Bangor couple gets to keep house – for now

Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 10:54 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The woman sat at a conference table Monday inside the Bangor City Council chambers. Her hands were folded neatly. She trembled with nervousness.

Her story of struggle was not passed along as a thirdhand phone conservation or in an e-mail relayed to councilors from city staff. She was present. Flesh and blood. She was Jennifer Brown.

And she was crying.

Moments before, members of the council’s finance committee had taken up a request from city staff to take possession of her home.

Brown and her husband, Peter, live at 110 Pearl St. in a home that has been in Peter Brown’s family for years. He grew up there and the couple bought the house from his parents years ago.

The modest, two-story single-family dwelling fits in with many others in the neighborhood. Not long ago, though, the house was in bad shape inside and out. The Browns needed money to rehabilitate the home. Banks wouldn’t help. That’s where the city came in.

Under a program offered to low-income residents through Bangor’s Economic and Community Development Department, the couple received a low-interest loan of $70,000. The loans, which are for terms of up to 20 years at 3 percent financing, are meant to make improvements to homes in the areas of safety and energy efficiency and to prevent further deterioration.

The Browns entered into their loan in 2005. They also received two subsequent smaller loans from the city. In all, the Browns are on the hook to the city for about $110,000.

From 2005 to 2007, payments were sporadic. Sometimes the payments came week after week. Other times, the Browns would go months without paying on the loans.

The last payment to the city came in 2007. Three full years ago. In that time, the couple also have let their property taxes and sewer payments lapse.

On Monday, councilors agreed that the city has shown extreme patience in dealing with the Browns’ delinquency. It sent certified letters. It tried making contact by telephone. But the Browns could not be reached.

Finance Director Debbie Cyr said the city had two options: foreclosure or repossession.

“We don’t want to be in the business of kicking people out of their homes, but we can’t be a parent to everybody, either,” she said.

The foreclosure process is long and often messy. Taking possession of a single-occupancy dwelling is easier but happens rarely in Bangor. From time to time, Cyr said, the city might repossess a home that has been abandoned. It almost never happens, though, when the home is still occupied.

City Treasurer David Little said he couldn’t remember a case in the 15 years he has been in Bangor in which the city has taken possession of a home that did not have major code violations.

Monday was clearly that last resort for the Browns.

The council’s decision could have been easy. But there was a woman sitting at the council’s table. And she was crying.

City councilors make decisions every month that affect thousands of taxpayers living in the city, but the toughest decisions are often the ones that involve a single family. Councilors didn’t have any statistics or public policy documents to sift through to help inform their decision, only the sad story of a struggling woman.

Jennifer Brown tried to explain her hardship but labored to articulate the salient points. She and her husband struggled through a period of separation. During the period they were apart, he was supposed to handle the bills, but apparently did not take that responsibility seriously.

Both Brown and her husband have jobs. She works for a school department. He has a night job doing custodial work. She did not give councilors details about her family’s hardships. She was embarrassed. She didn’t want to be there, in front of these municipal officials. Not for this reason.

Councilors didn’t really want her to be there for this reason, either. They squirmed and asked questions and stalled. None of them wanted to make an excruciating decision.

“It’s only by the grace of God that we’re not sitting in her chair,” Councilor Cary Weston observed.

Are there children in the home? Weston asked.

Yes, she said. A 13-year-old and an 18-year-old who stays there part-time.

Do you understand the amount of time that has passed and the lack of communication? Weston asked.

She said she understood and acknowledged the difficult decision the council was contemplating.

Weston eventually made a motion to approve the staff’s recommendation for the city to take the Browns’ home. “I’m not sure more communication would do any good,” he concluded.

But the councilor struggled with the decision. There was a mixture of heartache and sympathy in his expression. He had a hard time looking Brown in the eye.

Councilor Pat Blanchette, who is not a voting member of the finance committee, said no councilor wants to be in the business of taking homes away, but she agreed with Weston.

“We have a responsibility to 33,000 other taxpayers,” she said.

Added Councilor Hal Wheeler: “This is one time I’m glad I’m not a voting member.”Weston’s motion eventually failed because no other councilors seconded it to move it forward. Instead, the matter was tabled. The Browns will keep their home. For one more month at least.

Shortly before the vote to table, Blanchette softened.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” she said. “I’ll feel better as a councilor if I know we made every effort.”

Rick Bronson, chairman of the finance committee, concluded that since it already has been three years, what’s another month? He did offer a stern warning for Brown: “This is not a second chance. It’s more like a fifth chance.”

Frustrations aside, no councilor seemed at ease with the prospect of revisiting the uncomfortable conversation in a month.

“I made the recommendation to approve the [staff’s] request knowing it would likely get shot down,” Weston told Brown. “But we’re one vote away from taking your home.”

Jennifer Brown nodded. She walked out of the City Council chambers on Monday night with Little, the city treasurer. The details still need to be ironed out, but they talked about a way to defer her taxes and set up a regular payment plan on the loans. They talked about ways to save her house.

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