LEWISTON — As a deadline approaches to find permanent housing for asylum seekers staying at an emergency shelter in Portland, officials in the Twin Cities say a tight rental market will make it difficult for many to relocate here.

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said the city has not seen many requests for housing for migrant families, even as Portland officials have set an Aug. 15 deadline for closing its emergency shelter at the Portland Expo.

Barrett said Lewiston’s rental housing market has few vacancies, an assessment shared by Craig Saddlemire, manager of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative.

“Rental vacancy rates are exceptionally low in Lewiston-Auburn right now,” Saddlemire said Thursday.

Barrett agreed. “What we’ve told Portland is that our vacancy rate has come down significantly from where it used to be.”

He said it is partly because of a number of demolitions of substandard housing conducted by the city and private owners, but also because of a steady influx of asylum seekers between 2016 and 2018.

“That took up a lot of the slack we had in the system,” Barrett said, adding that recently many of the city’s qualified General Assistance clients do not come back because of difficulty finding housing.

Barrett said it is likely a small number of families from the Portland shelter will relocate to Lewiston, given its population and service organizations.

Barrett said the Social Services Department was contacted Thursday morning about the potential for one family to relocate to the city. According to a report in the Portland Press Herald, one Congolese couple were offered an apartment in Lewiston earlier in the day Wednesday, but they were still trying to decide whether to move their three young children, including a 2-month-old, into the unit.

Portland city officials have said some families have turned down housing offers in communities, including Bath, Brunswick, Ellsworth and Rangeley, because of concerns over access to services and transportation.

The Portland shelter has been home to dozens of migrant families — mostly from the African nations of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo — since June. According to the Press Herald, anyone remaining at the shelter when it is shut down could be moved to the original overflow shelter at the Salvation Army, which, unlike the temporary facility at the Expo, is not open during the day, uses floor mats instead of cots and lacks support, such as on-site food, medical care and other services.

Barrett said Lewiston was contacted by Portland city staffers in late June hoping to find property owners with room to house families. At that time, city employees in Lewiston said they were not in the position to accept asylum seekers, given the state’s General Assistance reimbursement rules.

Last week, however, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration relaxed rules on General Assistance eligibility to allow more asylum seekers to qualify for the welfare benefits — if they can prove they are taking “reasonable good-faith steps” to apply for asylum with federal officials.

Despite those changes, Barrett said, Lewiston has not seen new applications this week for General Assistance.

“That may change,” he said.

Auburn City Manager Peter Crichton said the city has been contacted by representatives of the Greater Portland Council of Governments about the availability of housing. The matter, however, has not been discussed in-depth.

Crichton said Auburn is “not in a position to help” because it also lacks available housing.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments has spearheaded a new program with nonprofits to find local host families for a month or two.

Rick Whiting, executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, also said Thursday the local vacancy rate is “very low.”

“That is why we are seeing more new construction of rental housing than we have seen for years,” he said, which includes a new Auburn Housing Authority project.

Officials from the Lewiston Housing Authority did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

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