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To be clear: Committee OKs plexiglass to secure vacant buildings

It's common to see plywood used to secure vacant buildings, but a City Council committee on Tuesday made it clear that plexiglass or polycarbonate are OK, too - and also safer. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s epidemic of abandoned buildings have long been a magnet for vagrants, prostitutes, gang-bangers and drug dealers.

They’ve also been a trap for first-responders who can’t see what they’re getting into through the plywood on the doors and windows.

On Tuesday, Chicago aldermen moved to confront and potentially alter those dangerous conditions.

At the behest of Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and an Ohio contractor with a checkered past, the City Council’s Zoning Committee removed a discrepancy in the city code to make it perfectly clear that plexiglass or polycarbonate “may be used to secure the opening of vacant buildings” as required by the municipal code.

Owners of Chicago buildings vacant for more than 30 days are required to secure all windows and doors to prevent unlawful entry.

Rules and regulations issued by the city’s Department of Buildings permit the use of plexiglass to secure vacant buildings. But the municipal code “makes no reference to the material,” Burke said. “The ordinance that I’ve offered would codify what the department’s rules and regulations currently permit.”

Robert Klein, chairman of Ohio-based Save our Properties, acknowledged that so-called “clear-boarding” products used in airline and motorcycle windows cost twice as much to install as plywood. But, he argued that it saves money and lives in the long-run.

“It’s absolutely secure. You cannot gain access to a property. … We did not have one single property that has been secured with a polycarbonate clear boarding product that has been broken into,” Klein said.

The “real beauty” of clear-boarding products is that you “cannot tell the property is vacant,” Klein said.

“The moment you put plywood on a property, you’re announcing to the world that, `This property is vacant.’ Anything bad that can happen at a property happens behind these plywood boards. Drugs, prostitution, murder,” he said.

“You’re gonna re-board the property at least three times. The property will most probably be vandalized. You’re talking millions of dollars of vandalism. I’m sure you’ve heard of the copper piping industry. When you see a property that’s vacant and boarded up, they go in and they vandalize it. They take all of the copper piping out of there.”

Klein said he has already used clear-boarding products to secure 15,000 properties in 2,300 communities across the country. He estimated that with perhaps 10,000-to-12,000 sites in Chicago, the measure is a potential “life-safer” for police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

“When first-responders go to a property that’s boarded with plywood, they have no clue. No idea what’s inside that property. … With this polycarbonate clear boarding, the first responders see inside the property before they go in there. It really is a life-saver,” the contractor said.

Klein is the founder and chairman of Safeguard Properties.

Last year, Il. Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a $1 million settlement to resolve allegations that the company “locked Illinois residents out of their homes before a foreclosure had been finalized.”

At the time, Madigan described Safeguard as “the largest company in the country hired by mortgage lenders to determine whether homeowners in default or facing foreclosure” were still living in their homes. If a property is deemed vacant, Safeguard is responsible for securing and maintaining the property.

“When I filed this lawsuit, Safeguard was illegally breaking and entering into homes, often removing residents’ belongings and locking people out,” Madigan said in announcing the settlement.

“This settlement will provide some compensation for the nightmare they caused these homeowners. It will ensure that Safeguard does not employ these brazen practices moving forward.”

The decision to open the door to and even encourage clear boarding products comes at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making a crime-fighting push to secure and demolish abandoned buildings that have become a magnet for crime.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) represents a crime-plagued South Side ward saddled with roughly 600 abandoned buildings. He’s all for the idea of finding a substitute for plywood; wood panels, he said, can be removed more easily by vagrants and criminals. Still, Lopez argued that clear-boarding is not the panacea the contractor claimed.

“You can still tell a foreclosed home, whether it’s plywood or plastic. You can see that a mile away. And while I understand you’re very much pitching the product, plywood doesn’t de-value the neighboring houses. A foreclosed home, period, de-values that property,” the rookie alderman said.

Turning to Klein, Lopez said, “This is just a tool and I understand you’re selling that tool. But for many of us in our communities, it’s not so much a tool of securing but the enforcement of making that happen. I know this is a good product. I’ve seen it. But I think that just to keep things in perspective, it’s the foreclosure itself and the danger it poses when it’s not secured in any fashion that poses the risk to our communities.”