An abandoned house in Durham, N.C., before plywood boards were replaced with polycarbonate coverings.

Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Improvement Services, City of Durham

Battling Blight With … Plastic?

To secure abandoned houses, officials in Durham, N.C., and other cities around the country are using an unexpected material — polycarbonate — with surprising success.

Just one boarded-up home can disfigure an entire city block. Studies have shown that crime rates shoot up by 19 percent within 250 feet of a vacant foreclosure, while surrounding property values plummet by $7,386 — a huge blow to weakened housing markets. Perhaps worst of all, these unoccupied, unmaintained buildings can sever neighborhood ties, driving more residents to move out.

In May 2014, officials in Durham, N.C., tested out a novel idea to battle blight. The college town, home to Duke University, couldn’t afford drastic changes, like bulldozing every vacancy or subsidizing new home ownership. But they could disguise the eyesores. To do so, the city banned all plywood boarding on abandoned homes. Instead, they turned to clear, hard plastic.

“We’ve found that it makes an enormous difference for the feel and health of the neighborhood,” says Faith Gardner, a housing code administrator who enforces the ordinance. “It tends to let housing prices stabilize, even with a number of vacancies. We’re not seeing the same drop in real estate prices and increases in crime.”

To date, a construction company contracted by the city has installed the see-through, sturdy plastic sheets on 64 properties. (The high-density plastic, known as polycarbonate, is also used for eyeglasses, airplane windows and motorcycle windshields.) According to officials, the change to plastic has helped sell more of these vacant buildings. Back in 2011, when the city began targeting blight, there were nearly 500 boarded-up homes; as of the new year, the city has cleaned up 90 percent of the problem. Only 56 abandoned buildings remain.

Replacing plywood with hard plastic coverings has increased sales of vacant houses in Durham. Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Improvement Services, City of Durham

The trend has also taken off in other cities, becoming official policy in Phoenix and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This month, Ohio became the first to mandate “clear-boarding” statewide.

Back in Durham, officials hope that the new material will deter vandalism, prostitution and drug use in the empty structures. Durham’s police department did not respond to a request for the latest stats, but the reasons why public safety might improve are clear. For one, it’s harder for a wrongdoer to pick out which lots might make a good hideout. “You can look at a certain angle, and you might get a reflection [from the plastic] that clues you in. But, really, you have to look hard to figure it out,” says Gardner. Police, meanwhile, can easily look through the transparent plastic to check for illegal activity.

The new material is also far harder to break. Previously, “they’d rip off the back door and go in,” Gardner adds. But “you can hit the [polycarbonate] with a baseball bat, and it won’t shatter.”

The one downside? Polycarbonate doesn’t come cheap. A 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood costs around $11, while a plastic window cover the same size runs closer to $115. A door with several locks boosts the price by another $395. But to Gardner, the benefit to homeowners is “immeasurable.” She only has one regret about how Durham has implemented the change: “We really wish we had done it sooner.”

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]