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New York Assemblyman James Skoufis (D-Woodbury)
“We have to do better.”
This was the credo from Assemblyman James Skoufis as he stood in front of a house covered in plywood boards in Stony Point, NY.
“We have to do better for our communities, for our families,” Skoufis reiterated.
James Skoufis is on a crusade to do something about blighted properties across the State of New York. On a cool autumn morning on Roosevelt Street, Assemblyman Skoufis gathered together city officials – including the local fire chief, EMS, police, and city supervisor – as he introduced a new product that will permanently end the crime and blight associated with plywood boarding: SecureView.
“We’re here to support Assemblyman Skoufis and his mission to change the face of blighted, vacant, and abandoned properties across New York,” said Robert Klein, Founder and Chairman of Community Blight Solutions, the advocacy arm of SecureView. Skoufis and Klein are of one mind on the matter. “The more properties that have this issue of plywood boarding, the lower the home values drop in the neighborhood. People move out. Scavengers pull out copper and appliances. Banks can’t unload the properties…the house just sits there waiting for a squatter or drug lab to set up shop. All because of the plywood hiding them,” Klein remarked.
The demonstration in Stony Point was a highlight to the legislation introduced by Assemblymen Skoufis, Cook, and Steck. The bill, NY 6086A, outlaws the use of plywood boarding on vacant and abandoned homes. Set for review in the January legislative calendar of the New York State Assembly, 6086A is a testament to the changing times. “We’re hearing an outcry from nearly every corner of the Empire State. Something needs to be done about squatters and criminals who pop off the plywood and set up shop in vacant homes – finally, we are doing something about it.” Skoufis said.
SecureView’s polycarbonate sheeting has been installed across the United States, and has been approved by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Veterans Administration for properties owned by those government institutions. Fannie Mae recently gave instructions for the mortgage industry to remove and replace all plywood boards on its properties with polycarbonate.
“Since the SecureView material is virtually unbreakable from an outside intruder, it stops the problem before it starts,” said Klein, handing a metal baseball bat to Stony Point’s Town Supervisor, Jim Monaghan. After some encouragement from his colleagues, Monaghan took a full swing into the sheeting material, only to have the bat glance off of it. One by one, members of the Stone Point Fire and Rescue, EMS and law enforcement communities took turns trying to break the polycarbonate sheet. Many of the first responders, including Curtis Wicks, Stony Point’s Fire Chief, went inside the building to examine the bracing system, which was modeled after the HUD guidelines for standardized boarding. Many of the first responders recognized the setup as something they had professionally encountered and had training on how to navigate.
The demonstration continued with a robust discussion surrounding the training, installation oversight, and methods of egress for fire personnel. Fire instructors were given the opportunity to take both power tools and a fire axe to the SecureView system from inside, simulating a rescue scenario. The concensus was that an abandoned property benefit from having SecureView on it, and that a properly installed system would not pose an undue risk to firefighters. The collective firefighters and fire training instructors agreed that in a fire scenario, not only could the firefighter get out of the building safely, but that the clear polycarbonate would allow firefighters to have a better sense of what was happening inside the building prior to entry.
“We absolutely agree with our first responders that the safety of fire personnel is paramount,” said Skoufis in the midst of a conversation with the firefighters in attendance, “which is exactly why we think this is a step in the right direction,” he continued.
The economic impact of homes using SecureView, as compared to houses covered in plywood, was discussed throughout the demonstration. The impact was clear: plywood devalues homes. One realtor in attendance remarked on the “sticker price” dropoff when trying to sell a boarded up house. Neighbors to the demonstration site spoke with local officials to lend their opinion. “It looks to me like you can’t get in from the outside,” one neighbor remarked after a close-up examination.
Klein’s anti-blight career has spanned three decades, and he has seen firsthand the damage that plywood boards can do. “Plywood…it’s all the mortgage industry had, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change. It must change,” Klein said, reflecting on his 30 years at the helm of Safeguard Properties, a national property preservation company. “We were doing a million inspections per month. The banks told us that plywood was the only answer – now, we have a new answer, and it’s vastly superior to plywood,” said Klein.
Skoufis took questions from several stakeholders in Stony Point, and offered his thoughts on blight and the potential impact of clearboarding, saying, “Like many towns in our wonderful district, this is a beautiful town. The homes are attractive, and the neighborhoods are safe. Plopping a boarded up mess in the middle of it…we can do better. That’s what this legislation is about, making safer, healthier communities – one house at a time.”