LEWISTON — After three devastating fires, the city began to focus on recovery Wednesday and made finding permanent housing for those who lost their apartments a priority.

A key part of that effort Wednesday was a “housing fair” pulled together by city and state officials, seeking to pair landlords and potential tenants who are staying in a city-operated shelter or with friends and family. Most of the more than 30 families that attended the fair lived in three Housing and Urban Development-subsidized apartment buildings on Pierce Street that were destroyed by a fire that began last Friday night.

There were only a handful of tenants receiving aid in the three buildings between Blake and Bates streets that were destroyed by the first fire on April 29, and the two buildings gutted by fire Monday on Bartlett Street were vacant. In all, 79 apartments were destroyed, leaving more than 200 people homeless.

Fire investigators said arson caused the first two fires. Brody Covey, 12, of Lewiston, is facing three counts of felony arson for the first fire; and another 12-year-old boy, whose identity has not been released, faces four felony counts in the second blaze. Investigators have said they don’t believe the boys knew each other or that there was any connection between those fires.

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

The subsidies for the Pierce Street units adds a layer of red tape to efforts to find new apartments for the residents.

Normally, HUD 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 Maine Housing, a state agency.

Lord said HUD officials have indicated that the waiver, which essentially would 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, and Maine Housing officials said relief from the rules normally require a presidential disaster declaration, which often follows a serious natural disaster, such as a hurricane, earthquake or flood. Granting the waiver without that declaration shows that federal authorities appreciate the level of devastation the fires have caused in Lewiston, said Bob Conroy, director of asset management for Maine Housing.

Another of the waiver requirements, 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 a subsidy.

She also said that, assuming the federal waiver is approved, the aid would begin flowing in time for June rents. Housing officials still are trying to determine whether 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 Sunday at Lewiston City Hall and was able to find 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 be moving into nicer units than what they are leaving behind.

“I know that where they’re going, they’re going to be taken care of, which they should (be),” Reed said.

Reed said she also 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 were busy spreading truckloads of topsoil into what had been the foundations of two buildings between Blake and Bates streets.

Officials said demolition of the heavily damaged but still-standing buildings was expected to begin in two or three days. Underground utility lines need to be located before the work can begin to avoid damaging water, sewer or gas lines, they said.

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

L.L. Bean donated $50,000 earlier 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 make a donation online at www.volunteermaine.org, and said the money would go to the United Way of Androscoggin County. Nearly a dozen credit unions — Central Maine, Community, Great Falls, Lewiston Municipal, Maine Family, Monmouth, Rainbow, Sabattus Regional, Five County, Lisbon Community and Midcoast — said customers could make donations at credit union branches and the money would be sent to the American Red Cross — United Valley Chapter.

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