It’s a story all too common in Maine cities. A property sits empty for a couple years and slowly it falls into disrepair — gutters begin to fall, roof sinks under the weight of many winters and the yard fills with debris. Eventually, a squatter takes up residence inside and attracts police attention.
That’s when police try to contact the owner to secure the property, to no avail.
Augusta City Councilor Darek Grant recounted this story earlier this week. After residents of Maine’s capital complained about vacant properties, the City Council decided it was time to take action.
While vacant property is not a new issue, it is one that reached new heights following the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. When homeowners found themselves faced with foreclosure, many simply walked away from their properties. As properties sat vacant, often for years, neighbors cried foul. It would fall to local governments to resolve these issues. Even eight years later, cities across the U.S. continue to grapple with these vacant properties.
With the homeowners out of the picture, out-of-state banks often took ownership of the properties but have not always been responsive to complaints, leaving cities with their hands tied. “I feel for the neighbors of these properties. People need to understand we’re not the only ones dealing with this. It’s a nationwide issue,” Bangor Code Enforcement Officer Jeremy Martin said.
Fed up with vacant property festering across the city, Bangor in 2013 took a step toward bringing the problem under control by requiring owners to register vacant properties with the city. Now other cities across Maine are following Bangor’s lead to hold the owners of these properties responsible.
Nearly 24 percent of the 127,021 homes in foreclosure nationwide in the second quarter 2015 had been vacated by their owners, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based real estate information firm.
“This is part of the long tail of the recession,” Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac, said. “It’s one of the biggest pains for a still-recovering housing market.”
The RealtyTrac data, which is compiled using public foreclosure notices and vacancy information from the U.S. Postal Service, revealed that 37 percent of the 892 homes in active foreclosure in Maine during the second quarter of 2015 had been vacated by the owner. This is the fourth-highest rate in the nation, Jennifer Von Pohlmann, RealtyTrac public relations manager, said.
In Augusta, for instance, “some portion — approaching 50 percent — of [vacant] properties are in the foreclosure process,” Matt Nazar, the city code enforcement officer, said.
But city officials often found that there was not “a reliable, local contact” who could take care of issues with the properties, so they often went unresolved.
“A lot of these out-of-state banks aren’t being good neighbors and aren’t taking care of their properties,” Grant, the Augusta city councilor, said. “When it starts to affect other people’s property, something needs to be done.”
With frustration mounting over deteriorating property, the City Council formed an ad hoc Vacant Properties Committee about a year ago to craft a solution to the problem. What came out of the committee was a draft ordinance modeled after Bangor’s own vacant property registry. It will come up for a final vote Thursday.
Such ordinances, most of which sprung up in response to the housing crisis, have proved popular across the country, with more than 550 cities adopting them, according to Dan Immergluck, professor in the School of City and Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Under the ordinance, if a property is left empty for more than 60 days, the owner must pay a fee — $100 for individuals, $200 for commercial entities — to register it with City Hall and provide a local contact who can respond to problems as they arise, with exceptions carved out if the homeowner is deployed for military service or is a seasonal resident.
Owners who fail to register vacant property could be fined a civil penalty, under state law, from a minimum of $100 to a maximum of $2,500, with each day in violation considered a separate offense, Grant said.
Lack of resources
Two years after Bangor rolled out its vacant property registry, Martin still sees many local buildings that are vacant.
About 150 properties across the city are registered as vacant, although Martin expects that the actual number is likely much higher.
“We just don’t have the resources to send someone around to look for vacant buildings,” he said.
Other cities such as Augusta also lack the resources to take a full inventory of vacant properties, so they often rely on residents to bring these other properties to their attention.
Still, the registry has allowed Bangor to get a handle on the problem.
“We can now contact someone locally to get action taken on a specific property,” Martin said. “We are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”