CAMDEN, NJ— A program that boards up the windows and doors of vacant homes in North Camden is not only reducing blight in the neighborhood, but also providing local job opportunities. 

What began as an initial pilot program in 2014 across the city, the Camden Community Development Association’s Decorative Board Up program has since boarded up nearly 200 vacant buildings in Camden.

Funded through a state Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit grant, the program’s work has been focused in North Camden for the past year. It's operated by a partnership between the development association and the Neighborhood Foundation and Camden Lutheran Housing, Inc. 

Sign Up for E-News

In addition to boarding up vacant homes, workers also clean up the properties by getting rid of trash, mowing the lawn and removing graffiti, with the ultimate goal of reducing blight and attracting a new owner to restore the building.

“It’s supposed to be an alternative to demolition. A lot of the times these buildings get torn down just because they look ugly," Chris Toepfer, executive director of the Neighborhood Foundation, said.

So far, there have been at least seven properties that were once boarded up that are now homes again, said Toepfer.

Once a vacant home is identified, Camden Lutheran Housing will obtain permission to board it up through a letter sent to the property’s owner. Then, the decorative board up crew — usually consisting of three to five members — will install boards already painted black with a white frame designed to make it look like a window, over the first and second floor windows and doors of a vacant home. Sometimes, a colorful design will be painted on the board.

Toepfer, who began the program in Chicago and has since worked in several cities across the country, said that the cost of painting and installing the boards cost anywhere between $500 to $1,000 and can take as brief as 30 minutes to install the boards on a home.

“For every one property that you tear down, we can do 25 of these … It is supposed to blend in so it doesn’t look like a target of opportunity, particularly for scrapping,” Toepfer said, adding that there have been relatively few break-ins of the properties they boarded up.

In addition to securing the properties, cleaning them up, and beautifying them, Director of the CCDA, Curt Macysyn said that instead of looking for volunteers to work on the homes, they look for local people to hire.

“We look at this as sort of an entry into the workforce,” Macsyn said. “If these guys are working on it, and a year from now they find more stable employment — that’s great. That’s the objective.”

“We want to pay people,” Toepfer said. “We want to get local workforce to do it, and that builds a sense of ownership. These are pretty good jobs, they’re learning painting, they’re learning a little bit about art, and carpentry skills.”

Raul Santiago has worked on the crew for the last year, said he has removed more than 100 pieces of graffiti in North Camden.

“It makes a big difference for the neighborhood,” Santiago said. “Now the neighborhood looks better.”

Toepfer hopes to expand the program through out of all of Camden in the near future.

“This could make a big difference in Camden,” Toepfer said, pointing to a recently boarded up home on the corner of 6th and York streets. “If people look and all they see are vacant houses, well what if they saw this.”

The decorative board up program has also painted murals in the neighborhood, along with remove graffiti from other buildings. For more information about the program, visit http://clhi.org/decorative-board-up/.