Contractor Kasey Connor believes in rebuilding houses, revitalizing communities
Wilkinsburg's homesteading pioneer shows the way
January 12, 2013 5:00 AM
Kasey Connors of Wilkinsburg with a stained-glass window that was uncovered in a wall in one of her houses. She will speak about buying and restoring properties at 10 a.m. today at the Landmarks Housing Resource Center, Wilkinsburg.
By Rosa Colucci Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kasey Connors is not your typical contractor. In an industry dominated by men, most who met her early on treated her first with indignation, then amusement -- or both.
Yet her small business has not only survived for 35 years, she and partner Bernard Murphy have transformed Wilkinsburg, restoring and renting dozens of old houses and apartment buildings and inspiring nearly 30 others, spawning a homestead movement decades before it was fashionable and hip.
Many properties are in Hamnett Place, a six-block section near St. James Church that has lately attracted the attention of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. The foundation has begun several revitalization projects there and opened the Landmarks Housing Resource Center, 744 Rebecca Ave., to assist wannabe homeowners and investors. At 10 a.m. today, Ms. Connors will give a free talk there about her experiences buying and restoring property.
She met Mr. Murphy while a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I started working part-time as a laborer when I was going to Pitt," she recalled. "It was an education about how not to run a business.
"In the middle of the job the contractor had to step back, and we were the only two of the crew without kids, so we spearheaded the crew and finished the job."
Remarkably, they immediately scored two more restoration projects.
"The second involved a lot of early American antiques and landed in the pages of Architectural Digest magazine. That was our high point," she said, laughing.
Mr. Murphy "has a remarkable gift for repairing anything with salvaged parts," Ms. Connors said. "He is a genius and he's been a great mentor, friend and business partner."
Not long after that early success, Ms. Connors bought her first property in Wilkinsburg.
"I bought my first three-unit building before I was old enough to drink. I lived in one apartment and rented the other two."
It was a revelation.
"Pittsburgh is one of the most affordable housing markets in the country, especially the inner city," she said. "Where else can you buy a house on a Visa card and pay it off in five years?"
She began to win over the contractors who had been suspicious of this young blond woman with a love for old houses. "These guys could not understand what I was doing in the trades."
Eventually, they saw that she was serious and wanted to learn. They taught her a lot of their tricks and, in time, she was able to teach others. Many of those she has inspired are former tenants like Elizabeth Quinn of West Homestead.
"I came to Pittsburgh to work for a nonprofit. Kasey showed me this large apartment on Jeanette Street with 50 steps to climb -- I loved it," Ms. Quinn said.
Then she asked Ms. Connors to refinish the floors.
"She did and they were stunning. She puts more money into those apartments than she makes."
Ms. Connors' goals go beyond rebuilding houses. She also tries to build communities. In all of her leases, she requires four hours of community service a month. Ms. Quinn remembered painting trash cans, pulling weeds and planting bulbs.
"Kasey always had something for us to do. We met lots of interesting people, and she drew people in from the outside ... from young professionals to the working poor. It was always fun."
After 12 years renting, Ms. Quinn decided to look for her own house. After finding one in West Homestead, she showed it to Ms. Connors, who warned Ms. Casey it would be a lot of work. Then, when she said she wanted to do it anyway, Ms. Connors pitched in.
"We painted 72 gallons on the place alone. She always can find a way to put something together or make it work. She squeezes money out of stones."
After 35 years, Ms. Connors remains enthusiastic about Wilkinsburg and her passion. "The architectural dig of pulling up old carpets and finding nice floors, paneling and original work is still inspiring to me."
Old houses can still surprise her, she said, recalling a house that had a solid wall where a window ought to be. The family that had built the house sold it to her.
"The daughter said her mother had the wall in the dining room closed up so she could fit a buffet and mirror in the space. I used a core drill to see what was there, flashed in light and caught sight of an amazing stained-glass window."
In her talk, Ms. Connors will cover what goes into a good house inspection and the importance of good foundations, roofs and mechanical systems. But she hopes participants will walk away with an understanding of how owning property can build wealth -- no matter how young you are.
"We have always been told that we should budget 30 percent of our income for housing costs, that it's our lifetime investment. You are encouraged to have a 30-year mortgage," she said.
But what if you could buy a house and pay it off in five years? Ms. Connors believes that owning and improving property while living in a same community is a great opportunity for a young person or couple.
"Youth is the opportunity to do things, to take that leap of faith."