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Run-Down to Rental, a House At a Time – Sheraden Woman Believes in Saving Her Own Streets

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kelly Carter and Ben Smith work in the kitchen of their latest home remodeling project on Francisco Street in Sheraden. The couple have renovated five homes in eight years in their neighborhood and now rent the properties.

Kelly Carter had no idea what she was getting into. She just knew that the apartment building beside her childhood home was in disrepair and that a slumlord had his eye on it.

When it came up for sale in 2001, she grabbed it. She was 29.

“I paid $30,000 and put $30,000 into it,” she said. “The person I bought it from told me I would never get quality renters.”

Today, she and her partner, Ben Smith, are renovating the fifth house Ms. Carter has bought on Canopolis and Francisco, two parallel streets in Sheraden. She has filled four with tenants she said she has either recruited or found online.

Sheraden has taken its lumps in recent years. Besides the nine arson fires that bedeviled Merwyn Avenue last summer, the neighborhood has watched itself lose more and more control of properties that fall into the hands of individuals who rent carelessly or speculating corporations that buy properties and sit on them.

“What we want is for houses that look haunted to be houses you’d be proud to live beside,” Ms. Carter said. “You have to recruit good tenants.”

Ms. Carter’s philosophy is that, block by block, street by street, neighbors can hold onto or enhance the livability of the entire neighborhood.

“If 50 people each did one [house per neighborhood], it would have a huge impact,” she said.

Buying and renovating houses has become her full-time job. She was the owner of Milk Records, a business she opened in 1999 and operated first Downtown and then in the Strip. She now runs the business online and spends most of her days refinishing floors, cleaning walls and talking to electrical contractors.

“Some people have given her a hard time, like, ‘why bother, etc. etc,’ ” said her neighbor, Janine Berard. “But she’s a wonderful person with such a great cause, especially for someone in her age bracket to have an interest in preserving a neighborhood.”

“There are naysayers,” said neighbor John Roell, “but there are naysayers everywhere. Kelly is an asset to the neighborhood.”

Ms. Carter said that Sheraden doesn’t have the commercial or entertainment draws like some of the other city neighborhoods, so they have to promote the community on its housing stock.

“And it’s great housing stock,” she added.

“Neighborhoods like ours are diamonds in rough,” said Ms. Berard. “They just need a little elbow grease and TLC. Who wouldn’t want to have that over houses that are boarded up? On our block, there is one vacant house and it has been vandalized twice. The only vacant house on our block has turned into exactly what we feared it would.”

Ms. Berard said that one family got six letters from companies looking to buy their property after the occupant died.

“Many properties in our neighborhood are owned by holding companies that owe back taxes two, three, four years.”

Neighbor Shirley Johnson has lived for 16 years in the house beside Ms. Carter’s childhood home and has teamed up with her on several projects, including writing a successful proposal to get a Sprout Fund mural in Sheraden.

“Somebody had approached me concerned about property values going down,” said Ms. Johnson, “and one day Kelly and I had a conversation in my driveway. I said, ‘That’s me and you and this third person, so maybe we can get more people involved.’ We started a group that didn’t really have a name.

“At a meeting when we were generating ideas, she said, ‘Maybe I can help people do what I’m doing.’

“She’s finding people who are able to pay the rent and do their part in our little community,” said Ms. Johnson. “There’s no trouble on the street.”

Ms. Carter said that is her intention, to begin “training people who want to do this on their block.”

With her first homes, she said, “I was saving and scrimping along as I could. This fifth one is the first one that’s backed by a bank.”

The house she grew up in she rented to an attorney who she said has decided he wants to buy it. The house next door that was in disrepair — and had a big hole in the roof — has two tenants, including Ms. Carter’s mother.

“The one I am doing now I got it for $15,000, but I joke that what I paid for was the stained glass windows and the garage,” said Ms. Carter. “It needed a new roof and new everything.

“This will be a rental. It’s been easier to find good renters than owners at this point, but I can sell properties as the neighborhood improves.”

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