Photo by Annie Maynard

It’s never a good time to lose your home. But being put outdoors during the Christmas holiday season has to be the worst.

Scott Cogwell, 52, has lived at one of the apartments at Braswell Properties in Durham for 18 years. He’s lived his entire life in the Walltown neighborhood where the Braswell apartments are located.

For Cogwell, there is no holiday spirit this Christmas season after a brokerage firm that negotiated the sale of the six buildings to two Triangle residents is forcing him out of his home.

“I refuse to be kicked out of my neighborhood where I was born and raised,” Cogwell said this week. “And it hurts to know ain’t nobody got no compassion or heart. It’s like evil spirits done took over the world and nobody cares nothing about anything but that dollar.”

Cogwell made his pointed, rough-hewn remarks while standing in the rear of the apartments along with his fellow tenants and supporters on a late, overcast Monday afternoon, as the day’s chilly temperatures nosedived below 30 degrees.

Nearly 75 people stood on muddy, gray gravel and brown leaf-covered ground behind the nondescript, low-slung, red-brick apartments including fair housing advocates and clergy members who arrived to support the tenants. Late last month, the tenants abruptly learned that they will have to move by New Year’s Eve from the place some have called home for decades.

The tenants, with the help of Bull City Tenants United, a local group of renters who want to build tenant power and put an end to evictions, wrote up six demands that they are requesting their landlord respond to by Thursday.

Among the demands: they want all moving costs paid by Vinston Braswell, the principal of B Well LLC, which had owned the property.

Reformation Asset Management (RAM), the brokerage firm, was hired by the new owners to act as the new property manager, Sarah Parsons, a RAM publicist told the INDY.

The tenants also want RAM to give them enough time to move to homes that are affordable. Many of the residents are on fixed incomes and are sick or disabled. They also want the former owner to reimburse them for repairs they made to their apartments. Additionally, the tenants want the city to monitor the repairs to ensure the dwellings are safe.

On November 29, the Braswell tenants received a terse one-page letter from Marina Cashion, RAM’s director of property management, who told the tenants that their leases would not be renewed and they all had 30 days to vacate the premises.

In addition to being told that their security deposits could not be used to pay their final month’s rent, Cashion told the tenants that the letter was a legal document and that failure to comply with the vacate notice could result in legal proceedings so that RAM could regain possession of the property, along with the tenants being potentially liable for attorney costs and court fees.

“Eviction papers will be filed at the courthouse the first day of the following month after your deadline to vacate if the property has not been vacated,” Cashion stated in the post-Thanksgiving letter.

RAM president Charles Bulthuis told the INDY this week that the building went under contract in October. 

Bulthuis said it was October when Braswell visited the property and told the tenants they would not have to pay November or December rents because he had sold the buildings.

Bulthuis said his company has helped about 300 families with Section 8 vouchers over the past four years find affordable housing because of their focus on fixing up run-down properties for working-class families. Bulthuis said he sent a representative out to the apartments to gather email and phone numbers in order to help them locate affordable housing.

“No one contacted us,” he said. “We sent multiple staff out to the property multiple times during and after business hours.”

Instead, he said the tenants decided to dramatize what was going on through the media.

In recent days, RAM was contacted by officials with Durham’s Housing for New Hope, which has offered to help the Braswell tenants find new homes and pay their deposits and first month’s rent.

Bulthuis said on Tuesday that he still has not heard from the tenants.

On Monday, the tenants, in addition to making public their demands, pleaded one by one with their new landlord for compassion and time to find new places to stay. They begged the city to intervene and put a stop to this hard-hearted move during one of the coldest times of the year.

“It takes at least two to three months to find something,” said Janice Sanchez, who moved into her apartment less than three months ago. “And then we got to think of the money. I mean, you got heart patients, you got diabetics. You got a lot of health issues going on over here. I’m a heart patient. I had triple bypass heart surgery. And this is a lot of stress. We ain’t being ugly or nothing. We ain’t trying to make nobody look bad, but we are trying to expose what needs to be exposed.”

The tenants’ words evoked a familiar scenario in the city’s housing and eviction crisis that began long before the pandemic.

“It ain’t just happening here. It’s happening in a lot of places and people are just scared to speak out because they’re scared they’re going to be put out,” Sanchez added.

Short of the gun violence that’s cutting down the Bull City’s children in the springtime of their lives, who gets to live in Durham is the city’s most pressing existential threat. As the INDY previously reported, the forces of gentrification—exacerbated by a housing shortage along with the arrival of more affluent newcomers who are buying properties in historically Black communities near downtown—may be even more insidious than the broken promises of urban renewal programs that displaced thousands of Black homeowners and hundreds of Black-owned businesses more than half a century ago.

The prospect of being forced out of their homes has been traumatizing for the tenants.

Eighty-two-year-old Lothania Roberts is the primary caretaker for her adult son who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“One day he told me, ‘Momma, let’s go,’” she said. “‘Let’s just go with the clothes on our back. Don’t we have to go?’”

Eighteen-year-old Durham School of the Arts student Brenda Martinez could only get the word, “since” out of her mouth before she broke down in tears and couldn’t continue.

“It’s been very difficult time for our grandmother who is trying to find a place to stay for us to go to the same school,” said the teen’s brother, Hector Martinez, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who attends a Montessori School in Walltown with his kid brother, Jireh, a fifth-grader who has lived at the Braswell apartments since he was one month old. “She’s having a hard time finding an apartment where the bus goes by. We always have food in our house, TV, WiFi; everything we need for school. But the landlord treats us different, like we’re not human. It’s not fair.”

The treatment of the tenants, they say, is in line with how the landlord has treated the property itself over the years. Caretaking is minimal and the threat of violence is ever-present, tenants said.

Cogwell, the longtimer, talked about killing rats in his apartment by trapping them in a cage and shooting the animals with a pellet gun.

Donna Dumas, 47, who has lived at her apartment since she was born, and now lives with her 80-year-old mother and two sons, told of enduring multiple break-ins.

Tenants described homes with dirt floors, unheated units where electric sockets explode, and small children having to sleep between their parents at night to keep warm.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the pastor of Walltown’s St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church that’s located just around the corner from the substandard apartments, reminded the tenants and their supporters of the Christmas season’s central story about a couple, and a wife pregnant with child, who could find no room at the inn.

“God was with that family, so we know who God is with now,” Wilson-Hartgrove said, reminding the tenants that in the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth, there was no room at the inn even if Mary and Joseph had money to pay.

“But you have already paid, and you’ve been paying for a long time,” he told the tenants. “And the person that took your money was stealing from you.”

Wilson-Hartgrove added that instead of keeping up with repairs, Braswell, the property’s original owner, looked at the price of land increasing tenfold in Walltown before deciding to sell and make a lot of money.

“What’s happening with these tenants is happening to people all around Durham,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.

There’s a tumbledown sign reading “Braswell Properties” in front of the run-down apartments along Buchanan Boulevard; the property is divided by Englewood Street.

“Rats live on one side, possums on the other,” Luz Romero, a 23-year-old married mother of two small children told the INDY.

“You can hear them at night in the walls,” Romero said about the possum infestation in her home. “Three times they come into my bedroom. They don’t eat anything. All they do is knock things down and rip stuff open. And you can hear them going, ‘hiss hiss click.’”

Romero’s neighbor, Alejandro Estala, said her husband has had to make repairs in every room of their apartment.

“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Estala said. 

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that Reformation Asset Management did not purchase the buildings but instead was hired to act as the new property manager.

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