Abandoned and dangerous properties in Bangor are not only eyesores but economic drains. They make residential areas less attractive to prospective homebuyers and reduce property values. They can harm residents’ health, embolden criminal activity, draw vermin and increase the risk of fires.
It’s a smart idea for city staff to more clearly outline a strategy for registering, monitoring and maintaining vacant and dangerous buildings — to either get them back on the market, demolished and built anew, or turned into attractive green space. Deterioration doesn’t reverse itself.
One of the city’s biggest problems is not knowing who to contact or hold responsible for problem properties. Often property owners don’t respond to the city’s certified letters, or there’s no known forwarding address. An ordinance, which would need approval by the City Council, could logically get the bank involved.
When a bank is foreclosing on a home, it notifies the city’s legal office, said Jeremy Martin, Bangor’s director of code enforcement. At that point, an ordinance could direct the city to reply and explain the bank must register the property with the city, pay a fee and maintain it to minimum standards until it is resold.
Chula Vista, Calif., for example, requires mortgage lenders to inspect properties in default to confirm they’re occupied. If they’re vacant or in a state of vacancy, they must register the property with the city, maintain the property to a level set by the city, and inspect it weekly. The property must be posted with the name and phone number of the company doing the inspecting, so neighbors know who to contact if problems come up.
In May 2009, Harvard University Kennedy School of Government recognized Chula Vista’s program as “one of the most 16 innovative government programs in the United States.” More than 400 municipalities have copied the ordinance. Will Bangor do the same?
It’s not only abandoned vacant buildings that are causing problems, of course. Councilors should also discuss what to do about buildings in horrible condition in which people continue to live.
Recently, the city placarded an apartment building where people were essentially living for free. The bank is planning to put the property up for auction, Martin said, and the city hasn’t been able to reach the owner. The rats and needles were only part of the problem. There was also a highly flammable fuel additive stored in the basement. With a malfunctioning electrical system, the house was deemed in “imminent danger,” and its residents had to leave.
Even in a case like that, the city doesn’t have a policy clarifying whether it can inform the mortgage company that the building has been placarded. Creating rules to encourage the flow of information might help speed along responses to problem properties. The city is rightfully planning a legal review of the potential rule change.
Uninhabitable buildings drain the vitality out of neighborhoods and cities, and Bangor should address the problem with a long-term, comprehensive strategy. In addition, the city can enhance other measures that prevent property deterioration in the first place and encourage more local involvement in revitalization.