Unfit for habitation: Bangor confronts problem of abandoned, dangerous buildings

Posted Sept. 20, 2013, at 1:09 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 20, 2013, at 5:29 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Windows and gaps in the crumbling foundation are boarded up in an effort to keep people out of what once was an attractive 2½-story home with big bay windows at 82 Smith St.

Over the years, the condition of the 113-year-old house, which has been divided into apartments, deteriorated. The owner left and the bank foreclosed. It appears squatters found their way inside, possibly through openings in the foundation, according to Jeremy Martin, Bangor’s director of code enforcement. Whoever got in took copper piping back out with them.

The city has labeled the house — on a narrow, short, downhill road just off Ohio Street — as a dangerous property.

While Martin stood on the street, showing a reporter and photographer the building, the owner of the home next door came outside. The homeowner, who asked to be identified only as a “concerned neighbor,” said he had a contract lined up to sell his house but the buyer walked away from the deal — he believes because of the ramshackle property next door.

“This kind of stuff, it’s costing me money,” the property owner told Martin, pointing to the boarded-up structure. “I can’t get a decent tenant to move in here because of this.”

It’s a common complaint from residents who live near many of the city’s dozens of vacant or run-down homes and apartment buildings, according to Martin. City officials don’t know the exact number of these buildings, although they keep files on individual properties, updating information as it comes in. But one thing is certain — these properties present a problem.

“Vacant, dangerous and abandoned structures are unsightly, attract criminal activity, and are a threat to public safety wherever they exist,” Martin said in a recent memo to city councilors. “These properties become a drain on the city budget and they detract from the quality of life of the city as a whole.”

Bangor officials are trying to counteract the problem by crafting an ordinance that will help keep track of who’s accountable and prevent the structures from falling too far into disrepair.

Without a solution, these problem buildings could drive down property values for neighbors, hold back growth in sections of the city and spread throughout Bangor, Martin said.

The building on Smith Street is typical of dangerous properties in Bangor. Attempts to reach Sacha Lee Sargoni, the most recent owner of the property, were unsuccessful. The city has struggled to find her and many other former residents who leave their homes behind, according to code enforcement.

At 308 Hammond St., boards cover first-floor windows and doors. Graffiti covers the boards. The owner decided she couldn’t handle the upkeep anymore and left for Arizona, according to Martin.

Beatrice Gardner is listed as the last owner of the property. Attempts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful.

The bank foreclosed on the property, hiring someone to keep an eye on the yard and make sure the home is secure. It has been about two years since anyone lived there, Martin said.

The building isn’t in terrible condition, according to Martin, and could be lived in again with some repairs.

Police have been called to the building three times in the past three months after neighbors reported people were pulling off boards to gain access through windows or doors. Officers who responded to the calls found evidence that people had gotten in and stolen copper piping and siphoned oil from the heating tank.

Late on the night of July 29, flames gutted an apartment building at 44 Patten St. The property is owned by Twila Butler, who is in the midst of the insurance process. No one was inside at the time, potentially because city officials had placarded the building as unfit for human habitation. Inspectors found a homemade coal-fired furnace in the basement earlier in the year, apparently installed because the owner couldn’t afford to pay for fuel or fix the building’s regular heating system. The residents were living in a camper parked behind the house while renovations were underway, according to city staff. The cause of the fire remains undetermined.

Placarding buildings

Like many cities along the East Coast, Bangor has an old housing stock, and those buildings need maintenance to stay safe, liveable and within the requirements of city codes.

The economic collapse five years ago and the housing bubble that burst at about the same time left some people without financial means to cover upkeep and improvements. Some let their homes slip into serious disrepair or fled, leaving their property behind for banks to take.

About 30 buildings in Bangor are placarded as unfit for human habitation, according to a list compiled by the city in late August.

A building can be placarded for any number of code issues — from faulty heating systems and plumbing issues to mold and hoarding problems.

Serious structural problems , such as crumbling foundations, rotted beams or caving roofs, might cause the city to label a building as dangerous. Martin uses the terms “dangerous” and “condemned” interchangeably.

The city isn’t sure exactly how many vacant or dangerous buildings are within its limits, but there are about several dozen, according to Martin. Some are in the midst of the foreclosure process, and the banks aren’t obligated to tell the city that they’ve been vacated. Others may have had a fire or some other damage and insurance companies are slowly processing claims. In some instances, it can take years for those steps to be completed.

“I think that some people think that we can just go in these abandoned, vacant or condemned buildings and take them,” Martin said. “We can’t do that.”

Not all placarded buildings are vacant or abandoned. In some situations, individual units in an apartment building can be placarded, forcing residents out so improvements can be made while their neighbors are allowed to stay put.

One such property is 547 Hammond St., where a family lives alone upstairs. A second apartment upstairs is empty and downstairs are two vacant retail spaces that the city has deemed unfit for human habitation. The building is owned by Northeast Enterprises Inc. of Orrington, according to city records.

A fire several months ago in a first-floor rear unit used by Dick’s Taxi forced the cab company to relocate to Hermon because of severe water damage. Bangor’s code enforcement department placarded the whole building after the fire, but one upstairs apartment was cleared for habitation after a few days, allowing a resident to move back in, according to Amanda Lucas, 26, who lives in the lone liveable apartment.

“When I first moved here, it was really great,” Lucas said during an interview last month. “There was a salon downstairs, it was my mom’s salon, and Dick’s Taxi was below us and we had a neighbor, and then it just slowly got worse and worse and worse over time.”

After the fire, the landlord did a lot of work to bring the apartment up to code, and it passed after a second city inspection, Lucas said.

Other cities affected

Lewiston officials cracked down on their city’s abandoned and dangerous tenements this spring and summer after a rash of fires destroyed several downtown buildings, including two apartment buildings that recently had been condemned.

Lewiston police went to some 86 vacant, abandoned and condemned buildings, checking for signs of break-ins, squatters and metal theft, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal. Police passed their findings on to city officials, who hired contractors to board up and seal off any that weren’t secure — an expensive task.

In May, that city announced plans to demolish a dozen abandoned tenement homes this year. Lewiston officials say there are more than 100 buildings in that city that are abandoned or unfit for habitation.

In Portland, city code inspectors and fire officials keep a running list of buildings with a “host of issues” that have either been placarded as unfit for habitation, damaged in fires, foreclosed on or vacated by their owners, according to city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. Some listings result from inspections, others stem from calls from neighbors.

So far, there are 55 buildings on that list, she said.

In Bangor, the problem appears to be less widespread, but the properties still can suck up city resources, upset neighborhoods and become catalysts for public safety problems.

Calls to abandoned or placarded homes make up a very small percentage of Bangor police responses, according to Bangor police Lt. Paul Edwards, but police are still called to vacant or abandoned properties on occasion by neighbors who see something out of place — a newly broken window or a piece of plywood yanked from a door.

“They’ll do that sort of thing,” Edwards said. “Go in as squatters or to see what they can take — see what’s left over.”

Limited options

There are two main ways the city can take control of dangerous and abandoned properties.

One is to go after properties that have matured tax liens against them.

Of Bangor’s 10,743 taxed properties, 117, or a little more than 1 percent, have matured liens against them, David Little, deputy treasurer and the city’s tax collector, has said. It typically takes 2½ years of unpaid taxes for a lien to mature. Legally, the city already owns those properties, but it has seldom chosen to take possession of them in the past, Little has said.

The city has started the process of taking over some of those properties — or getting owners to pay up — focusing on 49 properties that are more than five years behind in payments.

The city also has authority under state statute to take over dangerous buildings or properties deemed unsanitary, a fire hazard or constituting a hazard to public health or safety.

First, the city must notify the owners and any other “parties of interest” of the city’s intention to take action on the property. If no owner is known or the owner can’t be reached with “reasonable diligence,” then notice must be published for several weeks in the newspaper. Then a hearing can be set before municipal officials or county commissioners to come to a resolution with the owner. The city also can file a complaint in Superior Court seeking approval to demolish the building. After a hearing, the court will decide whether the city should be allowed to take down the building.

Martin, who became Bangor’s code enforcement officer in late 2011, said he doesn’t believe the city has tried to take a property through this process in the recent past, but noted “we’re going to go down that road” in the future.

“What we want is compliance. We don’t like the process of going through court,” Martin said. The city would rather be able to identify and get owners to “work with us to resolve these issues.”

If the city takes a building, whether dangerous or tax delinquent, it is responsible for keeping it secure, making sure the grass is cut, repairing the property to get it back on the market or demolishing it. Those options can carry a substantial price tag for the city, according to Little.

Martin said that these buildings eat up code department staff resources because inspectors often have to respond to reports of missing boards or unsecure buildings. This sometimes requires them to call in police if they believe someone might still be inside.

What’s the answer?

City staff is working on a draft of a vacant building ordinance that Martin believes will ease the process of securing, monitoring and eventually putting these buildings back on the market.

The ordinance will lay out a “just, equitable and practical” system for responding to problems arising from abandoned and dangerous properties, according to Martin. It would require that any property owner — whether they are a resident, someone from out of state or a bank — who plans to leave a building vacant or unsupervised for an extended period of time register with the city before doing so.

More than 1,000 municipalities nationwide have similar ordinances, according to the Chicago Tribune, but they appear to be rare in Maine. Bridgton in Cumberland County has a code that requires certain maintenance standards for vacant properties and registration of any rental building. Safeguard Properties, a company that inspects and maintains defaulted and foreclosed properties for financial institutions, keeps a list of U.S. municipalities with vacant property registration ordinances, but doesn’t list any in Maine.

Details of Bangor’s potential ordinance are still in the works, according to Martin.

It could be presented to the city’s Business and Economic Development Committee sometime this month.