A Clear Solution for Securing Vacant School Buildings

Surrounded by homes and strategically located as a central hub for community activities, a school breathes strength and vitality into the surrounding neighborhood. Sadly, as many neighborhoods experience a population decline resulting in fewer students, school, and city administrators are forced to make the difficult decision to close and shutter school buildings.

Once the lifeblood of the community, these abandoned school properties contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of blight. Consider these facts about the impact vacant and abandoned school buildings have on the surrounding neighborhood:*

  • Less than 48 percent of vacant schools ever get re-used, even as charter or magnet schools;
  • Because of vandalism, post-sale net operating savings is less than $1 million from closing a school;
  • Typical vacant school property for sale is more than 60 years old, located in a residential area, and tied to local home values;
  • Demolition of a school can cost 122 percent of the school’s median market sales price;
  • Many vacant schools remain on the market for more than 10 years, losing nearly all value from vandalism;
  • School districts that have auctioned off vacant schools have only recovered 11 percent of the auditor’s value; and
  • Large districts, before realtor fees, garnered only 63 percent of the asking price.

Abandoned school structures send a signal of a neighborhood in trouble, but they are more than just an eyesore. These vacant buildings attract squatters, become hubs for crime, and strain the resources of cities and school districts faced with maintaining these properties.

Research confirms that these boarded school properties can pose a significant health and safety risk for residents and, in particular, children who walk by these structures every day. In a study in Philadelphia, Branas, Rubin, and Guo report an association between vacant properties and risk of assault, finding vacancy to be the strongest predictor among almost a dozen indicators after controlling for other demographic and socioeconomic variables.**

Unfortunately, the cycle continues. School districts and municipalities will not rehabilitate the property and they are unable to attract a buyer or investor when fear and crime exist. Razing the structure is often not an option for already strained school district budgets.

School administrators and district board representatives are often left with no other choice than to board up the building and attempt to secure and maintain the property’s asset value while a plan for its future use is developed.

For decades, plywood has been the standard material for boarding vacant and unoccupied buildings. But plywood has become the ugly and stigmatizing symbol of community blight. Plywood announces to everyone that a property is vacant and abandoned, extending an open invitation to vandals and squatters who are looking for their next target.

Polycarbonate clearboarding is a practical and attractive alternative to plywood boarding that school district and city administrators can use to secure their vacant properties and protect their assets. A state-of-the-art technology, clear polycarbonate looks like glass, so it doesn’t broadcast that a building is vacant and abandoned. It’s virtually unbreakable, protecting properties from intrusion by vandals and squatters and reducing the risk for first responders.

In a recent study, Aaron Klein, former U.S. Treasury Department deputy assistant secretary for Economic Policy, provides the first quantifiable analysis that proves the significant economic advantages that polycarbonate clearboarding provides in the national fight against community blight. The February 2017 white paper titled, “Curing Community Blight: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Benefits of Clearboarding versus Plywood to Secure Vacant and Abandoned Properties,” examines the decades-old practice of boarding properties with plywood and demonstrates the substantial benefits to using polycarbonate clearboarding to secure vacant and abandoned properties.***

Klein concludes that a single, foreclosed, vacant, or abandoned property that is improperly secured can result in economic loss for not only the property itself, but also to neighbors surrounding the property, as well as the broader community. The method used to board and maintain a vacant property is a major determinant of the magnitude of these losses. More specifically, Klein quantifies the positive economic impact of taking the simple step to change from plywood to clearboarding to mitigate the losses and reverse the spread of community blight.

While polycarbonate is approximately twice the cost of plywood for materials and installation, it is more effective at properly securing the property and is more cost-efficient over time. Plywood boarding can be easily removed by intruders who often cause irreparable damage. Properties boarded with plywood require constant attention from code enforcement to address violations, and police, fire, and first responder calls, placing a strain on city and community resources and budgets.

Clear polycarbonate is being used in communities across the country to secure unoccupied properties without exposing vacancy. Major residential property mortgage servicers as well as the GSEs (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, VA) have taken significant steps to eliminate the use of plywood boarding on their vacant and abandoned properties and have mandated the use of polycarbonate clearboarding as a more effective boarding method.

I have been leveraging my more than 27 years in property preservation and mortgage servicing to advocate for legislation at the state and local level that would ban the use of plywood boarding on all vacant residential, municipal, and commercial properties. The State of Ohio recently passed legislation banning plywood boarding and several more states and municipalities are considering similar legislation.

Until then, taking the critical steps to properly secure vacant schools and reducing the negative impact these buildings have on the surrounding community, can reverse the trend of the spread of blight and start the process of neighborhood stabilization and rehabilitation.


* Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life. The Pew Charitable Trust, Feb. 11, 2013.

   The Disparate Impact, School Closures, and Parental Choice. Univ. of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 2014, Is. 1.

   The Disparate Impact of Shuttered Schools. Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, Vol. 23, Is. 2, 2015

** Charles C. Branas, David Rubin, and Wensheng Guo. 2012. “Vacant Properties and Violence in Neighborhoods, International Scholarly Research Network: Public Health 2012, 5

***Aaron Klein, “Curing Community Blight: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Clearboarding vs. Plywood to Secure Vacant and Abandoned Properties,” February 2017

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