I pay him, I don't have money for the next rent," says Tasker.
It's mid-May and Tasker has to be out by the end of the month. His apartment is in disarray. Boxes of books, clothes and kitchen supplies are in piles and various stages of being packed. His challenge is to find an apartment with rent that can fit his limited budget. Over the past four years, he says the landlord had kept the rent at a rate he could manage.
"I'm on a fixed income,” he says. “I'm retired and it's $845 a month. My rent is $500 here, and I look at rents that are more than I get in a month. So I type in google: $500 dollar a month apartment. I go and I look and there isn't one $500 apartment. They're all $750, $850, $1500. It's insane."
At 67, Tasker also has some challenges that will make moving difficult. He has a physical condition that makes getting up and down stairs or walking long distances difficult. He doesn't have a car. The apartment he's leaving is close to downtown, where he can walk to the library, the bank and the bus station. He tends a small garden plot across the street. He's reluctant to give all this up, and he says he has been anxious ever since he and the other tenants received letters notifying them of 90 days to vacate the premises.
"I was instantly worried, very anxious about the whole thing because I had talked to people who were looking for apartments, for decent apartments,” he says. “There is an abundance of apartments in Lewiston...they're horrible. The water drips continually. The wind blows and the seal around the windows is such that the wind blows right into your apartment. They're filthy."
Tasker says his anxiety about leaving got to be so much that he sought counseling from a social service agency. He now has a case manager who he meets with once a week. She's helping him look for housing.
"I'm hoping someone's gonna say, 'Andy, I've got a great apartment for you.’ I'll go and look at it, make a deal with the landlord and everything's golden. I can start over. Otherwise, I don't want to think about it," says Tasker.
Tasker is qualified for Section 8 housing assistance. He says he's been on the list for about a year, but with hundreds of names ahead of his, the wait for a voucher is long. He wonders not only how he'll pay the rent but how he'll afford heat. Utilities were included with his current rent.
Frank D'Alessandro of Pine Tree Legal Assistance says this is a worry for low-income clients he represents at eviction court.
"The rentals that they have are often in extremely poor condition, D'Alessandro says, "And so one of the things that happens in Lewiston and other parts of the state is that these units, which are not properly maintained or are inadequately insulated or have an inadequate heating system, a lot of these tenants are having to pay high amounts for heat in the winter, and that's a crisis that makes them unable to pay the rent."
Housing conditions, especially in multi-family dwellings, is a constant challenge for code enforcement staff in the City of Lewiston either because of tenant behavior, landlords who don't address deficiencies or both. Since 2012 the city has demolished approximately 71 structures with 236 units because they were either unsafe or uninhabitable.
David Hediger, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, says there are other properties that either need to be rehabbed or added to the demolition list.
Taking these rentals out of commission has put pressure on the remaining housing stock and contributed to the city's low vacancy rate, and to rent increases. Hediger has also noticed more requests for permits to convert multi-unit buildings into rooming houses. These are smaller, less expensive rental units with no kitchens and shared bathrooms. Hediger says they serve a need for people who can't afford an apartment or who may not be able to pass a landlord's background check because of a criminal record. It's also easier for a landlord to evict a tenant from a rooming house.
"In apartment buildings, they have to go through the full eviction process," he says, "In a lodging house, they're essentially tenants at will. They don't have to go through the same eviction process, so those landlords are able to remove a problem individual in a much shorter period of time with a lot fewer issues."
Ironically, after his eviction as his own building was undergoing conversion to a rooming house, Tasker found that his only option was to rent a room such as this on the first floor of a building a few blocks away. It costs him $500 a month, the same amount he previously paid for his apartment.
In an interview in June, Tasker said he was discouraged with the living arrangement and eager to move out. With a shared bathroom, there wasn't much privacy he said. His other neighbors in the building are loud. And without a kitchen, he was forced to spend more of his limited budget eating out. He missed his plants, his books and all of the other possessions he was forced to put in storage.
About a week later he caught a break. A friend told him about a small apartment available for $500 dollars a month and he took it. It's not as close to downtown as his old place, but it is on the bus route. The challenge for Tasker is that it's up four flights of stairs. He has a hard time climbing them, and he hasn't been able to move in his furniture or boxes. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor. He says he's still feeling out of sorts and can't seem to focus.
"The American dream says when you get to be a certain age you get to kick back and it's the golden years, and that's BS, it really is," Tasker says. "It's totally foreign to my way of thinking that in America you can lose your home."