BELFAST — Code Enforcement Officer Stephen Wilson is shining a spotlight on derelict housing in the city before a tragedy similar to what has happened in other parts of the state occurs. He recently expressed concern about the issue to City Council.

He spoke at the Jan. 18 meeting regarding issues he has encountered in his work for the city. There are a number of people in Belfast living in derelict housing with nowhere else to go, he said.

People are living in campers because that is better than being homeless, but in doing so they put themselves at increased risk when they use heaters not meant for indoor use, he said. “People will take anything if they’re desperate enough.”

Many of the people in these situations are disabled or on fixed incomes. “We need to get more going on and more awareness and start looking for solutions to these issues, rather than turning a blind eye to them,” Wilson said.

On Dec. 5, 2021, three homeless men died in a fire at a condemned house in Bangor where they had been staying. Wilson said it is that kind of tragedy he wants to prevent. “The possibility is real and it’s here,” he said. “… And it’s not going to get any better if we don’t do anything about it.” There are also 25 to 30 houses that should be torn down around the city, he said. It will take some “out of the box” thinking to address these issues, but he believes the council can come up with solutions.

Wilson said he knows of one man living in a house that was condemned over a year ago. He is an odd position where he must uphold the city’s regulations, but also has to contend with the lack of available and affordable housing in the city. “The only choice is to get him out of there, is to get it condemned and have him removed by court order,” he said. “And you really don’t want to make someone homeless in the middle of winter, because there’s no place for them to go.”

There are also people renting properties in derelict condition, but the tenants are too afraid to say anything because they do not want to end up homeless, he said. Most landlords in Belfast keep their properties in good condition, but there are always some who do not and the city does not usually find out about it until there is some sort of emergency.

Waldo Community Action Partners has a Home Repair Network Program to help people in the county with home repairs. Aging housing stock is a statewide issue and Maine has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, WCAP President Donna Kelley said.

The program provides funding for eligible individuals to get roof repairs, foundation work, septic and well repairs, handicapped accessibility repairs, internal and external electrical or plumbing repairs and replace appliances, she said. “A lot of it is to work and address health and safety measures for the household.”

Even though the organization has funds to repair homes, income guidelines and housing standards apply to the funding, she said. Sometimes a person does not qualify for the program because their house is in need of another repair or several other repairs. For people in that situation the organization seeks what is called flex funding to complete another repair preventing a homeowner from qualifying for the program, she said.

WCAP assisted 14 households in each of 2020 and 2021, according to Kelley. It received around $200,000 a year for the Home Repair Program in 2018 and 2019. It spent around $221,000 through the program in 2020 and $261,000 in 2021.

Program staff were very busy last summer and fall helping people secure needed repairs, Kelley said. The pandemic has put a strain on the construction and housing markets, further complicating the projects. Everyone is vying for the same limited resources, like plumbers, electricians, carpenters and builders.

There was a need for this program before the pandemic, but WCAP has seen an uptick in requests, she said. So far there have already been 85 requests for repairs this year, but the organization only funds about 12 to 14 projects per year.

Another strain caused by the pandemic is the availability of grants and donations, because most foundations have been awarding funding toward addressing COVID-19 issues, instead of other concerns, like housing repairs, she said.

Each repair situation is unique and the organization works with cities and towns to address needs as well, Kelley said. Belfast city staff have always been helpful and willing to collaborate with the organization to address these housing repair issues.

Wilson said a lot of people are on fixed incomes that are just above the guidelines for services through organizations like WCAP, and he would like to find a solution to help them as well.

At the Jan. 18 council meeting he talked about one property owner who worked with the city to demolish a condemned building. The city paid for the demolition and the landowner paid the city back after he sold the property and had money left over for repairs to the house he is currently living in. He thinks it is that kind of tailored solution that will help address this issue.

He is confident that the City Council will come up with a solution, but it will take some time, he said. In the meantime, he will continue to work with organizations when he can to address derelict housing.

Maine is famous for neighbors helping neighbors, Wilson said, and he is hoping that attitude can translate into solutions for this issue. He encourages people to stay in contact with their neighbors and what they may need, and to reach out to the city.

Asked how city residents can help, he said, “Well, first, reach out to the neighbor and see if there’s anything they can do. And then reach out to us and let us know what the situation is, because if we don’t know we can’t try to connect them with someone who might be able to help. There might be a program out there.”