As neighbors and local dignitaries gathered to watch, a squad of Cleveland firefighters employed their full complement of tools—sledgehammers, axes, halligans, chain saws—to try to break into and get out of a blighted property safely.
Their noisy assault on this particular house, located in the city’s Slavic Village neighborhood, was prearranged as a demonstration of the new generation of vacant home security for doors and windows: polycarbonate Clearboarding.
“I’d love to get their endorsement for Clearboarding,” explained Robert Klein, founder and chairman of Community Blight Solutions, which is based in Cleveland and markets its Clearboarding product nationally through its SecureView Windows division.
Klein also heads Slavic Village Recovery LLC, a partnership of Community Blight Solutions, Community Development Corporation Slavic Village Development, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Forest City Enterprises. The partnership formed two years ago to begin testing and promoting Clearboarding over the ubiquitous eyesore plywood boarding.
The advantages are extensive. Aesthetically, Clearboarding looks and feels like glass, so vacant homes appear to have regular windows, rather than ugly plywood boards. For thieves and other criminals, that iconic brown boarding is an automatic advertisement, Klein says: “This house is vacant. Come on in!”
The extremely durable and difficult to penetrate Clearboarding addresses that concern by keeping people from smashing through the plywood, which then has to be replaced, usually repeatedly. Of the 15,000 properties in 2,300 communities throughout the US that Community Blight Solutions has refitted with Clearboarding, not one has been broken into successfully.
This demonstration, however, related to other safety concerns with plywood boarding, since thieves can easily break in and strip homes of piping or wiring, for example, without being seen. Vagrants or others who break in often start fires to keep warm, so if they can’t get in, they can’t start fires that could potentially burn down the house.
Moreover, first responders cannot see through plywood, so police or firefighters don’t know who or what is in the house when they arrive. Clearboarding enables them to look directly inside.
“The time has come to change the legislation and not allow plywood,” Klein said while standing in front of the demonstration house as firefighters hacked away at the windows. “Plywood is an absolute cancer, and there’s no reason to use it anymore. We have a different, superior way of securing homes now, and this is the proper way to do it.”
“The time has come to change the legislation and not allow plywood.”
Robert Klein, Chairman, Community Blight Solutions
The partnership has already rehabbed more than 30 homes within a 1 square mile area, taking homes that would otherwise be demolished or remain vacant, and performing between $40 and $60,000 worth of renovation per home. The refurbished home owners and families get conventional 30-year mortgages and become part of the neighborhood, which helps raise property values and restore confidence for existing home owners.
“The partnership has been a big part of getting the houses stable, keeping them safe from a lot of the crime and break-in issues that our vacant homes have and getting them positioned to resell,” said Christopher Alvarado, executive director of Slavic Village Development prior to the demonstration.
Matt Zone, a Cleveland City Councilman who heads the Safety Committee and is a VP of the National League of Cities, adds that Clearboarding has helped protect some of Cleveland’s historic properties that were being vandalized. “That’s why we want to see a more durable solution so someone is not breaking into a house 2, 3, 4, 5 times,” he said. “But we also want to make sure that first responders, especially fire or emergency medical staff, have easy and safe access.”
Although hammers and halligans didn’t work, the firefighters were able to slice through one of the front windows of polycarbonate, which is also used for motorcycle windshields, fairly easily with a chainsaw. Fortunately, thieves would never use a chainsaw, since the tool’s distinctive racket would draw immediate attention.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Klein said after they cut through. “We want it to be easy for the firefighters to get in and out.” Community Blight Solutions had already re-engineered their product with quick exit escape bars on the inside that firefighters can knock out with the help of an axe or hammer, if they need to remove a window for air flow or to exit.
Tony Brancatelli, Cleveland Councilman for Ward 12, which includes a majority of Slavic Village, said he appreciates all the success the partnership has accomplished to date: “This neighborhood in 2007, even before the crisis, had the highest foreclosure rate in the United States. One of the key components is the partnership is doing this all with no government subsidies but as part of the private market, so it can work.”
Klein is recognized as a national expert in this field, primarily because he founded Safeguard Properties in 1990 and grew the corporation into the largest property preservation company in the U.S. before he retired in 2010 to move into new ventures, including Community Blight Solutions. Safeguard manages monthly an average of 1.2 million property inspections and maintains vacant properties for the mortgage servicing industry.
Of course, there was only one choice for covering windows and doors, so he takes credit for being “the culprit” who inflicted plywood boarding on America in the first place.
But today, he’s on a mission to rectify that as a highly visible and vocal advocate of polycarbonate boarding.
“Right now when you say a boarded-up property, immediately you think plywood,” Klein concludes. “So, we still need to change people’s thinking to when you board up a property, you use polycarbonate Clearboarding.”
In addition to the Cleveland Fire Department Ladder Truck 11 company, other attendees of the demonstration included, Tom Schloemer, battalion chief and Wayne Nadia, acting assistant chief from the CFD; Frank Szabo, president, Cleveland Fire Fighters IAFF Local 93; Jeff Raig, project director for Slavic Village Recovery, LLC; Adam Hewit, Government Solutions Group; Mark Nylander, senior advisor for Community Blight Solutions; Todd Berger, creative marketing specialist for Safeguard Properties; along with several employees of SecureView, including Brian Potasiewicz, VP of operations; Heather Best, AVP business development; and Scott Wyland, field service supervisor.