After Sanford adopted a vacant property registration rule in 2017, which comes with an increasing fee, the city watched its number of empty buildings fall from 110 to just five or six.
This is exactly what Bangor hopes to see happen to its roughly 70 empty residential properties — most of which are owned by large, out-of-state banks — after doubling the twice-yearly vacant property permit fee last month.
Now, the owner of a vacant building will need to pay $500 initially to register the property. That cost will also double with each permit renewal, but caps at $4,000. This means the owner will eventually pay $8,000 annually if they let their property sit vacant for years.
Bangor has reason to believe increasing the vacant property registration fee will help reduce the number of unused buildings in the city, as other Maine communities have seen their vacant property counts drop after enacting similar laws with hefty fees.
Bangor has pushed for years to shrink its lists of vacant and condemned properties because they can be dangerous, unsightly, and lower values for the surrounding neighborhoods. Unused properties also waste potential housing at a time when Bangor is trying to increase the number of affordable options.
bangor’s vacant property woes
Bangor’s newly revised rule isn’t far from Brewer’s vacant property registration law, which carries a $750 initial fee that doubles with each annual renewal, but caps at $6,000.
After enacting the rule in 2019, the city saw its 22 vacant properties fall to eight, according to James Smith, Brewer’s assistant city manager. Of those eight empty properties, five have been registered for less than a year.
The city will also work with any private property owners who leave their home due to deployment, because they spend winters elsewhere, or the homeowners are waiting to repair their home following a tragedy like a fire, Smith said. In such cases, those homeowners will be exempt from the rule.
Like Bangor, Smith said the city adopted the ordinance to press the owners to do something productive with the properties. Additionally, the rule ensures properties are well maintained and don’t degrade the quality of the neighborhood.
“The goal, especially when we’re dealing with banks, is to get the property back out on the market and get an owner who will care for it properly,” Smith said. “For us, it’s something much more personal, and we care about the quality of the neighborhoods.”
Brewer’s vacant property rule is similar to Sanford’s vacant property license policy, which requires owners to pay $300 when first registering their unused property. That fee also doubles each time the license is renewed twice a year and doesn’t have a price limit.
“It’s a way to call attention to the abandonment issue,” Ian Houseal, Sanford’s director of community development, said. “When the impact of these vacant buildings is so high, the escalating fee is what holds [vacant building owners] to change their habit.”
When Sanford first established the law in 2017, the city had 110 empty, unused buildings, according to Houseal.
Today, Sanford has only five or six vacant properties, which generated $85,000 for the city last year, Houseal said. That revenue pays for two of the city’s code enforcement officers.
“It’s noticeable to the public to see these neighborhoods have changed in this way,” Houseal said.
Large property management companies own most of Sanford’s remaining vacant buildings, Houseal said, and appear to be “asleep at the wheel.”
“It’s very interesting to observe when the vacant permit fee ends up being four times the property tax that is owed on a building,” he said.
Furthermore, if a building doesn’t have a vacant property license, the city labels the building as dangerous and abandoned, allowing them to finalize the foreclosure process – a lengthy procedure that some large companies let stall.
Houseal said he has encountered former Sanford residents who abandoned their homes years ago when they were told they were getting foreclosed on, but have since been hounded by the company handling the foreclosure and told they still owe money.
maine’s housing demand
“People were getting foreclosed on without ever knowing about it, and they’d leave, then the bank would never foreclose,” Houseal said. “What we’re trying to do now is foreclose vacant and abandoned properties. It’s important for municipalities to take a role in this and to not be passive.”
Last week, the Rumford select board decided to raise the city’s vacant property registration fee from $50 annually to $300, according to Richard Coluombe, Rumford’s code enforcement officer.
Rumford identified 185 vacant properties in 2018 shortly after approving the city’s vacant property registration rule in 2017, but that number has since fallen to about 60, according to Coluombe.
Like Bangor, most of Rumford’s vacant properties are owned by banks that are either waiting to complete the foreclosure process or are “just sitting on the properties,” he said.
While the new cost won’t increase with each registration renewal like other municipalities’ policies, the hike is intended to encourage owners to make their empty properties useful in some way, Coluombe said.
“The goal is for the owners to sell the properties to someone who will fix up and occupy them, or get the property owners to fix up and occupy the buildings.”