Abandoned, blighted buildings have been described as a “cancer” in a neighborhood. One home with 4-foot-tall weeds, a sagging porch, and broken or boarded-up windows becomes two, which spreads to four and soon a whole block is falling apart.
Mortgage backer Fannie Mae is hoping to combat that ill with a new program that may eliminate plywood board-ups, by helping to pay for an alternate covering. It announced in early November that it will reimburse owners of vacant properties for the cost difference between the cheaper plywood and a polycarbonate material known as clearboarding. The latter looks like glass but is made of the same plastic as airplane windows (polycarbonate is a generic term referring to many types of plastic).
Companies that install polycarbonate windows say that the clear option helps secure the property, prevents criminals from hiding inside — and keeps the outside looking more attractive.
Fannie Mae had previously announced that it would use clearboarding on any post-foreclosure properties it controlled; the new deal gives banks still going through the foreclosure process the choice to use clearboarding with no additional cost.
“That is definitely their preferred method,” says Robert Klein, co-founder of clearboarding company SecureView, who spent 27 years in the industry boarding up foreclosed buildings on behalf of mortgage lenders. “I’ve seen what plywood does.”
Some communities have moved away from plywood entirely. The city of Phoenix announced in 2015 that if city crews moved to secure a property, it would no longer use plywood, shifting to polycarbonate.
“From my point of view,” says Klein, “I’m the one who boarded millions of properties with plywood. Boarding your property with plywood is an announcement: ‘My property is vacant, come and vandalize me.’ Immediately the value of the property next door is reduced by 20, 25 percent.”
Studies have shown that abandoned buildings are correlated with an increase in crime. Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, points to three reasons: First, the abandoned buildings themselves are used directly for crime. Criminals use vacant properties as a headquarters for everything from drugs to prostitution.
There’s also the broken windows theory, which signals to potential criminals that there isn’t a strong force in the neighborhood watching out for misdeeds.
And finally, vacant properties “serve as a signal to people who live here that the neighborhood is getting worse and it’s time to get out, or to people thinking about where to buy a house, that ‘this isn’t the place I want to be if I have any choice in the matter,’” says Mallach.
One study comparing plywood board-ups to vacant homes that were cleaned up, with working doors and windows, found a link between board-ups and gun violence. But there is little, if any, peer-reviewed research looking specifically at clearboarding. (Fannie Mae, which has been testing clearboarding since at least 2014, did not respond to a request for comment about its internal research.)
“Certainly one of the advantages of polycarbonate is it makes it a lot harder for people to get into the houses, and that clearly should provide some advantage,” Mallach says.
Before and after showing the difference between a plywood board-up, and clearboarding by SecureView (Credit: SecureView)
Clearboarding lets neighbors see into the house, making it a less attractive hideout for criminal activity. It also keeps the home looking more like a lived-in property, which could deter vandalism or copper thieves.
Of course, blighted properties can also be a symptom of a bigger issue.
During the height of the foreclosure crisis of the last decade, “zombie property” came into the vernacular. When owners bailed on their homes but banks decided that the home was not worth enough to bother with, the homes fell into decay, sometimes for years.
Klein believes that clearboarding can help: “It will give the property, still in decent condition, [a better chance] of being marketed and getting someone else into the property. A vacant property is not a bottle of wine, it doesn’t get better with age. If we start using this polycarbonate and not use plywood as soon as a property becomes vacant, the foreclosure process will go quicker.”
Mallach says, however, that zombie properties are “in some respects a secondary issue as well. We’re not talking about a huge percentage of the properties that are out there.” His view? There are just too many homes, period.
Even as cities are experiencing a renaissance, with people moving back into urban cores all over America, he says, “You basically have these cities, which have huge surpluses of properties. There is far too much building stock in these cities to be potentially used.” From that viewpoint, vacancies won’t be addressed no matter how pretty they look, because there are not enough people to occupy them.
In his view, “there are large parts of cities [like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit] where the economic conditions and sheer extent of vacancy are such that we’re not going to be able to eliminate vacant properties any time soon. We need to be focusing on — we need to give a lot of attention to strategies that can help mitigate the impact of these properties.” In some cases, that means teardowns, but only if the vacant lots are then managed and not used as dumping grounds.
Mallach points to programs that give out grants to people adopting vacant lots, and to nonprofits that turn lots into community gardens as types of initiatives that need to be supported.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.