Kelly Frey is feeling rested. Well, as rested as a parent of an extra-needs child can ever feel.
“I would still love to get 8 hours of solid sleep a night,” the former WTAE-TV morning news anchor says, noting her 12-year-old son, Bennett, who was born with Dandy-Walker syndrome — a congenital brain malformation — and hydrocephalus, requires round-the-clock care. “In general, it seems I’m getting more sleep now because I’m not having to get up at 2 a.m.”
Last November, Frey — who also is mother to Marena, 11 — left the station after 21 years, a difficult but not-spur-of-the moment decision she says she made after failing to come to an agreement with WTAE on her contract, which expired in December.
“There was a lot of speculation and things thrown around,” she says. “But it is absolutely true that we could not come to terms on an employment agreement.” In a statement, WTAE says, “Kelly has been an important part of our family and success over the last 21 years. We wish Kelly and her family all the best.”
What’s also true is that Frey, 48, left the station without having another job lined up. For a while, she enjoyed the extra hours of sleep, as well as the novelty of not having to work holiday mornings, as she enjoyed some down time with family and mulled over what to do next. Her husband, Jason Luhn, had recently retired from the 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, where he served as a pilot with the Air National Guard Unit, a position that often required him to be deployed overseas.
Frey says they discussed Luhn, 49, becoming a pilot in the private sector while she stayed home, but “it finally started to materialize that he wasn’t going to do a flying job that would take him away from home too much again,” she says.
Instead, their conversations led them to try their hand at something they’ve always had an interest in — buying, improving and then selling real estate, with a particular focus on their community in the West End.
“We have always been passionate about properties,” Frey explains, noting how she and Luhn have adapted their home on a cliff overlooking Downtown’s skyline through the years for Bennett’s needs (such as widening doorways for his wheelchair and adding an accessible addition). “And we’ve always been passionate about our neighborhood where we live. Our forever home is there. What we created for Bennett is there.”
Their new company, dubbed Love Thy Neighbor Properties, aims to take abandoned and blighted houses in Elliott, of which there are quite a few, and put them back on the market as viable, quality housing. Frey notes they are targeting a .12 square mile quadrant of Elliott for Love Thy Neighbor Properties. In that section alone there are currently 51 vacant properties, 18 of which are or have previously been condemned, she says.
In a far cry from her glamorous newscaster role, Frey, often dressed down and wearing leather work gloves, has been knocking on doors to introduce herself and the company to her neighbors, many of whom were already familiar with her from years of living in the community.
“We’re going to systematically start to go through and target the ugly houses, as I like to call them — the ugly, abandoned, blighted, destroyed houses,” Frey says. “We’re going to acquire them and, one by one, put them back into circulation.”
For the last few months, Frey also has been quietly working to obtain her real estate license. She has since signed with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, The Preferred Realty, as a Realtor, a role that goes hand-in-hand with her and Luhn’s new company. Beyond buying and selling Love Thy Neighbor properties, Frey will be selling homes throughout the Pittsburgh area.
“It’s been fabulous,” Frey says of becoming a Realtor. “I like to know things, not just check boxes. I want to know things inside and out, so I needed my license. I needed to educate myself. I needed to know exactly what I’m doing on both sides — so I did.”
The couple already has acquired a rental property with tenants, and they are close to closing on a long-abandoned property on Wilhelm Street after Frey tracked down the owner through various means, including deed records. They also are unraveling the paperwork behind several other houses, most of which are tied up in bankruptcy or property tax liens.
“These are houses where all the pipes have been stripped. There’s no water meters. There are probably four dumpster loads of debris inside still,” Frey says, adding she and Luhn are working with First National Bank and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “We’ll either completely restore them, or some houses are so neglected and have so many structural issues that they might have to be torn down. Then hopefully we can [build new houses on the vacant lot] or some [ADA] accessible housing. This is the long-term plan.”
Frey says the company has been well received by neighbors, particularly after she explains Love Thy Neighbor’s mission statement.
“Frankly, you see a lot of outside investors come in and buy up these [abandoned] properties and, with all due respect, they may or may not take care of those properties,” she says. “Our goal is, we’re here. We’re local. We’re your neighbor, so we have a vested interest in making sure this property is not only done well, but done exceedingly well. We’re proud of it, and you’re proud to have it on the street.”
The couple has the support of state Rep. Dan Deasy, whose district encompasses Elliott and who has an office on Main Street in the West End. Noting that Frey often is the first to show up, work gloves in hand, for community cleanups and events, the former Pittsburgh city councilman says he was unsurprised when Frey and Luhn turned their eye toward transforming houses in their neighborhood.
“[Frey] stopped in to see me and I could see the excitement she had. I’m excited, too, for the neighborhood. We need someone like that to take the initiative,” he says. “She has never, ever wavered in her support of the community. I think the community is going to support her in this endeavor as well.”
Located about two miles west of Downtown and encompassing less than a square mile, Elliott’s population, bolstered by the coal-mining industry, peaked around the turn of the 20th century, according to Historic Pittsburgh. Following the shrinking and closure of nearby iron and steel works following World War II, the West End’s population and business climate began to decline, says a study done on the area’s architectural inventory for the city of Pittsburgh. A bright spot is the West End Village’s business district, which was named a Mainstreet Pittsburgh District by the URA in 2009.
Dreaming of 5K races and other community events, Frey and Luhn say their goal is to restore Elliott to vibrancy. With its proximity and easy access to Downtown and the airport, and gems such as the shops of the West End Village’s Main Street and the West End-Elliott Overlook, the couple says the area has a lot to offer. Deasy also calls Elliott a great, but under-appreciated, neighborhood.
Plus the area’s housing, including homes the couple hope to restore, remains affordable, even as real estate prices across the country have skyrocketed.
Frey says she and Luhn are targeting houses with vacant lots next to them with the plan to turn those properties into usable yards with off-street parking for their homes. Once complete, their goal is to sell Love Thy Neighbor homes for between $150,000 to $250,000.
“It’s a golden opportunity to be over here,” Frey says. “There are so many positives.”
Successfully revitalizing the neighborhood won’t be easy though, according to Therman Smith, a West End resident who has restored other properties in Elliott. The owner of Druthers Remodeling, who has worked with Frey and Luhn for more than a decade, says making a profit from rehabbing and selling homes in a rental-heavy community such as Elliott — where homes have less resale value compared to its trendier counterparts in the East End — is financially tricky.
But if anyone can make it work, it’s Frey and Luhn, who Smith calls hardworking, hands-in-the-dirt type people who care about their community as well as the houses they’re remodeling, even if it doesn’t earn them a huge pay day.
“I think they’re going to get a lot of gratification and fulfillment from being able to see the smile on someone’s face because someone is able to benefit from their labor,” Smith says. “They have integrity.”
For those who miss seeing Frey on air, they’ll have plenty of ways to catch up with her through Love Thy Neighbor’s Facebook and Instagram pages, which will follow Frey and Luhn, along with Smith, as they muck out houses, tear down walls and complete construction on their properties. The couple has begun shooting behind-the-scenes footage as they tour debris-strewn abandoned houses, with Frey exclaiming over the critters in one video.
Besides handling the real estate side of the business, Frey will be working alongside her husband — who has taken on the role of construction and business manager in their company — as they clean and restore the houses. Luckily, Frey enjoys manual labor.
“We both enjoy the physical side of that,” she says. “I love tearing stuff out. I love hauling stuff. You give me a dumpster, I’m on it.”
For his part, Luhn says he enjoys working with his wife, emphasizing that Frey strives to excel at whatever she takes on. In return, Frey says her husband is meticulous with his work, whether that’s climbing a tree to cut down branches with a chainsaw or installing new tile.
“Finding out how to run a business together efficiently, other than being husband and wife, it’s interesting,” Luhn says. “It opens up aspects of our relationship we have not really had in-depth a little more. It’s fun. It really is. I’m not saying there aren’t sparks flying sometimes, but at the end of the day, we love each other.”
The decision to start their own company also came as Frey was experiencing a new setback with her health. Although she has rarely spoken publicly about it, the breast cancer survivor (who was named Pittsburgh Magazine’s Pittsburgher of the Year in 2017 as she fought the disease), was diagnosed 30 years ago with a rare acoustic lipoma that caused significant hearing loss.
“It’s a benign fatty tumor,” Frey says. “I found out at 18 because I was having dizzy spells and then lost pretty much half of my hearing in my left ear. It’s not a big deal though. I’ve always operated with 50% hearing.”
Comparing what she can hear in her left ear to the distorted sounds the adult characters make in Charlie Brown cartoons, Frey says the hearing loss has never affected her professional work, other than some minor inconveniences when wearing an earpiece or the occasional dizzy spell.
But in 2020, Frey began experiencing problems again, — likely due, her doctors believe, to the lipoma. What started as pain and a feeling of fullness in her left ear, eventually led to severe vertigo episodes that left her vomiting and unable to leave bed for days.
After testing that included everything from getting water pumped into her ear to being spun in a chair while wearing special goggles that measure eye movement to MRIs, Frey was diagnosed with a form of Meniere’s disease called Secondary Endolymphatic Hydrops.
She has mostly given up salt, alcohol and, something she says would have been inconceivable to her had she continued her morning anchor job — caffeine. More sleep also has been key to managing the problem.
“I’m like a new person,” she says. “I don’t have caffeine all day and I’m like a tornado.”
Still, Frey gets emotional when talking about leaving the morning news show, particularly when she speaks of the longtime viewers who she says supported her through her journey with Bennett, who was not expected to survive childbirth, and her breast cancer.
“I cannot express enough how grateful I am. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful and kind and thoughtful people are, reaching out and taking time to email me or send in a greeting card,” she says. “You realize how much your job as a newscaster is touching people’s lives in one way or another. Even when I left, the outpouring, it gets me sad that I’m not there for those people.”
But at nearly 50, Frey is excited to see where this new journey — the one she never saw coming — takes her.
“It’s invigorating again,” she says of her work. “I feel alive again and purposeful — and passionate.”