With the swing of a sledgehammer, Collingswood borough officials Thursday began work to rehabilitate abandoned properties that have been a blight on the South Jersey community for years.
The first home targeted under the project, a bungalow in the 200 block of Harvard Avenue, has been vacant for eight years. It has fallen into disrepair and will be gutted.
"This is how it starts," said Mayor James Maley. "This is our chance to start reversing the tide."
Scattered throughout the community of about 14,000 residents, the estimated 40 abandoned homes have become eyesores. They decrease property values and thwart potential home buyers.
Like many communities around the country, Collingswood was hard-hit by the recession. The abandoned properties, many of them bank foreclosures, fell into disrepair, making it virtually impossible to sell them.
"These homes really do affect the quality of life," said Borough Commissioner Rob Lewandowski. "It weighs everything down."
Collingswood has gained the rights to a handful of properties over the last 18 months with a court order through the state's Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, which allows municipalities to seize control of abandoned properties. The municipality must devise a plan to rehab each property and put it on the market .
Unlike Camden, which has used eminent domain to seize properties, Collingswood is taking control of the bank-owned properties through receivership. The borough will not take title to the properties.
St. Joseph's Carpenter Society will complete the renovations. The 30-year-old nonprofit has renovated nearly 1,000 abandoned properties, most in Camden City, and over the last several years has expanded to Gloucester City, Merchantville, and Pennsauken.
"Abandoned homes have been casting a negative light on our South Jersey communities, and being able to wrestle these homes free to rehab them and bring them back to life offers a new chance for these blocks to become whole again," said Pilar Hogan Closkey, executive director of St. Joseph's Carpenter Society.
Closkey said her group would continue to focus primarily on rehabilitating homes in Camden. St. Joseph's was asked to provide expertise to help other communities target troubled neighborhoods, she said.
"We're never stepping away from Camden. That will always be the heart of our work," Closkey said.
Crews began working Wednesday on the three-bedroom Harvard Avenue home, white with peeling pink trim. Workers hauled debris from the basement to a dumpster in the driveway. They will also renovate a home on Lees Avenue.
For years, neighbors on Harvard, an otherwise stable and well-kept block, tended to the abandoned property, mowing the grass, shoveling snow, and decorating the home for the holidays. They tried to purchase it with the hope of fixing it up.
"That place is a mess," said Pam Capato, who lives across the street. "For eight years, we've been whining. They're finally doing something."
It was unknown why the home was abandoned. There were a few signs of the previous occupants: magnets on the refrigerator - one with a message that "Age is just a number. I don't do numbers" -- pastel trim on the wall in a bedroom that could have been a nursery, and a sign declaring the second-floor loft "Kate's room." Yellow tape blocked the entrance to the home's only bathroom, where a hole in the floor offered a peek to the basement.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, homeowners who were unable to pay mortgages walked away from properties, leaving towns to figure out what to do with vacant homes.
Maley and other officials "ceremoniously" used sledgehammers to knock holes in a wall to start the project. The house will be renovated from top to bottom with new floors, heating system, appliances, aluminum siding and windows. Several prospective buyers have expressed interest, the mayor said.
About $150,000 will be spent on the renovation. Once the work is complete, the home will be sold at market value. Collingswood and St. Joseph's will split the proceeds. Neither can recoup more than it invests in the rehab, so any lien holders can apply to obtain any profits, Maley said.
"We feel that we're going to get our money back," the mayor said.
Closkey said a general contractor using local labor will complete the renovations, expected to take about four months. A new owner could move in by the summer, she said.
Maley said Collingswood borrowed about $1 million that will be used to rehabilitate about eight to 10 properties. The abandoned properties project will act like a revolving fund – as the first homes are rehabilitated and sold, Collingswood will use those profits to begin work on the next batch of homes, he said.
At one time, there were about 90 abandoned homes in the 2.6-square-mile borough, Maley said. Owners fixed up about half of those properties, he said.
Several years ago, Collingswood tried working with several other towns to compile data on abandoned homes. The plan was to present the data to banks for possible sale or resale, but it never gained traction, the mayor said.
"This is a huge step in taking care of a lingering problem that has plagued pretty much every town since the market crashed," said Maley. "We want to see families in these homes giving back to the community and contributing to their neighborhoods. "