Neighbors criticize condition of veterans’ boardinghouse
By Mark Wineka
A petition sent to Salisbury City Council in recent days has raised concerns about the condition of a longtime boardinghouse for veterans at 432 Park Ave.
A cover letter to the petition, signed by 13 people, complains of trees growing in the gutters, siding coming off, bare wood, rotting boards and timbers, tires, a roofless garage, cars parked in the front lawn and “falling down buildings.”
“This is the home we allow our veterans to live in?” Carl Peters, a next-door neighbor, asked in his cover letter to the petition.
But owner Jim Tonseth says he makes the well-being of eight disabled veterans living in the private boarding house his top priority.
Tonseth acknowledged the “deferred maintenance” on the outside of the 1903 structure, but he said he concentrates on what goes on inside the house for veterans, men who all battle mental illness.
He feeds them, does their laundry, oversees their medications, shops for groceries and supplies and gets them to the VA and appointments as needed. Someone is in the house to stay with the men every night.
Tonseth said he gives fire safety inside the home a top priority and responds quickly when city inspectors ask him to address any problems.
Overall, he thinks the current petition singles him out unfairly within a neighborhood that has more serious problems ó such as drug dealing and prostitution ó and many other properties in real deterioration.
“I’m doing everything I’ve been asked to do by folks with the authority to do it,” said Tonseth, who has owned the house and looked after its residents for 23 years.
Doug Stevens, with the Salisbury Fire Department’s code enforcement office, confirmed Tuesday that Tonseth is “cooperating 100 percent” in responding to items city representatives have asked him to address.
Because Tonseth operates a private home ó licensed by the city as a boardinghouse ó it is not subject to regular inspections. But city nuisance and housing code officers have visited the property on occasion after receiving complaints.
Tonseth said he has always welcomed the visits and addresses any violations brought to his attention by the city. He also has voluntarily allowed inspections by the Hefner VA Medical Center’s Community Residential Care Program, which refers men to his home.
A social worker is inside the home every week, he adds.
This week, in response to city requests, Tonseth said he has been getting rid of “rubber on the ground,” firewood and materials in the garage that a fire inspector said should be removed.
“You should see a huge load for the garbage man tomorrow (Tuesday),” Tonseth said. He expects to meet all of the city’s requirements by the end of the week. “… We have complied with every single thing we have been asked to do, plus more.”
Again, Tonseth acknowledged there are “things outside that need to be taken of,” but “right now, I’ve got to take care of the other stuff they’ve thrown at me.”
He said he will be finished paying for a $10,000 roof on the house by the end of August. He hasn’t been able to take on any other major renovations until that debt was retired, Tonseth said.
People wrongly assume that federal dollars from the VA are paying him to house the veterans, Tonseth said. But he emphasized that he is not affiliated with the VA and has never received one dollar from a federal program in his 23 years.
The men living at his house pay him rent from their Social Security or disability payments. Many of the men live in the home for years, some until they die. Tonseth lost a 15-year resident to lung cancer last month. Tonseth said another resident recently suffered a stroke.
Tonseth, who lives elsewhere in Salisbury, said the residents become a family, and the house is where special occasions such as birthdays and Christmas are celebrated.
He has only one World War II veteran as a resident today. Most of his veterans now are from the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War eras, he said.
The residents do not sign a lease and are free to leave at any time. Tonseth said their contract with him is “just a handshake.” He described the men as non-violent and said they “can pretty much take care of themselves,” though he monitors their medications.
The house itself contains more than 3,100 square feet. Tonseth has a capacity for 10 residents, but he said he has never been full. The home includes seven bedrooms and 31/2 bathrooms. Some residents have rooms to themselves. Others double up.
Certain living spaces are shared, such as the living room, kitchen and dining room.
Tonseth estimated he has one of about 30 private homes for veterans operating in the Piedmont and among about a half dozen in Salisbury.
This boarding house at the corner of Park Avenue and North Shaver Street has attracted more public scrutiny lately because it sits next to the restored McCubbins-McCanless House. That house, its restoration and the Historic Salisbury Foundation were featured on the History Channel.
Carl and Robbie Peters later bought the “M&M House” in June 2007 for $289,000, and Carl Peters has since been a vocal critic of the condition of the boardinghouse next door.
“The structures which stand at 432 Park Ave. are rotting away as we stand by and do nothing,” Peters said in his letter with the petition. “I have made several attempts to get something done about this property, as have others before me.”
He added, “It is true our neighborhood has a few homes that are not being taken care of. Let me assure you there are no inhabited homes in the neighborhood that are as dilapidated as the one that stands at 432 Park Ave.”
Peters emphasized that men living in the boardinghouse “are considered an asset to the neighborhood.”
For 21 years, Tonseth said, his boardinghouse had to exist next to the dilapidated McCubbins-McCanless House, which had pigeons “running in and out.”
Tonseth said he thinks there’s an organized effort, which includes the Park Avenue Redevelopment Corp., to gentrify the neighborhood starting with him.
“They want to come after folks like us,” he said. “…That’s fine, but they’re going about it the wrong way.”
Tonseth said contacting the city’s housing code and nuisance enforcement officers is the appropriate way for people to address concerns, not by putting a story on the front page of the Post. He said “they’re trying to kick us in the teeth.”
Jack Thomson, managing director of Historic Salisbury Foundation, says the boardinghouse represents one of the most significant structures in the neighborhood because of its architectural details, Victorian style and connection to prominent Salisbury families.
Thomson said the foundation would be “very willing” to discuss alternatives with Tonseth that would “promote the good stewardship of that property,” even to the point of identifying a new owner willing to rehabilitate it.
Thomson described panel details at the top of the house’s turret that are “spine-tingling,” “whimsical” and maybe the only example of their kind in Salisbury.
The pebbled ash finish to the house, often confused with stucco, also is an important element to the “high-styled Victorian,” Thomson said.
Tonseth said he might be willing to sell his property if the foundation could find him a place of similar size with the correct zoning that he can occupy as is.