BANGOR, Maine — City officials say the hangover of the home mortgage crisis seems to be easing but they’re still dealing with a headache.
The economic recession and accompanying mortgage meltdown left cities nationwide dealing with a multitude of abandoned properties or houses — and the security, safety and economic problems that go with them.
While Bangor has not been immune to the problem, city officials say it has fared better than most.
“The Bangor area missed the worst of the housing crunch, but it was still bigger and deeper than anything this community has seen since the Great Depression,” said Dan Wellington, who was Bangor’s code enforcement officer for 18 years.
Wellington said that when it came to tracking down the owners of abandoned houses, he sometimes felt more like a detective than a code enforcement officer.
“Unlike other recessions with foreclosures that the banks handled quickly and efficiently, now the paper isn’t all held by traditional brick-and-mortar institutions,” said Wellington, who retired from the post last August after 34 years working for the city. “Some of these [mortgage companies] shop your mortgage out shortly after signing you up. They act more like mortgage brokers than mortgage holders.”
Just before Wellington retired, staffers from his office conducted a “windshield survey,” driving around Bangor and identifying possible abandoned buildings based on visible signs such as unmowed lawns.
“We started getting the sense things were worse than what we had on paper,” he added. “We found 125 vacant buildings in town that weren’t being maintained.”
David Little, Bangor’s tax collector and deputy treasurer, said there are more than 100 homeowners in Bangor who are three or more years behind on property taxes, giving the city legal standing to take over house ownership.
“Legally we could, but technically we haven’t,” said City Manager Cathy Conlow. “We have the legal right to begin the process, but we haven’t had a full-blown discussion on what to do about that.”
While no one — from people in code enforcement, assessing and Bangor’s treasury department — has an exact figure for abandoned properties in Bangor, estimates range from 50 to 100.
Why the uncertainty?
“I think most of them are simply people’s nonmaintenance of their property,” said Jeremy Martin, Bangor’s present code enforcement officer. “Some may appear to be abandoned, but some may not be, or they’re abandoned for a short period of time and in transition. It’s very difficult to determine.”
It’s even more difficult to determine who owns the houses that have in fact been abandoned.
“The biggest problem is we don’t even know who to contact sometimes,” said Conlow.
Many times, tax records, the city registry and even bank records don’t help, forcing people like Wellington — and now Martin — to play Perry Mason and go digging — deep.
“After two days of making calls and doing Internet searches, we tracked down one house where the mortgage was being held by a pension fund in Dallas, Texas,” recalled Wellington. “I talked to someone there and they said they bought a bundle of around 8,000 to 10,000 high-risk mortgages at 9 percent.
“He said they thought they were guaranteed a 9 percent return on investment and that it was a heck of a deal, but now they’re all toxic and they have to unload them.”
Wellington said he heard some sobering tales while researching the issue of abandoned houses.
“We’ve had several landlords of rental properties who got so desperate they just took off and left the tenants to their own fates,” he said. “The tenants hadn’t seen their landlords in three months and we’d have to tell them the end was here and they’d have to find somewhere else to go because the winter was coming and there would be no heat or water in the near future.”
Martin said when his office is notified of an abandoned house, people from the office usually go there along with a police officer to secure the site by boarding up open spaces and making sure people can’t gain easy access.
“We get occasional calls about them,” said Jason McAmbley, the Bangor Police Department’s community relations officer. “It’s more an annoyance than a problem for us.”
McAmbley said Bangor residents have been very vigilant about reporting activity in empty houses in their neighborhoods.
“People going in those houses are not going in to live there,” he said. “They’re going in temporarily to drink or use drugs. I think it’s more stealing things and causing damage. The most we’ve seen is buildings being stripped of copper pipes and fixtures.”
Martin said the frequency of such calls was about once a month last year, but that pace has slackened.
“In the last six months … I think the frequency of abandoned buildings calls has gone down,” he said. “Compared to a lot of places, we’re not feeling it like they are.”
Wellington agrees, saying he chalks that up to old-fashioned Yankee values.
“Mainers are pretty conservative people and a lot of us got our mortgages from Bangor Savings and other local institutions rather than fly-by-night lending places,” Wellington said.
The Bangor City Council held a workshop on abandoned properties last year and is keeping tabs on the issue.
“The concern is the degradation of neighborhoods. We certainly don’t want unmaintained buildings, which can lead to vandalism and safety issues,” Conlow said.
Council Chairman Cary Weston, who acts as Bangor’s mayor, said an empty building isn’t a problem in and of itself.
“There are certainly some ugly abandoned houses and eyesores, but the problem is we have absentee owners,” said Weston. “The problem, from my point of view, is the buildings that aren’t abandoned but still have code violations from absent or unattentive landlords with a slumlord mentality who need to be held more responsible.
“And we’re stepping up to put the rules and tools in place for law enforcement to more effectively deal with them.”