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Boarding up houses: plastic or plywood?
Council debates merits of polycarbonate covering
Boarded up
Located on well-traveled Caswell Avenue, this abandoned home was the center of Mondays City Council discussion about possibly requiring the use of clear polycarbonate materials for boarding up, rather than painted plywood. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The eyesore of a boarded-up home in her neighborhood prompted Councilmember Linda Ryno to initiate Monday evening's City Council discussion about ways to minimize residential blight in Ceres.

At least three members of the council were willing to explore the option of the city using clear polycarbonate coverings, sometimes called Plexiglass, over doors and windows of abandoned houses as an alternative to plywood.

Ryno asked the city last year to look into the alternative, after months of staring at a boarded-up home on Caswell Avenue.

The Ceres Neighborhood Enhancement Team, recently taken over by Police Sgt. Jason Coley after the departure of Sgt. Joe Wren, at times boards up homes that become vacant and the target of squatters. Homes are sometimes also boarded up when the residents are removed from unsafe living conditions involving squalor or unsafe construction and in the case of fires. Coley explained that his unit, through a contract with local contractor Affordable Custom Painting has boarded up five houses in Ceres this fiscal year. The current regulations call for ¾" or 5/8" thick plywood for doorways that is secured by 2x4s attached by carriage bolts.

In most cases, the city tries to paint the plywood to match the field color of the home said Coley.

Polycarbonate may look more aesthetic pleasing but is much more expensive. Because it bends more than plywood, bracing is also required which also is a visual detraction.

Coley gave the council a brief cost comparison. A 5/8th-inch thick sheet of plywood measuring 4 feet by 8-feet costs $22 to $25 at Home Depot while a 1/8th-inch thick sheet of polycarbonate costs $167 as a special order. Grainger offers a pack of five sheets for $841. A firm in Chicago sells it cheaper, along with the bracing. For a typical house - factoring in two doors, a slider and eight windows - Coley estimated polycarbonate materials costing $2,004 versus $300 for plywood.

In most cases the city would be able to recover those costs from the owner of the property or a bank through use of a lien placed on the property but could take three to eight years. There is no guarantee on a payback, said City Manager Toby Wells.

Councilman Ken Lane said he sees advantages to using the clear coverings, citing the ability of police to look inside of a house. But Coley noted if the structure is securely boarded up, nobody should be inside.

"At the very least we can do the street visibility," said Ryno. "That's really what I'm after because I think it really brings our city down when you drive through and see houses like this. I don't care how close you try, you cannot make it not look like plywood."

Vice Mayor Mike Kline agreed that using polycarbonate on sides of a home visible to public view is preferred but asked: "What looks worse? The plywood's that on the windows that the paint is close to matching or the aesthetics of their yard that goes south? ... Where do you spend your money?" He questioned spending $800 on a sheet of plastic when the yard may be an equal eyesore.

Coley explained that the city can place an abatement warrant on any property to get a bank or owner to care for yard maintenance or face cleanup by the city with the cost recovered in a lien. But he said the process can take so long the property sits as an eyesore for months.

Coley surveyed local cities and found that six didn't require but allows polycarbonate as board-up material while three said they didn't use it because of its cost.

Councilmember Bret Durossette did not support polycarbonate as an option.

Mayor Chris Vierra said the city should work to minimize the boarding up of any house and said he didn't like the looks of either method of boarding up houses.

"I've seen the (ply)wood and I really don't like the wood," said the mayor. "I thought the polycarbonate would be nice and neat ... but I look at this (picture) and it looks worse than the board-up because it looks like the window is half-open and it's vacant and screaming out, ‘Come in and vandalize and have a party.' I don't really like either one of them and I really don't like the cost of the polycarbonate.

"Are we really putting lipstick on the pig here? If the yard isn't taken care of and there's trash everywhere and we have nice polycarbonate windows, I'm not sure it's really going to help us that much."

Ceres resident Leonard Shepherd commented that expensive material "just doesn't make sense."

Three members of the council - Ryno, Kline and Lane - moved the council to seek additional information on companies that provide standardized window sizes and costs as well as on cost recovery. Vierra and Durossette were outvoted. After Vierra said he wasn't interested, Ryno replied: "To me it would be worth the cost if we're going to be able to recoup it, if we just put the polycarbonate in the front. I can understand that it might not bother you but if it's in your neighborhood or you're driving down the street, honestly it's ugly. It really is and I just think we should try and clean up our city."

Once the logistics of costs and installation are weighed, the council will determine if it wants to proceed.