Man creates a 'new house built in 1891'

Before the renovation of the single house at 37 Kennedy St.

Preservation in Charleston today is about as much about people as old buildings --and sometimes the buildings can suffer for it.

Take the case of 37 Kennedy St., a late 19th century single home just north of the Crosstown Expressway.

It was one of 81 peninsula properties the city of Charleston bought around 2000, figuring it would fix up some and would give the others to nonprofits willing to create affordable housing.

The city was willing to subsidize this work to help give working class residents a chance to buy their first homes.

In return, the buyers would be limited in how much they could profit when they sold it. That would ensure the city's subsidy kept it affordable.

It's a worthy idea, but it doesn't always work.

The house at 37 Kennedy St. was featured in an article here in 2005, near the biggest bulge in the housing bubble.

Mark Nettles, who lived in the West Side neighborhood, complained in that article about how the city was not doing anything.

The house's piazza was rotting. Vines crept up its walls to the roof. A rat built a nest nearby.

He called the city the worst neighbor on the street, where he was fixing up other homes.

"This is a blight on this whole street, and they're just sitting on it," said Nettles, who lives on Kennedy Street.

Of course, Nettles had no idea at the time that he would be part of a business that bought the blighted building from the city four years later for $60,000.

In the city's defense, it must juggle a lot when trying to renovate historic homes in an affordable way. There's the question of how much subsidy the city will give, which can vary from budget year to budget year, and there's also the moving target of repair costs and whether it can find other partners to help.

"It's quite a balancing act, if you will," says Geona Shaw Johnson, who directs the Department of Housing and Community Development.

When the city couldn't make the rehab numbers work, it asked the Board of Architectural Review if it could tear down the house and reuse the vacant lot for the homeownership program.

Fortunately, the BAR said no.

And so 37 Kennedy became the first case where the city threw up its hands and put a property back on the private market, conceding its program wouldn't work.

And fortunately, Nettles stepped in and did a handsome renovation, even if all he was able to salvage was the exterior structure, the hardwood floors and about 30 percent of the wooden siding.

He repaired the foundation, replaced windows and most of the roof, added new wiring, plumbing and heating and air -- along with bathrooms and kitchen.

"It's essentially a brand-new house that was built in 1891," he says. "That's how I have to explain it to people. It still has the old charm."

Nettles says he's glad to help strengthen the street, which has suffered for decades after the Crosstown Expressway cut through the neighborhood just south of it.

And he's got a contract to sell it to a young lawyer for about four times what he paid for it -- a contract expected to close early next month.

But he's not sure he would do it again, knowing what he knows now.

"The money that I'm making on this is not worth it," he says. "The fact that I finally got to fix this house and it's going to make the neighborhood so much better, that's the main benefit."

A historic house was almost lost because of the city's efforts to preserve a diverse group of people in this part of the old city.

It survived only because the city -- at the last minute -- gave up trying to use this property to meet its social goals.

Nettles says he has been thanked by neighbors who have said little to him before, so it looks like few are bothered by that.