Ohio’s new plywood ban on vacant houses could change Dayton’s blight

Ohio enacted the nation’s first statewide ban on mortgage lenders using plywood to board up vacant structures, which some local officials hope will help disguise and stop the spread of housing abandonment and blight.

Plywood, which covers the doors and windows of thousands of empty structures across southwest Ohio, has become a highly recognizable symbol of decay.

But moving forward, lenders will be required to use alternative boarding materials, such as a glass-like polycarbonate that is easier on the eye and does not advertise that a home or building is unoccupied, supporters said.

“They are clear allowing the architectural features of a home (to) stand out and unlike plywood does not call attention to a vacant property,” said Michael Grauwelman, executive director of the Montgomery County Land Bank.

Dayton is home to about 6,600 vacant structures, including about 5,400 empty residential buildings, many of which are covered in plywood boards. Entire blocks in parts of east and west Dayton are filled with rows of decaying homes.

Gov. John Kasich last week signed into law House Bill 463.

Critics say plywood is ugly, easy to damage and remove and itself has become an emblem of decay and disinvestment, which is often no better than the broken-out doors and windows they cover.

The law, the first of its kind across the country, means mortgage service firms and others will have to stop using a product that contributes to deterioration of neighborhoods in favor of alternatives such as “clear boarding technology,” said Robert Klein, founder and chairman of Community Blight Solutions in Cleveland.

Klein’s company manufactures SecureView clear board products, which are a transparent polycarbonate material that is a substitute to plywood.

The company’s products have been used by variety of public and private customers, including vendors and mortgage service firms hired by Fannie Mae, the mortgage lending behemoth.

Clear boarding products are shatter and tamper proof, preventing vandalism, trespassing, squatting and other crimes in vacant properties, said Klein, who advocated for House Bill 463.

Clear boards allow police and property owners to see inside buildings to ensure there are no intruders or other trouble inside.

Most notably, clear boards tend to be indistinguishable from windows and glass doors, meaning they do not publicize that a property is empty as plywood does, said Klein.

“You can’t tell a property is vacant,” he said.

Clear boarding products are more expensive than plywood. A 48-by-96-inch SecureView window cover runs about $115 per sheet. A SecureView security door costs about $395.

But plywood has a limited lifespan and may have to be replaced multiple times if a property sits vacant for an extended period of time, officials said.

Mortgage lenders will be most impacted by the legislation, but they often maintain their properties using conventional locking products instead of boarding, said Grauwelman, with the county land bank.

But clear boards hopefully will help improve the appearance of some local neighborhoods, Grauwelman said.

Fannie Mae, one of two massive U.S. government-backed agencies to buy and guarantee mortgages, was an early adopter of clear board alternatives.

The housing finance giant started using polycarbonate coverings in 2013 to maintain its post-foreclosure properties in a handful of states, including Ohio.

By the end of 2014, Fannie Mae had implemented clear boarding across all of its markets.

Vendors and mortgage service firms hired by Fannie Mae have retrofitted 4,000 properties across the country using clear boards, and they also have placed polycarbonate covering on about 11,000 vacant properties in the last year and a half, said Jake Williamson, vice president of Fannie Mae’s distressed assessment fulfillment division.

Fannie Mae hires vendors and mortgage servicers to handle administrative work for the mortgages and managing vacant properties.

Fannie Mae also now allows and wants its vendors and mortgage servicers to use clear boards to secure vacant properties that are in pre-foreclosure status, Williamson said. The agency may retrofit more of its properties with clear boards.

“We feel the product is a bit safer and more secure than plywood,” he said.

The new law apparently caused some confusion: Some people incorrectly believed that all Ohioans were prohibited from using plywood to board up empty structures, according to the Youngstown Vindicator.

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