Cleveland insider: meet an urban blight warrior with a clear solution
When Gov. John Kasich signed HB 463
into law on January 5, 2017, the bill made Ohio the first state to ban plywood boarding on vacant and abandoned properties and to instead use polycarbonate clearboarding windows and doors.
While local entrepreneur Robert Klein won’t take direct credit for the passage of the law, he does own up to lobbying aggressively for it, educating legislators and giving them tours of vacant homes fitted with the virtually unbreakable, transparent material that looks like traditional windows and is significantly more attractive and secure than plywood.
“There are other products available in the industry, but I don’t care what product you use, just don’t use plywood,” says Klein, founder and chairman of Community Blight Solutions
, which is based in Cleveland and markets its clearboarding product nationally through its SecureView
division. “Plywood is a cancer, so I lobbied for anything that would replace it.”
The bill arose from the ongoing battle in neighborhoods across the country to counter urban blight—especially in the wake of the Great Recession, which left a record number of foreclosed homes vacant and dilapidated. In many cases, those properties are maintained by mortgage service companies employed by the banks that own them, and the most common and cheapest solution to preventing broken windows, break-ins and squatters is to slap on plywood. Unfortunately, the easily penetrated boards have greatly contributed to the downward spirals of struggling neighborhoods.
Clearboarding is different.
To attest to that, Klein staged a demonstration for first responders last April in Slavic Village. As neighbors and local dignitaries watched on, a squad of Cleveland firefighters employed their full complement of tools—sledgehammers, axes, Halligans and chain saws—to safely break into and get out of a blighted property outfitted with the polycarbonate board. The only one that breached it was a chain saw, which is surely not a thief's preferred tool. Conversely, the windows and doors are designed to be easily removed from the interior, so firefighters can punch them out to create air circulation or exit the house if they need to escape.
SecureView strength demonstration in Warren, Ohio
Additionally, these windows prevent people from squatting in boarded up homes, where they can hide behind the plywood and freely vandalize the property, commit crimes such as drug use and prostitution or steal metal pipes to sell as scrap. They also often start fires, both intentionally and unintentionally. Having the clear windows enables first responders to see inside the house so they know what they’re getting into. Lastly, by improving the house’s aesthetic appearance and security, it bolsters the morale of neighbors and helps attract new residents as well.
Watch a short before-and-after SecureView video.
Fighting the real urban zombies
Klein also played a key role in the passage of HB 390
, the fast-track foreclosure law Ohio passed last June to reduce the number of vacant and abandoned properties that often remained vulnerable to vandalism and crime for years on account of the protracted process to rehab and sell them. That law also serves as a national model for states wishing to reduce the number of “zombie” properties in their communities.
Klein notes another important change that came last November, when Fannie Mae announced its decision
to expand its reimbursement criteria for mortgage servicers to include polycarbonate clearboarding as a method to secure vacant properties, whether they are real-estate-owned or in a pre-foreclosure state.
“That’s a big win for the city, the community and the residents,” says Klein. “It also benefits the mortgage servicer, because they don’t want to have their properties broken into, and they don’t want them vandalized and turned into zombie properties.” He adds that Freddie Mac, the Veteran's Administration and the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are all close to accepting clearboarding as the industry-wide product to replace plywood patching.
To test the larger impact of clearboarding on urban blight, Klein established Slavic Village Recovery,
a partnership between Community Blight Solutions, Slavic Village Development
, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress
and Forest City Enterprises Inc.
The historic urban neighborhood garnered national attention
as a hard-hit victim of the foreclosure crises and since been plagued by boarded properties. Over the past couple of years, the partners have rehabbed more than 30 homes within one square mile. The group takes homes that would otherwise be demolished or remain vacant, and invests between $40 and $60,000 for renovations. The properties are then put back on the market. Prospective buyers can get conventional 30-year mortgages and become part of the revitalized neighborhood.
“We have sold and renovated 40 homes in Slavic Village Recovery,” says Christopher Alvarado
, executive director, Slavic Village Development. “The sales prices for those homes back in 2013 were around $55,000. In 2016, the average was $71,600, so we’re seeing a significant uptick in the market, and we’re hearing from other realtors that they’re also seeing that increase in housing values and sales prices.”
This time it's personal
For the past few years, Klein has been on a personal mission to make boarding an eyesore no more. Why? Well, in his disarming, self-deprecating way, he readily takes partial blame for the proliferation of ugly plywood on vacant homes throughout the United States.
As CEO and chairman of Safeguard Properties Inc.
in Cleveland, which specializes in property preservation, he estimates he was responsible for the boarding up of more than one million homes since he founded the company in 1990.
Robert Klein founder and chairman of Community Blight Solutions
Hence by way of atonement, Klein founded Community Blight Solutions after retiring two years ago. He identified an inventor who created the clearboarding material, and Community Blight was the first company to offer the polycarbonate windows for derelict properties. To date, Klein’s product has been installed in about 2,300 communities across the country and he takes credit for the introduction of what he considers to be the best solution to counter the blight of plywood patching.
“I challenge anyone to come up with a better solution to deal with community blight,” Klein concludes. “Find a better solution, and I’m on board.”