No one likes living next to abandoned buildings with boarded up doors or windows. So the city of Durham started replacing the plywood eyesores with a clear, durable plastic.
The city is working to reduce the number of abandoned houses by helping owners fix them up. But for houses that still need boarding up, the city has found that plastic not only improves the overall appearance of a neighborhood, it may reduce crime by discouraging squatters and making it easier for police to see inside vacant buildings.
“I can’t stress enough how the elimination of the boards has a tremendous positive impact on neighborhoods and communities,” said Faith Gardner, housing code administrator of the city’s department of neighborhood improvement services.
Gardner said there is some evidence that boarded structures attract vandalism and provide a location for other criminal activity like drug dealing and prostitution. Durham Police Department spokesman Wil Glenn said there is no data yet on any crime reduction since the change to polycarbonate plastic about a year ago, but vandalism is an issue with vacant buildings.
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“They tend to attract people who don’t necessarily need to be there,” Glenn said. “The clear polycarbonate material allows people – law enforcement and others – to see into buildings.”
The city of Durham has installed the thick, break-resistant plastic on about 10 buildings since it started using the new product last year, after city officials learned how the plastic was being used in other cities. In Phoenix, the City Council recently voted to require all windows and door openings visible from the street to be outfitted with the material if the building has been unoccupied more than 90 days.
SecureView, a company that sells a polycarbonate window system, got its start about five years ago by a developer from the South Side of Chicago who wanted to alleviate the blight that resulted from the home foreclosure crisis. The company now distributes the polycarbonate from more than 50 locations throughout the United States, including Raleigh.
Durham residents are pleased with the change to the clear plastic, according to Gardner, who said she has received a lot of positive feedback from people who call to report boarded structures or inquire about the status of vacant buildings.
Sullivan Construction was contracted by the city about a year ago to replace the plywood with the plastic sheeting. The process is similar to installing a glass window and takes 30 minutes to an hour to complete, according to the company’s vice president, Dan Sullivan.
The plastic is more expensive than plywood boards. Sullivan said the cost varies depending on the size of the window, but Gardner thinks it averages about $100 per window, which comes out of the department’s neighborhood stabilization fund.
While the biggest improvement comes from replacing the plywood, Sullivan said his workers also make vacant houses more presentable from the street by repairing siding damage and doing other minor facelift jobs. He says neighbors often come outside to tell the workers they love the new look.
“When we are done, it looks like someone lives there,” he said. “It doesn’t look like an abandoned house at all.”
Durham will install polycarbonate plastic in about 20 more buildings this coming year. But it’s just an interim solution and often the first step in a broader effort to bring a building up to code, Gardner said. It is a housing code violation to have boards on a structure longer than six months.
The city handles about 100 vacant property cases a year and boards up windows and doors at about 30 percent of the houses, Gardner said.
“It’s an intermediary solution until we can get those properties back online,” Gardner said. “We are not going to leave the polycarbonate plastic on there forever. We will continue with the code enforcement process to give owners the incentive to fix those properties back up.”
The city of Durham began cracking down on boarded, abandoned buildings in 2009 through code enforcement.
In 2011, Gardner said, there were 530 boarded properties in the city. Now there are 165.
“Our preference is that the property owner step up and get the boards off and up to code and get them back into the housing market,” she said. “We are always moving towards that goal.”