It’s a sad Saturday morning for Jessie Gladdek. There was a time she and her family might have spent a day like this at their neighbors’ yard at 611/613 Oakwood Ave., pitching horseshoes or socializing over food as Gladdek snapped pics to capture the memories.
Today, however, her truck is parked in a sloping driveway on the 1400 block of North Hyde Park Avenue in Durham, where she’s helping James and Lisa Seward move for the second time since the couple left the Oakwood Avenue duplex in May.
The contrast between the 600 block of Oakwood and the Mallard Avenue block on its north end is becoming increasingly stark. On that short, quiet stretch of Oakwood, all of the current residents are black, and the four houses between Mallard and Primitive Street look from the outside like typical low-income rentals, albeit on the dingier side. On Mallard, however, as in other Cleveland-Holloway blocks, young white couples are moving in, many with small children, and there’s near-daily renovation work going on.
The Sewards, who are African-American, lived in 613 Oakwood for seven years. In 2008, when Gladdek and her husband, Mattthe director of government relations at Downtown Durham Inc.bought a house just around the corner on Mallard, the younger white couple and the Sewards formed what’s become a lasting bond. They began looking out for each other.
“Whenever new people moved in, we wouldn’t let them fuck with Jessie,” Lisa Seward says.
Gladdek laughs at that. But then she sighs, as sharp and quick as a gasp. It’s that thing people do when they’re trying to keep their emotions in check.
“It still kills me that y’all aren’t over there,” she tells Lisa.
The reason the Sewards are leaving North Hyde Park is depressingly similar to the reason they moved there from Oakwood in the first place: the infestation of roaches and bedbugs, James Seward says. Now they’re trying their luck at a rooming house on Massey Avenue.
For most of the seven years they lived in the Oakwood duplex, the Sewards say, they were fine. But their situation went downhill quickly after August 2013.
That’s when their landlord, William Graham, died at the age of 52. Tenants who were living on that block when William was in charge remember him as reasonable.
“He wasn’t a great landlord,” says Matt Gladdek, “but in comparison to the situation now, he was responsive in really bad situations.”
Since William Graham died, one of his brothers, Lynn Graham, a local real-estate entrepreneur, has been renting out the century-old dwellings as if he were the owner. But he’s not. Records show that the properties belong to William Graham’s estate, and his brother David Graham is named as the administrator.
Yet Lynn Graham continues to take in new tenants in spite of unresolved housing code violations. He collects rental payments in cash, often without giving receipts, several current and former tenants told the INDY. And he’s doing so thanks to a drawn-out legal estate mess that’s yet to be resolved.
Simply put, city officials aren’t sure who’s to blame for the houses’ shoddy conditionor how to get the situation fixed.
The Sewards say Graham allowed the unit they rented for $475 a month to become intolerable by neglecting repairs and turning off the water for several days “every month.” The water bills were in his name, so he could do that whenever he wished.
Other Graham tenants, past and current, give descriptions of exposed wires hanging out of holes in walls, broken appliances, bug and rat infestations, a sewage-like odor in their apartment and frequent water shutoffs.
“[Lynn Graham] didn’t want to fix anything,” says Johnny Powell, the Sewards’ former next-door neighbor. “He kept saying he was going to fix stuff, and I just stopped paying him.”
According to Graham’s standard lease agreement, water was supposed to be paid for out of the rent. Neighbors cite two reasons for the frequent shutoffs: negligence on Lynn Graham’s part and retaliation for late payments or some other dispute.
Powell says his water was shut off three times while he and Faith Davis were living in 611 Oakwood with their infant son. His family recently moved out, too.
Compounding matters, each duplex ran on one water line. So if Lynn Graham shut off one tenant’s water, both units suffered.
“It would be about three or four days before he would cut it back on,” James Seward says.
Faith Gardner, manager and housing code administrator of the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department, confirms that Lynn Graham is not the owner of the Oakwood duplexesand that’s the reason the city hasn’t been able to force him to fix things.
“The difficulty with the Graham estates has been that the ownership has not been clear,” says Gardner. “So even though Lynn Graham is reportedly the person who is collecting rent, he is actually not on the title. So he is acting as the property manager.”
According to Gardner, the William Graham estate owns the duplexes at 601/603, 607/609 and 611/613 Oakwood Ave. Since August 2013, NIS has opened 11 code-violation cases for those properties. Only five have been closed through owner compliance. In all, there are currently nine open cases in Durham for properties owned by the William Graham estate. Gardner says a title search conducted by her office led NIS to consider David Graham the likeliest owner. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where Versailles Realty Partners LLCthe business William Graham created in 2010, with David Graham as manager is now registered.
William Browning, the attorney representing William Graham’s estate, says that there are “four or five” claims against it, including one big one, by Investors Title Insurance Co. Joel Craig, the attorney for the title company, says the debt exceeds $75,000.
Another possible hiccup may be claims from William’s widow, Shannon Graham. In a phone interview, she says she’s “not at liberty to discuss” whether she plans to sue David Graham for a share of the estate.
“I realize that properties have been rented, and they should not be,” she says, leaving it at that. As for any legal conflict with David Graham, she offers that “my [two] children, who should be receiving something from those properties, have received nothing from either [of the Grahams].”
She adds that she’d like to see those properties “fully renovated,” as her late husband wished.
Attempts to contact David Graham were unsuccessful. Lynn Graham, meanwhile, originally agreed to a phone interview but changed his mind and said he wanted to meet for lunch or dinner, or just somewhere with his attorney present. The INDY asked to meet at the publication’s Main Street office. Lynn Graham never called back.
Instead, his lawyer, Sam Roberti, left a message saying his client “is not permitted to disclose any confidential information” to the media and therefore could not be interviewed.
Roberti says Lynn Graham has worked with NIS to get the three duplexes up to code. He acknowledges that Lynn Graham doesn’t own the properties, but portrays his property management as something of a sacrificial act: “It’s been a very difficult job for him to try to help out the estate.”
The estate may be tied up in litigation and “controversy,” Roberti says, but his client is doing what he can. “There are tenants in place,” says Roberti. “He’s trying to do the best he can for them. He believes most of them are quite satisfied.”
At least one family that recently moved into one of the duplexesbut did not want to be namedsays that Lynn Graham “did right by us.” They also expressed relief at no longer living in a squalid motel, where prostitutes and drug dealers were a daily sight.
But Latrevette Newkirk isn’t satisfied. She moved into 613 Oakwood after the Sewards left and pays $500 a month in rent.
A Sept. 12, 2014, code inspection of that property shows large cracks in the brickwork throughout the perimeter of the foundation, unscreened attic vents and unstable front decking that lacks protective coating, just to name a few items.
Even worse, she says, this past June, her water was shut off for the entire month. She showered at neighbors’ houses.
“I had to buy bottled water so I could at least flush the toilet,” Newkirk says. “It was to the point where the man from the city, the Neighborhood Improvement, he went and bought us water himself, because he knew we were spending a lot of money on [bottled] water.”
The Gladdeks also supplied some water from a garden hose in their yard. Jessie Gladdek contacted the NIS about the matter. She was assured, in an email from code enforcement supervisor Clarence L. Harris, that Lynn Graham would be made “aware of the legal requirements of maintaining active utilities during occupancy of the property.”
(This isn’t the first time Lynn Graham has earned the ire of local officialsor appeared in the INDY‘s pages. In 2006, this newspaper reported that he’d amassed more than $600,000 in county fines for illegal dumping. An administrative judge later spared him the huge penalty. In the story, attorney Charles Reinhardt described Lynn Graham as someone who “buys and sells properties and makes a profit on the turn, and it’s just one of those things where he’s always trying to stay one step ahead of the next creditor.” The county contracted with Reinhardt to pursue tax collections, and Lynn Graham was among his chief targets.)
Gardner, the NIS supervisor, says she understands how frustrating it is for citizens to see someone appear to work the system. And she admits there’s not much NIS can do when the apparent owner operates out of state. The city can’t drag him into Durham’s Community Life Court, where local landlord-tenant disputes are adjudicated, for instance.
“If the owner is not a local owner, that is not an option for us, simply because we cannot get the summons served out of state,” Gardner says.
The next step for NIS is to go to the Housing Appeals Board and request that the city repair the properties and then place a lien on them.
Gardner anticipates that a hearing will take place by the end of the year.
Saqundra Williams has lived at 601 Oakwood Ave. with her two daughters, ages 5 and 6, for about eight months. Her toilet doesn’t work properly. A shower leak has caused a dry-rotted dip in the floor, in the cramped space between the toilet and the tub. She has buckets set up in her bedroom to catch water when it rains.
“It’s spiders, it’s rats, it’s roaches,” she says. “I don’t even have a dog, and I’ve been seeing fleas in this house.”
Right now, she’s not even paying rent. And she’s gone to Legal Aid to try to get money back from Lynn Graham.
“If I can’t get my money back, I just want him to stop renting to people,” she says. “This man took so much from me and my kids, and destroyed so much of our stuff due to bugs. My computer won’t even turn on right now because of the bugs.”
Williams works as a certified nursing assistant and is studying phlebotomy at Durham Tech. She’d like to move to Southpoint, she says. As she speaks, a couple of small, light brown roaches crawl up a thermos on a small table in front of her living room sofa.
She may not have to deal with that much longer, even if the city’s hands are tied. Browning, the attorney for William Graham’s estate, told the INDY last week that he was meeting with David Graham to discuss finding buyers for the properties. If that happens, Williams and her neighbors may have to find some other place to call home.
Jessie Gladdek says it’s obviously too early to tell if a sale would be good or bad, but she’s not optimistic.
“The best thing I would like to see is for the code to be enforcedthat they have to fix up the units and actually provide quality affordable housing,” she says. “I don’t have high hopes for that. Given the way Durham is going lately, it’s hard to imagine it being affordable.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Family feud”