Two neighboring houses on Garland Street in Bangor languished unoccupied for years until early 2018, when city officials sought approval from the City Council to tear them down.
What later happened to the houses is emblematic of a renewed effort in Bangor to curb the problem of condemned properties, which can hurt neighborhoods by becoming eyesores and attracting squatters and vandals.
At that 2018 meeting, real estate developers Nick and Kortnie Mullins offered to buy the house at 15 Garland St., which they since have renovated and are about to rent out.
The neighboring house at 17 Garland St. has since been demolished, leaving only an empty lot.
“That’s the one time that I can remember it has happened,” Jeff Wallace, the city’s Director of Code Enforcement, said referring to the Mullins’ rescue of the nearly-demolished house at 15 Garland St. “Demolition absolutely is a last resort. If someone can save a building, that’s ideal.”
For several years running, the city’s list of uninhabitable homes hovered around 200 but in the past few years has been reduced to 152. That reduction, by nearly one quarter, is a result of concerted efforts by the city to deal with condemned properties instead of letting them languish.
In the past five years, the city has torn down 19 dilapidated homes, which often get stuck in ownership limbo between people who have defaulted on their loans and lenders who have started — but not yet completed — foreclosure. The rest have been bought by developers who have been renovating the homes, making them livable again.
Houses that the city has deemed to be uninhabitable are identified by a written notice from the city, called the placard of condemnation, taped to each front door.
Currently, an old house at 179 Parkview Ave. is facing potential demolition.
After being unoccupied for more than a decade, the house has structural issues severe enough for code enforcement officials to put it on the shortlist of properties that the City Council can authorize to be torn down.
Murchie Martin, who inherited the dilapidated yellow Victorian house, hopes someone will save his old family home and fix it up. A bright red sign with a white X on it is fastened to the front door to alert emergency responders to be cautious if they enter the dangerous house.
“It’s an old-timer,” Martin said. “I don’t think you’d find another one built like it on the street.”
The city’s list of condemned houses is classified into three categories, based on the severity of disrepair: average, serious and dangerous. None of the homes in these categories has heat, water or electricity.
Twenty properties currently have the highest-severity classification of dangerous. Structural damage like a failing foundation, a gaping hole in the roof or a rotten internal staircase can earn homes this classification.
There are 23 properties on the intermediate “serious” list. These homes have some structural disrepair, like an unstable deck or a leaking roof.
The majority of placarded properties are classified as average. In addition to the lack of utilities, these properties may have other deficiencies, like fire damage or vandalism.
The 109 “average” properties have the highest chance of being saved, according to Wallace.
The city doesn’t demolish buildings unless they are classified as dangerous and, even after being placed in this category, sometimes linger years before the code office targets them for demolition.
Once the recommendation is made, the council has to approve it and then the owner has 30 days to remove whatever they want to keep — which means that even when a demolition notice has been sent to the owner, it can take another 3 months or so for the building to come down.
Another factor that limits demolitions is the cost. It costs the city between $15,000 and $20,000 to tear a building down, according to Wallace, and the only way it gets reimbursed is if the land is sold and the new owner pays off the lien.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have an unlimited budget,” he said. “We can’t just go out and demolish 20 buildings in a year.”
Generally, the homes are in ownership limbo. Banks often will initiate a foreclosure procedure but not complete it, according to Wallace. The banks pay taxes and hire people to do minor maintenance, such as occasionally mowing the lawn, but the property is mostly neglected.
“That allows them to maintain an arm’s length for all the legal stuff,” he said.
“That property just sits there and no one can really take ownership and I struggle with who I can get to do anything.”
Wallace said the problem of abandoned properties intensified during the mortgage crisis of 2008. More than a decade later, some of those properties have deteriorated to the point of no repair. Often it is neighbors who deal with the consequences.
Jenna Biehn and her husband, who now have a six-week-old daughter, bought the home next door to 179 Parkview Ave. a few years ago.
A lot of young couples in their 20s and 30s have bought houses on Parkview Avenue because of the neighborhood’s affordability, she said.
“You fix it up and make it nice, but then you have to knock off a certain value because there’s an unsafe property next door,” she said. “It really devalues what we’ve done to our homes.”
Julie Lisnet said that when she first moved into her house on French Street more than 20 years ago, there was a beautiful historic Bangor home at 17 Garland St., which abuts her property. She witnessed the neighborhood’s demise over the years as the owners failed to maintain the abutting houses.
“It was pure hell. That kind of stuff right out back,” Lisnet said.
She is relieved the block is being revived after spending years looking out her back window on the squalor of the dilapidated houses.
“I wish in many ways [the house] could’ve been saved as well but for selfish purposes it’s very nice to have a backyard,” she said about 17 Garland St. “The neighborhood is much better than it was for sure.”
Sara Goss, who lives across the street from 179 Parkview Ave. is hoping a developer will save that house, which she has grown to love. She put up an American flag at the old house, and occasionally mows the lawn.
Goss knows about the 15 Garland St. makeover, and is hoping something similar will happen with the old Victorian house that she says she would hate to see torn down.
“They kept some of the character,” she said. “Which would be an ideal outcome for this house.”
Wallace, though, is not optimistic. “The dangerous ones, those are the hard sells,” he said.
Since February, there has been a trend of developers buying condemned homes with less severe issues, generally classified average, and fixing them up.
“I’m really encouraged that people are starting to help us by buying these up and fixing them up, and either selling or renting them,” Wallace said.
Related: Condemned homes in Bangor