'Zombie houses' getting makeover in Collingswood

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A unique new program is underway in Collingswood, to fix up houses that were abandoned during the recession. (WPVI)

They're called "zombie houses" - run down, creepy-looking homes that, since the 2008 recession, have been slowly deteriorating after owners walked away, unable to pay the mortgage.

Ray and Mary Heckman of Harvard Avenue in Collingswood, New Jersey, live across from one of those houses.

"Just look at it, Nora. If we want to sell our house, people come in here, they come across the street and look at it. I think there's been animals in there. There's a hole in the bathroom floor. It's just a scary house," said Ray Heckman.

It's also the first of almost a dozen abandoned houses the borough has been able to take control of through the state's Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act and renovations are now underway.

"Under a court order we are able to come onto property we don't own and do the renovation, and then another court order will allow us to sell the property," said Mayor Jim Maley (D-Collingswood).

The work is being done by the nonprofit St. Joseph's Carpenter Society, which has renovated almost 1,000 homes in Camden over the last three decades.

"It's so important that we would actually rebuild our existing homes, bring families back to them, rather than always going out and having to build something new," said Pilar Hogan Closkey, St. Joseph's Carpenter Society.

Collingswood borrowed $1 million to finance the rehab of its zombie houses. The money made when they're sold will pay for the work and help to fix up more houses.

Residents are thrilled with the idea of fixing up the eyesores, which are hard to look at and bring down property values in the neighborhood.

"Every year, every minute, you see it depreciating more and more and more. And it's sad because everyone around here tries to keep their homes nice," said Mary Heckman of Collingswood.

St. Joseph's Carpenter Society is also working on zombie houses in other towns like Merchantville, Gloucester City and Pennsauken. Rehab on the first house in Collingswood should be finished by summer.

"I think anything is better than what you're looking at right now!" said Mary Heckman.

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