After earning the dubious honor of being one of the state’s emptiest cities, with one of the highest number of vacant houses, Schenectady officials are finally gaining traction in their fight against blight.
But their first step may make the city look worse.
To keep thieves from stripping everything of value inside, and to stop the homeless from starting fires for warmth that sometimes destroy the entire house, owners are being required to board up their vacant houses. City officials believe there are more than 600 such houses throughout Schenectady, defined as houses that have been vacant for more than 30 days. Most have sat empty for years, relics of Schenectady’s glory days when industries including General Electric and Alco were booming.
Owners of the 100 houses in the worst condition were brought to court this month for not complying with the board-up law. While some of them are also in danger of losing their houses due to nonpayment of taxes or mortgage, many are telling the judge they simply can’t keep up with the cost of maintenance. More will be brought to court every month until the city finds the owners of every vacant and unsecured house.
So far, a few owners are choosing to renovate or rent out their properties, but others are taking the simplest path: boarding up the property. Putting plywood over every door and window might preserve the interior, but boarded-up houses seem to encourage graffiti as well as vandalism. The plywood serves as a clear notification that no one lives inside — and until recently, many thieves were able to pry away boards in the dark.
Now city regulations require recessed boards that fit exactly into the frame of each window and door, secured with bolts from the inside. Those are difficult to break through from the outside without cutting the plywood apart with a saw.
“They’re done in a much more secure manner,” said Building Inspector Eric Shilling, arguing that board-ups are better than leaving the houses unsecured.
“People will come and strip a house clean … there’s public safety hazards … there’s 100 reasons why the board-up is a far superior choice,” he said.
But they still don’t look great — and to some residents, plywood is an invitation to vandals.
“When they are boarded up, it gives them the idea to go into it, because they think no one lives there,” said resident Lizvette Brenes. She lives just three doors down from a house that a bank foreclosed on for failure to pay the mortgage. It’s not boarded up, just locked, with a small for-sale sign out front.
“I didn’t even know there was a foreclosed house,” she said. “I thought it was just for sale. It looks better that way.”
Another resident, who lives near a boarded-up, abandoned house that has been repeatedly hit by graffiti, said plywood just makes a bad situation worse.
“When you put it up, it decreases the property value. When they’re not boarded-up, they’re more ready to sell,” said Rev. Lorenzo Johnson.
But other residents see empty buildings as a hazard. They want plywood covering every door and window as soon as possible.
“Forget about what it looks like!” said resident Jason Taylor, who argued that children could get into locked houses and get hurt, or start trouble.
Resident Billy Fowler added, “It’ll keep people out of there, keep people from selling drugs, squatters — we don’t need that around here.”
Others are worried about vandals breaking in and setting fires, either for cooking or warmth. That’s destroyed several houses in the city in recent years.
“I think they should board it up so people don’t set fires,” said Jazlyn Taylor, 11. She lives near three boarded-up houses, all of which have been badly covered with graffiti. “They could just repaint it,” she said.
Their view isn’t popular among those who usually make the decision: banks that take houses during foreclosure. Spokespeople for several banks said plywood is a measure of last resort.
Wells Fargo will go so far as to replace broken windows rather that boarding them up. “We prefer to replace glass with glass,” said Sherilee Massier, property preservation manager.
To her, securing a property means locking it up, winterizing it, and mowing the grass. Plywood only comes out if locks don’t work.
“If it’s a high-vandal area, or it gets broken in many times, we’ll board the property,” she said. “I think every property is unique and every neighborhood is unique.”
Several residents offered a third choice: donate the house to those who can use it. They suggested that the city and the banks should offer buildings to the homeless, nonprofits and small living-room churches.
“I have a church. That could be a perfect church,” Johnson said, looking at a boarded-up, graffiti-covered house. “Imagine if that was a church!”
Of course, that would exempt the building from city taxes, and the bank would lose all chance at recouping its losses from a failed mortgage. City officials said they would much rather get as many of the vacant houses onto the tax roll as possible.
They’re not convinced that their board-up policy is perfect, though. Some city officials are worried that boarding up a house makes it less likely to sell, and a more likely target of vandalism. So some of them are opting for secrecy instead of plywood. Corporation Counsel John Polster asked The Sunday Gazette not to print the addresses of vacant and unsecured buildings, to keep thieves from stripping them for copper and other valuables.
But how do you sell a house without advertising that it’s available? Some banks have taken the direct approach, posting for-sale signs on the front lawn. One bank also added a no-trespassing sign on the front door of a small house on Van Vranken Avenue, warning that it was owned by the bank.
No damage was apparent. Meanwhile, three boarded-up houses a few blocks away on Foster Avenue have been repeatedly hit with graffiti, damaging the vinyl siding and making it far more difficult to sell those properties.
Shilling hopes to fight back with code enforcement. He plans to cite owners of vacant property who ignore graffiti, don’t mow their lawns and otherwise abandon all maintenance.
“That’s really the message here: You bought it, you own it, you’re responsible,” Shilling said. “The property must look neat and clean.”
But the city can’t require owners to live in a house, or to rent it out, he said.
“We understand, with the economy, things are difficult. Getting tenants is difficult. If you want to keep up the mortgage, pay the taxes, and not take any tenants to offset that, there’s not a lot we can do,” he said.
The city is also taking 100 properties for failure to pay taxes, with plans to spend $446,000 in federal money to fix them up enough that they can be sold. City officials also hope to get state permission to start a land bank so they can bank the money they get from the sales and use it to demolish houses too far gone to save.
At the same time, they’ve started a monthly open house program to try to sell valuable houses in the city, ones not facing foreclosure. The idea is to sell down the glut of good houses, preparing the way for the sale of what the mayor calls the city’s “challenged” houses.
Until then, they said, they need to preserve whatever’s left in those vacant houses.
“We’re going to be very diligent,” Shilling said. “If you’re going to buy a house and leave it vacant, you are still responsible for it.”