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Wilmington deems Castle Street boarding house "unfit for human habitation." What happens to the tenants?

Ben Schachtman
Colonial Arms is located at 813 Castle Street. It's been found unfit for human habitation.

Colonial Arms has deteriorated and become unsafe over the years, but tenants still reside there — and still pay rent.

In August of 2021, the city of Wilmington's code enforcement department inspected Colonial Arms — a longstanding boarding house in Wilmington. They had received a complaint from a neighbor and decided to take a look.

What they found was a living situation no reasonable person would consider acceptable: filthy kitchens, evidence of bedbugs, faulty smoke alarms, and bare wiring. The foundation wall of the house was cracked, the paint peeling, and there was water running over electrical outlets.

A year later, after several warnings, none of these problems have been addressed. Now, the city will consider condemning the property at a council meeting on Tuesday.

Michele Bennett, a long-time social advocate in the Wilmington region, says the conditions have long been untenable.

"Having personally been inside of Colonial Arms, and seeing the folks who live there, we're talking about some of the most vulnerable people who are here," she said. "Unless you were very vulnerable and either believed that you didn't deserve to live in a better place or believed you had no other option, I feel confident speaking on behalf of a great many people who would never ever, ever live, they're much less pay to live there."

Open wiring inside Colonial Arms. Many outlets and light switches are uncovered in this fashion, and hallways remain dark because there aren't useable light switches.
Ben Schachtman
Open wiring inside Colonial Arms. Many outlets and light switches are uncovered in this fashion, and hallways remain dark because there aren't useable light switches.

The city found the boarding house to be in violation of the city's minimum code in 85 separate ways: a metal staircase to the upstairs is loose, a bathroom sink broken in half, rooms that are too small to legally rent for occupation, and the common areas are filthy — among other issues.

According to city records, the condition of the complex is so poor, it is considered dilapidated. It would cost an estimated $137,000 to bring the building up to minimum standards.

The owners and managers of the facility, Megan Kay Lee Jackson and Jeremy Bailey, own 18 other properties in New Hanover County. They could not be reached for comment, but will have the opportunity to address city council at its Aug. 2 meeting to plead their case.

Living in the Colonial Arms

On the day WHQR's reporters checked out the property in June, the front entries were unlocked and unlockable — a lack of security that's concerning for residents like Frank and Lisa, who've lived there for years.

Lisa uses a wheelchair to get around and lives on a fixed income. She described her home as unreasonably priced, given the conditions.

“[It's] $600 for a room about as big as that van, and you have just a room and you have access to a kitchen and a bathroom that you might be cleaned it might not," she said.

The kitchen abutting her room was indeed filthy, and many of the drawers in the cabinet were broken or missing. In a shared space like that, maintenance of the common areas is the required job of the landlord, according to city records.

But Frank said when they've called Bailey, the property manager, he's been unresponsive. That's been particularly frustrating for the couple, as the door of their room fell off six months ago.

"Every time I called him on the phone. He kind of hangs up on me," Frank said.

Because the owners haven't cleaned up the building in the past year, the city found that they have not complied with the finding of fact or made the necessary repairs to bring the property into acceptable condition. Inspection photos show that conditions stayed the same or worsened in many cases between 2021 and 2022, besides a fresh coat of paint on the exterior.

In April, the city decided to officially find the building unfit for human habitation, meaning the residents should be asked to move out, and the landlords could not legally collect rent.

Frank and Lisa were not aware of that order in June, and were still paying for their room at that time. According to social workers familiar with the property, those who have left the property haven't been provided alternative housing by their landlords.

Inspectors took these photos during their July 8 inspection of Colonial Arms.

Jackson has had a property come before city council for a similar situation before. But in 2018, she was granted an extension because work had been done, and that home, a single-family house on Meares St., is now in acceptable condition.

If city council votes with the code enforcement division tomorrow, the department will be empowered to repair or demolish the building itself.

But what will happen to the building's low-income residents afterward? That's anyone's guess.

"When Colonial Arms ceases to exist, where do the folks who are living there now go?" Bennett asks. "That's such a double-edged sword. So there is shelter such that it is. It's just not shelter that's appropriate for any human being to be living in."

City Council will consider theordinance about 813 Castle St. at its Tuesday, August 2 meeting at 6:30 pm.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.