A fire at an abandoned Union Street house in early December claimed the lives of three homeless men. Bangor is backing a legislative proposal that would allow cities and towns to form land banks, giving them additional powers to take over derelict properties. Credit: Lia Russell / BDN

Bangor is backing a proposal that would give it more power to take over abandoned and vacant properties that have long blighted neighborhoods so they can be redeveloped into needed housing.

A bill making its way through the state Legislature, and which recently drew bipartisan support in a legislative committee, would give town and city governments additional powers to take over abandoned and vacant properties so they can ensure they’re redeveloped.

The bill, LD 1694, would establish a statewide redevelopment housing authority and coordinate with municipalities that want to establish local land banks. Those land banks would be able to take over blighted and abandoned properties, then take an active role in their rehabilitation as a potential solution to the state housing crunch.

Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, is sponsoring the legislation.

Land banks are public agencies or nonprofits that acquire land for community use, including affordable housing. Sixteen states and 250 cities have land banks,   according to the Center for Community Progress.

Vacant and abandoned properties have languished in communities across Maine, presenting aesthetic eyesores and environmental hazards and taking up valuable land that could be turned into livable housing, according to testimony from local and state officials.

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One abandoned house on Union Street in Bangor burned in December and killed three men who had sought shelter there after being evicted from a homeless encampment. The owner is a Texas lending company that repossessed the house when its former owner fell behind on mortgage payments.

Bangor had cited the homeowners multiple times for code violations like trash build-up, rodent infestations and for lacking hot water and heat. The lender had taken ownership of the condemned house in 2017, but the city had little recourse to do anything with the property, as the bank stayed current on its property taxes.

The city cannot take over blighted homes if the owners are up to date on their taxes, allowing them to sit empty for years, Bangor economic development director Tanya Emery told the Legislature’s Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business committee last week.

“Our current placard list has properties that have been in that condition for more than a decade, meaning more than 10 years’ worth of further deterioration is bringing down neighborhoods, property values, and community spirit,” Emery said.

“[This bill] would be a step in the right direction, giving us access to tools to get these buildings redeveloped to ease our housing crisis.”

At the time of the December fire on Union Street fire, Bangor  had 104 condemned properties across the city deemed unfit for habitation, but that the city hadn’t taken over, then sold to new owners for rehabilitation. The city had reduced its number of condemned properties in recent years, as banks had sold properties they had taken over through foreclosure and the city collaborated with owners to rehab their properties.

The bill would allow the state to establish and fund a central agency to coordinate with cities and towns that want to establish land banks and receive resources to rehabilitate municipally owned blighted buildings so they can repurpose them for economic development. The land banks would have access to certain federal funds, according to legislative testimony. The state authority could handle projects that are too big for individual towns to take on.

Federal land, like tribal-owned land and former and current military bases, and undeveloped land would be exempt from the land banks’ authority.

The city of Sanford has the state’s only land bank authority, which was established in 2017 and specializes in regulating rental properties and turning formerly derelict buildings into liveable homes using state law, said community development director Ian Houseal, who also served as a member of the housing work group that proposed the bill.

Turning over blighted properties is difficult to tackle and the process of cities foreclosing on them can be a multi-year process, especially if a distressed property has multiple mortgages and liens levied on it, Houseal said.

The state bill would speed up that process and give municipalities the resources they need to address problem properties, like state and federal funding and additional ways to acquire those properties, Houseal said. 

In 2018 and 2019, Sanford’s land bank began the process of taking over, then demolishing or rehabilitating 51 problem properties.

“Without land banking, property will remain disinvested and abandoned and communities will remain stagnated,” Houseal told lawmakers.

The bill passed out of committee with amendments, with 12 legislators voting in favor, and one voting against.

Lia Russell

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