Belfast Code Enforcement Officer Steve Wilson is too aware of the worst that can happen when decrepit buildings are allowed to deteriorate further, and wants to find a way to help the people who own them or live in them make them safer.
“You’ve got two options in this job,” Wilson said. “You either bury your head in the sand and hope it goes away or try to do something to make it better.”
He was among the Bangor officials who worked to condemn the Union Street building where three men who were homeless lost their lives last month in a fire. It’s a tragedy he wants to avoid repeating in Belfast, where he has worked for a little over a year.
That’s why he wants to get Belfast officials and residents to start talking — and hopefully brainstorming solutions — for the community’s problem with substandard housing. The complex multi-layered issue won’t have an easy answer, but starting the conversation is essential, he said.
On Tuesday night, he outlined the problem for Belfast city councilors, sharing with them photographs of derelict structures that dot the community. Many are located on the outskirts of town, including a falling-down house on Swan Lake Avenue that is vacant but does have a person living in an unpermitted shed behind the garage. A few are in the heart of the city, including a pre-foreclosed property on Cedar Street that has been vacant for at least six years and worries the neighbors.
Not all of the city’s dilapidated houses have people living in them, but at least a dozen do, Wilson said. Some community members are living on a fixed income and don’t have the resources to make needed repairs to their homes. Others are living in campers because it is better than having no home at all.
“Being inside with poor shelter is better than being outside with no shelter. We have a poor housing issue,” he said. “This is more to get an awareness going. We can’t keep turning our heads the other way. We’ve got to go head-on, face it, reach out to these people and find out what’s going on.”
It’s a scenario in which some of the usual tools of a code enforcement officer, such as issuing notices of violations or levying fines, are not helpful.
“My intent is not to make these people homeless,” he told councilors. “It’s to find some alternative solution to work with them … This isn’t something that has a short-term fix. But it’s a serious issue that tends to be ignored in other cities.”
Wilson spoke of the potential for finding creative solutions for problem houses, and told the story of two derelict buildings on Patterson Hill. Although the city had sent numerous notices to the property owner, officials hadn’t gotten a response from him. Wilson tracked him down and learned that the man didn’t have the money to fix his own house, much less fix or demolish his two empty buildings.
But he was willing to enter into a consent agreement with the city. According to the terms of the agreement, the city demolished the houses and the owner sold the vacant lot, using part of the proceeds to pay for the demolition costs.
“It’s out-of-the-box thinking that will get us there, but it will cost us money up front,” he said.
Councilor Mary Mortier, a Realtor, said she has seen all kinds of housing around the community.
READ MORE COVERAGE
“I see the good, I see the bad, I see the ugly, I see the safe, I see the unsafe,” she said. “As much as we talk about gentrification and the wild real estate market of the last couple of years, there’s another side to Belfast. Sometimes we drive by and don’t see it. Sometimes we don’t want to see it.”
Nevertheless, people shouldn’t just avert their eyes, she said.
“This is a real problem. This is an immediate problem. This is not something that can be delayed and thought over and mulled over and debated,” Mortier said. ‘I don’t want to wake up one morning and read that we have lost a member of this community because they froze to death.”