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After child rape, Highland Park looks to steel shutters to seal abandoned homes

Mar 16, 2015

A blighted home in Michigan gets torn down
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Highland Park officials say they want to board up more blighted homes with steel, rather than wood.

Steel is really good at keeping out squatters. Problem is, it's also really expensive.

The city started using steel shutters on a handful of houses after an 11-year-old girl was raped in December in an abandoned house.

“We were planning on putting steel on multiple homes previous to [that crime]” says Fire Chief Derek Hillman.

“This was an opportunity to make sure that we did it, and [a steel shutter company] volunteered their services.”  

"If the house is secure, we know that nobody'sin there. And I want to keep my guys safe. I want every single person on my team to be safe."

Right now, Hillman says only a small handful of blighted homes in Highland Park actually have steel shutters up. But he says the benefits are clear.

“There’s a huge difference in security. With the steel, it makes it harder for somebody to get in there. [Police] can secure homes that they feel may be drug related or a nuisance or something along those lines.

“The plywood, it’s basically wooden glue if you think about it: chips of wood glued together and pressed. So with rain and weather it expands and wears out quicker.”

The steel shutters’ ability to deter squatters is good for firefighters, too.

For one thing, Hillman says it’s a lot easier to put out a fire that was started from the outside of a home, rather than inside it.

And trying to rescue squatters from inside dilapidated homes is a dangerous mission for firefighters.

“If the house is secure, we know that nobody’s in there. And that’s the whole aspect: I want to keep my guys safe. I want every single person on my team to be safe,” says Hillman.

But the price tag for steel is steep: about twice what it costs to use wood boards, according to estimates Hillman says he’s received.

So he says the city is looking into a couple funding options.

One possibility is the city’s fire escrow program, which is a program Michigan has that essentially takes a cut from insurance payments for house fires, and gives it to the city to rehab or demolish a burned house if the homeowner doesn’t clean up the mess.

Another option is the Hardest Hit Fund, which the U.S. Treasury set up after the housing crisis to help areas with high foreclosure rates.   

“If we don’t secure these homes, we won’t have something for someone to eventually purchase and fix up,” says Hillman.

And he says those steel shutters can be reused once a house has been cleaned up or demolished.

“It’s not just putting a band aid on it, it’s solving a problem at that point.”

Hillman says he knows other Detroit-area municipalities, including the Motor City itself, are also hoping to use more steel shutters in the future. 

UPDATE: What's to keep people from just stealing the shutters? 

We heard from several people wondering what's keeping thieves from just taking the steel shutters themselves. Good question. When we spoke with Chief Hillman yesterday, we asked him the same thing. Here's his take. 

"They could try, but there's certain measures that have been done to make it very, very difficult to take off. And the amount of effort that would go into it, you know, I don't see as worth it. Because you're going to see it, you're going to hear it.  It's something that's going to take a while to do.

"You know those non-backing out screws, how they have certain one way screws? You put those on there, so it's not like you can just take them off. You have to have the right tools to take off this equipment, so it's not just come over there and unscrew it. Or you have to have a large metal saw."  

Of course, whether he's right (that it's really hard to steal these shutters) remains to be seen. So far there are so few of these shutters in use in Highland Park that it's hard to know. For what it's worth, a pound of steel goes for about 3 to 6 cents per pound these days, as opposed to about a dollar per pound of copper coil.  

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