Rental Housing Gets Upgrade on West Hill

SHARON, Pa. – Jeanne Hink is looking to remake the West Hill neighborhood  of Sharon, Pa., one house at a time.

The Hermitage resident, who is managing member of Brick Flats LLC, was putting the finishing touches in late July on the interior of a house at 486 Nimick St. that she is converting into a duplex.

Work was scheduled to get underway the following week on re-siding the property, which already has a tenant occupying the upstairs unit and another tenant scheduled to move into the downstairs space.

“I’ve been working on this for over a year now. With COVID, it’s just been so difficult with getting people to work and all that,” Hink says.   

Hink, who is also an access technology instructor for Keystone Blind Association, says she has always had an interest in both the financial and creative aspects of real estate, as well as “a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”

“It’s really easy for me to come into a wreck of a place or something that’s totally cluttered and see beyond that and what it can be and should be,” she continues. “I love the creativity that goes into unmasking all of that.”

She got her start by purchasing a four-unit building in Masury, just over the state line in Ohio, in fall 2019 that needed “very light remodeling,” she says.

In March 2020, she attended an auction on a whim and ended up purchasing a set of properties on the West Hill – two single-family houses, a garage and a duplex. Her initial thought was to flip them because of the neighborhood’s “seedy reputation,” she says.

But the street is “very peaceful.” The long-term residents on Nimick have been “really supportive” of her efforts, she adds.“I’ve worked here day and night. The neighbors are wonderful.”

Hink works with a crew of subcontractors that includes an electrician, plumber, and drywall and kitchen and bath installers. 

She is targeting “working class people who want a decent place to live” for the short-term rentals, because of the shortage of housing options for that income segment.

“There’s upper-end rental housing and then there’s very low-end rental housing,” she says. 

 Hink’s goal with the properties is to provide housing for middle-income residents.

Melissa Phillips, community and economic development director for Sharon, is pleased that someone understands the importance of having rental properties for middle-income residents.

“We actually have an issue here where rent costs much more than it should for the quality of the housing,” Phillips says.

Hink’s efforts coincide with a strategic revitalization initiative in Sharon, she continues. The city is demolishing substandard housing that’s cost-prohibitive to rehabilitate. The cost to repair many of these properties exceeds their value, and the land eventually can go into the city’s Lots to Love program.

The city now is demolishing 30 to 35 properties per quarter, up from 10 for an entire year, according to Phillips.

“It’s important to right-size Sharon. The housing stock that exists was built when Sharon had double the population,” Phillips says.

Because the city “is landlocked,” the demolitions give residents the opportunity to have more space. Those lots could then be used for neighborhood playgrounds, gardens or, potentially, new housing stock.  

“I’m pleased with that program,” Hink says.

She was happy to start the project on a street like Nimick where there are some dilapidated properties that the city will address, as well as several that residents keep in good shape.

When she first began work at 486 Nimick, many of the plaster walls were “pretty bare” and the floors were “a mess,” she recalls. Upgrades included installing a new furnace, counters, cabinets, a first-floor bathroom, hot water tanks and drywall, and rewiring the electric for the two units. She also sealed off the back stairwell and a set of pocket doors to create a bedroom on the ground floor, though she left them intact in case a future owner wanted to put them back into use.

“The house has been made flexible so that with the unlocking of doors you can turn this back into a single-family home very easily,” she says. “I wanted to make sure everything was restorable should a historically minded person come in.”

The challenges she encountered led her to decide not to convert the other single-family house into a duplex.

The project hasn’t been easy. Hink had difficulties early on finding people to do the work and securing supplies. Hink also had an accident that required her to have disc surgery on her neck in January. As she was laid up and in pain for a couple months, she questioned her path, she admits.

“I sort of got my gumption back and thought, ‘I can do this,’” she says. “It’s just come together in the last couple of months. I’ve been really pleased.”

Despite warnings that she might not be able to charge enough to recoup her investment, which was more than she had anticipated, she says potential tenants are willing to pay “significantly more” for rent. She declines to state her rates or how much she has invested into the properties.

The property is being rented, Hink says, and rewiring is nearly complete at the duplex, where drywall work will begin soon as well. Work will soon begin on the single-family house.

As a city administrator, Phillips says having someone like Hink who is regularly in communication to make sure work is being done correctly on her properties is reassuring.

“I wish we had a million Jeannes. That’s going to give us the sort of housing that we really need,” she says.

Pictured at top: Jeanne Hink is leading the renovation of 476 Nimick St. in Sharon’s West Hill.