Firefighters responded to a fire at 194-196 Union St. in Bangor on Sunday morning that claimed the lives of three men. Credit: Lia Russell / BDN

Bangor has made strides to reduce the number of condemned homes in recent years, even as a fire at a condemned house on Union Street claimed the lives of three homeless men on Sunday.

194-196 Union St., a duplex lot between Sanford and Third streets, had sat vacant for almost two years before Sunday’s fire and had been on the city’s list of condemned properties since March 2017 for lacking heat and hot water.

As of Sunday, it was one of 104 properties on the city’s list of condemned properties — those deemed uninhabitable.  The city had made steady progress before the COVID-19 pandemic to shrink its list of condemned homes, and that progress continued during the pandemic.

The city has removed 43 buildings from its list of condemned properties since March 2020, said Jeff Wallace, Bangor’s code enforcement director. 

The reduction has come as banks that have taken over foreclosed properties have either made repairs or sold the properties, and the city has collaborated with property owners to keep new properties from joining the condemned properties list, Wallace said.

Between 2014 and 2019, the city tore down 19 condemned houses and slashed the list of condemned buildings by about a quarter — from approximately 200 to about 150. In some cases, the city worked with developers so they could transform condemned houses into rehabbed properties that they could rent or sell, adding to the city’s housing stock. 

Buildings are added to the blighted list for myriad reasons, such as a lack of utilities, fire damage, structural damage, leaky pipes, faulty electrical systems and sanitation woes such as hoarding, Wallace said. 

“It has to be deemed uninhabitable by [Bangor’s code enforcement office], and all kinds of things can lead it to become that way,” Wallace said. 

The latest property to be condemned — or placarded — by the city, a fifth-floor apartment at 28 Merchants Plaza, was added to the list on Oct. 29 for having water and fire damage. 

“After a house is condemned, security of the property is our highest priority,” Wallace said. The city gives the property owner a chance to secure the building by boarding up doors, windows and other access points. 

If the owner doesn’t do that, the city does and places a lien on the property for those costs, Wallace said. 

In his experience, most buildings earn their place on the condemned buildings list because of fire damage.

“City staff also works proactively with any interested party to address the issues that resulted in the condemnation,” Wallace said. “This process can be relatively quick and other times it can drag on for years.”

Some banks have moved quickly to sell properties that have sat dormant for years while in foreclosure proceedings, he said. 

Often, when properties are sold, the new owners reach out to the code office to ask what steps they need to take to remove the property from the condemned list, Wallace said. 

“By working with owners, we have actually seen a reduction in the number of placarded properties,” he said.

Before Sunday’s fire, 194-196 Union St. had been cited multiple times for code violations and had been boarded up to indicate its vacant status. A fire also broke out there before, in December 2001, which displaced one tenant. 

The city code file lists problems with electrical equipment, sanitation issues, a rodent infestation, and damage stemming from the previous fire, dating back to 1997. 

Three different owners were cited for repeated trash buildups between 1998 and 2016, including leaving trash bags near entrances, and letting a discarded Christmas tree and couch sit in the front yard for months. City inspectors said those problems presented a fire hazard and had the potential to attract rodents. 

The current owner is a Texas mortgage company that gained ownership in 2017 after it foreclosed on the property when the previous owner didn’t make mortgage payments.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.