Imagine an abandoned building in your neighborhood.

It could be an apartment building, or a single-family home. The lawn grows more unruly every day. Pipes freeze in the winter and later burst. The unmaintained roof springs a leak, causing water damage and mold.

Maybe squatters take up residence, while vandals steal every ounce of copper from the building’s boiler and electrical system. Graffiti appears on the walls. Vandals may break a few windows or trash the backyard, just because they can.

How did this building get this way? Sometimes, a family is forced to make the heartbreaking decision to walk away from a home they can no longer afford. Other times, an absentee landlord has ignored the property for years.

Sooner or later, a bank takes over the building.

In the best-case scenario, it’s a local bank or credit union. These institutions, invested in the community, have an interest in offloading the property. So they maintain it with an eye for sale. Maybe a new family moves in, and a building that could easily have blighted the neighborhood is lived in again.

Unfortunately, though, the situation is not always so ideal. Often, when a property is abandoned and months go by without any care or attention, it’s a large, multi-national bank without an in-state presence holding the mortgage. With no interest in the local community, and a portfolio of similar properties all over the country, the building is quickly forgotten — driving down nearby real estate values and creating a public safety risk.

In the end, it’s often the municipal government — and its property taxpayers — that are left picking up the tab when it finally demolishes the property altogether.

In the past four years, property taxpayers in Lewiston have spent nearly $1.5 million demolishing 58 derelict buildings left vacant by former owners and the financial institutions holding the mortgages. At least a few of the arsons that grabbed headlines in our city a few years ago involved abandoned properties.

The problem of abandoned buildings affects most Maine cities. Just last month, the Bangor Daily News wrote about Shannon Denbow, a resident in that city who “fears letting her children play in her own yard” because a nearby abandoned residence attracts drug dealers. Denbow said she once called the police because she heard people at the property “arguing about whether to start a fire.”

Situations like this are why I wrote and passed legislation this year to enable cities and towns to take back control by addressing the detrimental effects of abandoned properties in ways that were impossible before. The bill was passed into law by the Legislature and will take effect on Oct. 15. Here’s what it does:

First, the law will allow, but not require, municipalities to provide for the care, maintenance and security of abandoned properties before those buildings become a danger to safety and surrounding property values. The law lets towns and cities hold parties with an interest in the abandoned property, including large, out-of-state banks, responsible for potential blight or safety hazards.

If responsible parties don’t take care of the buildings, the law allows the municipality to address the problems themselves. The law also allows the municipality to recover the cost of maintenance from the responsible parties, so the taxpayer is no longer on the hook for a big bank’s negligence.

The law also requires financial institutions that foreclose on a home or apartment building to designate an in-state representative who will be legally responsible for the care, maintenance and security of the property. This means no more frantic, unreturned calls from town officials to out-of-state financial institutions.

By enabling our towns and cities to take control, abandoned properties will be less likely to fall into total disrepair over a period of years, becoming magnets for thieves and other criminals. Instead, they’ll be more likely to be purchased by a redeveloper or a new family who will move in and become responsible property owner.

Commonsense legislation like this empowers local officials to fight blight, keep our communities safe, preserve the good character of our neighborhoods and protect surrounding property values.

Nate Libby is Lewiston’s state Senator and a two-term Lewiston City Councilor.

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