Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a “culpability statement” from the Wilmington Historic Foundation. The statement appears at the end of the article.
WILMINGTON — The Historic Wilmington Foundation is dedicated to preserving the city’s past, but it seems the group is now taking an aggressive stand on the future of short-term rentals in Wilmington.
Two different owners claim they were recently kicked off the historic home tour after Christine Divoky, the Foundation’s director of marketing and special events, discovered they were in favor of short-term rentals. Divoky has declined to comment about the issue and Beth Rutledge, HWF’s newly minted executive director, said the events occurred before her tenure began.
The Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) has denied taking an official stance, despite text messages from Divoky which appear to support the homeowners’ claims.
Punished for supporting short-term rentals?
Harry Smith, along with his wife, has spent much of the last three years restoring a house at 402 North 7th St. Formerly owned by the North Carolina Preservation Trust, the house was in poor repair, and on the state’s endangered house list.
Over the course of restoring the house, Smith said he learned the property was Wilmington’s oldest African American funeral home, with ties to the rich history of the “Sugar Hill” neighborhood. The house’s historical bona fides – not to mention the $200,000 and countless hours Smith spent personally working on the property – drew the attention of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, including former Executive Director George Edwards.
“Word got out of the work we were doing, and George Edwards told us, ‘We cannot wait to show people this, we have to get you on the house tour,” Smith said.
Then, Smith said, he got a call from Divoky including the home tour.
“I was told that HWF had received an anonymous email, alerting them that I had spoken out in favor of short-term rentals,” Smith said. “Christine asked if I was renting my property out – which I’m not. I told her that I had been sort of half-stepping towards that idea, but I was waiting for the city to come to a final decision about STRs.”
Smith’s vocal support of short-term rentals is part and parcel of his historical restoration work. According to Smith, being able to rent out his historic property will allow him to recoup the cost of restoring the house — something that might not otherwise happen in an economically depressed part of town.
Divoky allegedly told Smith that his support on short-term rentals would cost him his spot on the home tour, detailing at length how important it was to oppose the use of Air B’n’B and VRBO (vacation rental by owner).
After the call, Smith said the full meaning of the phone call sunk in.
“It kind of went all through me. To be honest, I was kind of pissed off, I’d been kicked off the tour because I support short-term rentals. Which is insane. If they had said ‘the house isn’t historically significant enough,’ I could have dealt with that. If they had said, ‘the house isn’t nice enough,’ I could have dealt with that too. But this was just political,” Smith said.
Smith said he tried to follow up on the phone call, Divoky told him he had misunderstood; according to Smith, Divoky told him his house had been dropped from the tour because it was too far from other historic houses.
“She tried to tell me the house ‘wasn’t a good fit,’ but that it had nothing to do with rentals. But that’s…let’s just say I might misunderstand one thing you say, a phrase here or there, but I don’t misunderstand the tone and tenor of a 13-minute phone call,” Smith said.
‘I need to talk to you about your house’
Smith wasn’t the only one contacted by Divoky about short-term rentals.
Down the block from Smth’s house is the Bowdoin-Moore house, built in 1904 and restored by Josh Hodges, whose company Nora Alan specializes in historic houses. Like Smith, Hodges is a proponent of short-term rentals.
“It’s expensive work, restoring these houses appropriately. But we’ve had great renters who appreciate the work – we have a guy right now down from D.C., he’s going to rent it for a few months. That’s the balance – if not for STR there’s absolutely no way we could have even touched the house,” Hodges said.
Two of Hodges’ Nora Alan properties were on the HWF house tour last year, and the foundation has given him multiple awards for his restoration work. So Hodges said he was surprised when Divoky contacted him before Christmas to tell him he was being cut from the house tour.
“She texted me pretty much out of the blue to ask if someone was living at the Red Cross house. Then she changed gears, and said she needed to talk to me about it right away, I got the feeling it was like my father-in-law asking me my intentions with his daughter,” Hodges said.
According to Hodges, Divoky called him and told him that due to his stance on short-term rentals, his house was being taken off the tour. Hodges said Divoky’s words sunk in and he found himself both confused and upset. Hodges texted back to Divoky to explain his point of view.
“The Red Cross house was in bad shape before we got it, and this idea that short-term rentals can be abused – well, of course, but long-term rentals can be abused. There are plenty of slum lords downtown, who don’t care about the property or who they rent to,” Hodges said.
“Kicking me off the tour was crazy. The Historic Foundation has no business dealing with or trying to enforce some stance on short-term rentals,” Hodges added.
Divoky texted Hodges back. But whereas she had backed away from the short-term rental issue with Smith, she doubled down with Hodges. While praising the work Hodges did with Nora Alan, and acknowledging that concerns about short-term rentals “might not apply as strongly” to his property, Divorky seemed to argue that the Foundation was against any use of short-term rentals.
Divoky texted, “the Foundation has been called on to take a stand on this issue…we feel we should be consistent with our message and not benefit from an whole house short term rental property.”
Historic Wilmington Foundation’s response
Divoky did not respond to emails or calls about the removal of Smith and Hodges from the house tour.
Beth Rutledge, who took over HWF’s executive director role from Edwards, denied that the Foundation had a policy against operating or supporting short-term rentals.
“Historic Wilmington Foundation’s stance on STRs is that they should be regulated, and not permitted in areas where zoning doesn’t allow it. We haven’t had, and do not have, a policy in place regarding STRs and houses on the tour,” Rutledge said.
Rutledge added, “Regarding Harry Smith (and) Josh Hodges, we have reached out to them individually to discuss the home tour and look forward to meeting with each of them.”
When asked about Divoky’s texts, Rutledge did not comment, saying only that the exchange had taken place before she had assumed her position on Monday, Dec. 18.
“It’s my understanding that the text you’re referring to was sent before I began as the E.D. here. As I mentioned, I have reached out to both Harry and Josh. HWF’s board president, Walker Abney, and I are meeting with them next week,” Rutledge said.
Rutledge didn’t say if either Smith or Hodges would be put back on the tour. She did seem to contradict Divoky in reasserting that HWF had no policy against short-term rentals.
“In terms of governance, we’re waiting for the City Council to do that by crafting a STR ordinance. HWF would like to make clear that we will not restrict any preservation participation, including being on the Home Tour, on the basis of short-term rental ownership or support,” Rutledge said.
After the publication of this article, the Wilmington Historic Foundation issued the following statement:
“We are an historic preservation non-profit with a 50+ year active local presence. We celebrate and encourage historic preservation from any and all who practice it. Governance is not our purview, and there is currently no STR ordinance. All that remains is opinion, and ours on STRs still stands (it is in line with the National Trust’s).
To initially use our STR opinion as criteria for selecting tour homes was the foundation’s mistake; one we quickly realized during the course of a busy transition. Since that time, we have sought to rectify this error, and have connected with the homeowners mentioned in the PCD article. Harry Smith is back on; we are meeting with Josh Hodges on Friday (Jan. 26).”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.