Homeowner Susan Gamble likes to think of her freshly painted yellow bungalow in Collingswood as her "Christmas miracle."
With time running out, Gamble hurriedly closed the deal for the house and moved in a week ago, just hours after she sold her home in nearby Haddon Township. A few days earlier, it had appeared that needed last-minute repairs on her new home could put the sale in jeopardy.
Gamble, a podiatrist, became the first to acquire a home in Collingswood under a program launched in February by the borough to fix up abandoned properties that have become eyesores in the South Jersey community. At least 40 properties have been targeted for renovations and put up for sale at market value.
"I love it. I'm very happy," Gamble, 53, said standing on the sidewalk in front of her house on Harvard Avenue.
Like many communities around the country, Collingswood was hard-hit by the recession several years ago. Unable to pay their mortgages, some homeowners walked away, leaving it to Collingswood to figure out what to do with dozens of vacant properties scattered throughout the borough of 14,000. Many were bank foreclosures and in disrepair, making it virtually impossible to sell them.
Mayor James Maley said the project began with 40 homes on the rehabilitation list. Developers have taken on the task of fixing 25 of the properties, leaving the borough with 14 to complete, he said. Crews are already at work on a house on Lees Avenue, he said.
"Once people saw that we were serious and were going to be doing this, a whole lot of people stepped up," Maley said. "Our list is whittling down a lot, from where we started."
Gamble's bungalow was vacant for eight years and had fallen into disrepair. It was renovated from top to bottom, with new floors, heating system, appliances, aluminum siding, and windows. Maley said it was sold at market value, $205,000, and the borough recouped the $160,000 it had invested in the property.
Maley said the process took longer than expected largely because of legal issues. Collingswood gained the rights to a handful of properties under 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. At one time, there were as many as 90 abandoned homes in the 2.6-square-mile borough, though individuals fixed up about half of them, Maley said.
"These buildings are in really bad condition," Maley said. "It can be very complicated and difficult."
Gamble, chief of podiatry at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, said the process of closing the deal was "tortuous." Some repairs were completed after she moved in, such as a new roof and a French drain in the basement. Nevertheless, she said she had no regrets about downsizing from a bigger home in Haddon Township and buying the bungalow.
The house on Harvard Avenue looks strikingly different than it did in February when crews began hauling debris from the basement. The outside then was white with peeling pink trim. Inside, vines were growing through a cracked window. Yellow tape blocked the entrance to the home's only bathroom, where a hole in the floor offered a peek into the basement.
Last week, it had a sparkling new kitchen with granite countertops, windows that let in plenty of sunshine, a fireplace, and an expanded front porch where Gamble has placed wicker furniture that she plans to enjoy on summer days. Still unpacking, with boxes around the house, she put up a Christmas tree the first day — thus her Christmas miracle.
The renovations were done by workers from St. Joseph's Carpenter Society and initially were expected to take about four months. The 30-year-old nonprofit has renovated nearly 1,000 abandoned properties, mostly in the city of Camden. Over the past several years it has expanded to Gloucester City, Merchantville, and Pennsauken.
"We ended up doing a lot of work," said Pilar Hogan Closkey, executive director of the society. "It was in pretty bad shape."
Maley said Collingswood has borrowed about $1 million to rehabilitate 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 the proceeds to begin work on the next batch of houses, he said.
Closkey said her group continues to focus primarily on rehabilitating houses in Camden. St. Joseph's was asked by Collingswood to provide expertise to help other communities target troubled neighborhoods, she said.
Neighbors on Harvard Avenue welcomed the completion of the first rehab on their stable and well-kept block. For years, after the owner of the house abruptly moved out, they tended to the abandoned property, mowing the grass, shoveling snow, and decorating it for the holidays. They tried unsuccessfully to purchase it, hoping to fix it up, then pressed the borough to do the job.