STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Abandoned houses boarded up with plywood on the windows are synonymous with blight. And Ohio is trying to change those optics by banning the use of plywood on some foreclosed properties. Proponents say clear boarding panels made of a clear polycarbonate will improve esthetics and help prevent vandalism. But Esther Honig of member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, reports there are problems with this new facade.
ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: Standing outside this single-story home in Cleveland's Slavic Village, you'd never guess the property's been abandoned for several years.
ROBERT KLEIN: It looks like any other property in the block. You can't tell this property's vacant.
HONIG: Sloshing through wet snow, Robert Klein points to a house whose windows have been boarded up with sheets of clear polycarbonate, the same plastic that's used on airplane windows. It's weather resistant and deters break-ins. Klein picks up a hammer and takes a swing.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
HONIG: OK, so pretty - pretty...
KLEIN: It's not breakable. You cannot get in.
HONIG: Klein owns a company that boards up foreclosed properties and says plywood has a number of disadvantages. It's ugly, and it's easy for squatters and vandals to breach. Three years ago, Klein helped develop and patent this polycarbonate sheet and is now the leading manufacturer. He also lobbied for this new law. It doesn't require clear boarding, but by banning plywood, it leaves few alternatives.
KLEIN: So do I have an interest? Absolutely I have an interest but that still doesn't - shouldn't take away from the benefits, what it does for the community.
HONIG: Now, this new law doesn't mean every abandoned structure will now have clear boarding. It only applies proactively to houses foreclosed on by a bank. Still, that has some people in this community pretty excited. Halley Eads lives here in Slavic Village.
HALLEY EADS: When you drive down a street and half of the houses are boarded, it makes you sad almost. Like, you know, you feel like things are kind of going downhill.
HONIG: That's why Eads and her neighbors really like clear boarding. It looks better, and they can see into these properties to report any criminal activity. But there's a number of catches. A large piece of plywood costs about $20 while a similar-sized sheet of clear polycarbonate costs nearly six times as much. And it's not only about the money. Lieutenant Matthew Hertzfeld is with the Toledo Fire Department and says while it only takes a firefighter seconds to rip through plywood with an ax, to cut through polycarbonate sheeting, you have to attack it with an electric saw.
MATTHEW HERTZFELD: How long does it take us to deploy that saw to cut through that plastic? In the fire service, time is of essence for us. Life and death, not to be dramatic, comes down to minutes.
HONIG: Hertzfeld also worries these windows could trap his men inside a blazing structure. Robert Klein's windows are built with a quick release bar, but Hertzfeld isn't convinced that design will hold up in a fire.
HERTZFELD: Imagine yourself with 70 pounds of firefighting gear on and you have zero visibility.
HONIG: Robert Solomon with the National Fire Protection Association says, like it or not, firefighters across the country will have to adapt. Federal mortgage company Fannie Mae has already installed clear boarding on thousands of homes across the U.S., and Phoenix recently became the first city to require it on all vacant properties. Solomon says while it poses a problem for firefighters, they'll figure it out.
ROBERT SOLOMON: You know, fire departments can, you know, breach through a brick wall or a concrete wall if they have to and when they have to.
HONIG: It's likely that plywood will continue to be replaced by polycarbonate. New York City and other cities are now also considering banning the use of plywood on their abandoned houses and buildings. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig in Columbus, Ohio.
(SOUNDBITE OF CANYONS OF STATIC'S "NEVER ALONE AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.