Every day, Shane Mitchell sandwiches a little bit more of the new South Baltimore into the old.
At 1129 S. Hanover St., he's ripped out 10 layers of linoleum to uncover dirt-crusted pine floors. Soon, he'll take a sledgehammer and whack out the inch-thick plaster that covers the fireplace, exposing the brick underneath. After investing four months and $80,000 in the three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath house, he'll rent it for $1,900 a month.
If experience with his 29 other South Baltimore properties is any indication, he'll rent it well before the paint dries on his signature green front door. Last year, Jason Ritter, a wine consultant trying to move out of Baltimore County, spotted Mitchell rehabbing a house two doors down. Ritter wrote a $1,900 check for the three-bedroom house on the spot.
Since Mitchell quit his job as a mortgage broker two years ago to form his company, Green Door Properties, he's been leaving his mark all over South Baltimore. He paints a different style green door on each property when he's finished renovating. Some are simple; others are adorned with stained glass. All signify that the high-rent district of Federal Hill is moving south, bringing affluent transplants to a part of Baltimore few would have considered living in just two years ago. "Eventually," Mitchell said, "I'd like to bring up the entire neighborhood."
Mitchell is in good company. His friend, Doug Clemens, a pediatric dentist, also rehabs rental properties in South Baltimore. An Australian friend, Mark Haddad, dabbles in renovation when he's not running the Boomerang Pub on Charles Street. Several Federal Hill Realtors are also in the rehabbing business, and report there's plenty to go around.
"If I put an ad for a place in the paper, it goes within hours," said Clemens, who moved here from Pennsylvania in the 1980s. "The first person that sees it, they take it."
Like Clemens and Haddad, Mitchell is also a transplant. He moved to the city from Anamosa, Iowa, seven years ago to care for his ailing grandmother. He also ended up tending to her rental property, and inherited it when she died.
Mitchell had put himself through the University of Iowa working construction jobs, and had a few rehab projects while in the mortgage busi- ness. When he moved to Hanover Street in 1998 and saw the potential, he called his college roommate, Andrew Todtz, and pitched his business idea. Soon after, Todtz left Iowa to subcontract for Green Door.
"Andy asked me if I could find enough homes for him to work on," Mitchell said, surveying the street. "I think now he sees that there are enough."
In fact, he said, rehabbing homes in South Baltimore has become so popular that fixer-upper rowhouses selling for $40,000 when he started are now priced at $60,000. Mitchell said he usually pays cash for his properties, then uses the rent from them to purchase more.
Although Clemens occasionally advertises, Mitchell doesn't. Green Door isn't even listed in the phone book. Mitchell, the company's only employee, operates out of his garage and relies on his cell phone.
The renters that come to his doorstep find him through word of mouth. Some hear about him at the Boomerang Pub. Others, such as Jason Ritter, catch him at work as they drive by.
Ritter said he canvassed the area for three months until he spotted Mitchell in front of the shell that's now filled with ceramic tile, a spiral staircase, and gleaming hardwood floors. Mitchell showed him another rental he'd completed, and described his plans for the new place.
After seeing "a lot of overpriced and run-down" places through Realtors, Ritter said he and his roommates were relieved to find Mitchell. Adding to the package is the Iowa influence on the street. Every morning, Mitchell's sister, Shannon, sweeps the block's sidewalk.
Demand for Green Door's rentals doesn't surprise those who've been watching South Baltimore's resurgence.
In the past three years, rents there have increased 21 percent, according to Anirban Basu, an economist at RESI in Towson who also owns property in the area. Meanwhile, Realtors report alarming scarcity in properties, leading to frustrating searches such as Ritter's.
Bob Fisher, a Realtor with Long & Foster in Federal Hill, said he once kept a waiting list of potential tenants. When it swelled to 400, he stopped taking names. Now, on busy days, close to 40 people will come in, the same discouraged look in their eyes.
"They are relentless in their pursuit," Fisher said of renters. "They come in to town thinking they can rent a place in a weekend, and they can't. I've had them sitting on the steps, crying, because they've waited until the bitter end."