South Jersey town tries flipping houses to combat neighborhood blight


One South Jersey town is combating its growing stock of abandoned homes by getting into the house-flipping business.

Using a decade-old state law, Collingswood officials sued for control of some abandoned properties, enlisted a group of volunteers to rehab the dilapidated homes, and now plan to sell them at market value.

Mayor Jim Maley said the town had to step in after banks and mortgage holders failed to maintain or sell the homes, which were blighting neighborhoods.

“It starts with one house going south. And it has little ripple effects … that begin to affect the values of the other properties,” said Maley.

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Collingswood borrowed $1 million to bankroll its first round of home rehabilitation. As it sells the houses to new buyers, the town plans to pay down the debt. (The borough will not make any profits from the sales.)

Many abandoned homes across New Jersey can be traced to the national foreclosure crisis, which is still dogging the Garden State. According to financial services firm CoreLogic, New Jersey’s foreclosure rate was 2.8 percent at the end of last year, the highest in the country.

The first house on Collingswood’s list of abandoned properties in need of rehabilitation is a three-bedroom bungalow that has been deserted for eight years.

“It’s a terrible eyesore,” said Mary Heckman, who lives across the street. “And, of course, our houses are devalued.”

Heckman said property managers occasionally stop by the home to — they tell her — throw bleach on the walls to minimize bad smells. But she said the boarded-up, overgrown property still sticks out on the residential street.

“Most of the people here have worked very hard to keep their homes nice and liveable and [keep] the street nice,” said Heckman. “And then, when you have to look at that day in and day out … it’s really a shame.”

Volunteers with the St. Joseph Carpenter Society, a Camden-based nonprofit that promotes homeownership, are doing the repair work, which officials said could take three to four months.

Another 40 abandoned homes are on the list in Collingswood, but Maley said the problem runs well beyond the borders of his borough.

“This issue is in every town in New Jersey. For different reasons, but everybody has this issue,” said Maley. “This is our chance to start reversing the tide.”

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