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Abandoned in Durham, Part II

by Michael Steinberg

This is the second of two articles on homelessness in Durham. (The first part appeared in the June issue.)

Where are the abandoned buildings in Durham? Why are they abandoned? Who owns them? How does abandonment affect neighborhoods? And what is being done to help people achieve their dreams?

Boarded up and abandoned buildings aren't hard to find around Durham. The 1990 Census reported that of the city's 60,000 housing units, 1087 were vacant, not for sale or rent. By comparison, out of Raleigh's 92,600 housing units, the Census reported 1120 similarly vacant. These are more than enough to house all the homeless in both cities, if they could be made available, habitable and affordable.

My own survey of the abandoned housing situation found lots of boarded up and derelict buildings in East Durham; in Walltown, just north of Duke's East Campus; and in the West End, south of East Campus.

All these neighborhoods are predominantly African American, as are Alice Suggs and her two companions, as well as all the other homeless people I saw hanging out in the shade of the county shelter or at an adjacent former money-for-blood building on East Main.

Most abandoned buildings I saw were small older single-family or duplex rental properties, though larger and multi-unit buildings are to be found as well. They often appear in clusters.

For example, not far north of the county shelter in East Durham, virtually the entire block of Wake Place consists of abandoned buildings. Some are boarded up, others wide open with doors ripped off and windows smashed out. On Dowd Street a block south three consecutive houses are boarded up.

Similar clusters are to be found along and off Angier, Morning Glory and Pettigrew in East Durham. In the West End there are five boarded up houses on the small 800 block of Gattis Street, with others scattered around the neighborhood. And multiple boarded up homes are on the 1000 blocks of Onslow and Berkeley, and the 1100 block of Lancaster in Walltown.

There are empty houses in just about every neighborhood, each with its own tale to tell. On my own street old Mr. Crumpacker shows up regularly at 902 Burch to check up on the family property. He takes pretty good care of it, but he won't let anyone live in it.

But more typically, abandonment happens because property owners continually neglect maintenance, let their places get run down, and when they've milked them for what they're worth, board them up or let them sit empty and unsecured, rather than put any money into them. The transition from slumlord to abandoned property owner is a natural progression for the "bottomfeeders" in the real estate business.

This trend has been accelerated in recent years as an unintended consequence of a revision in Durham's housing code. A few years ago changes made it easier for the city to cite owners for housing code violations. Instead of devoting some bucks to correct the violations and fix their places up, some owners choose to board them up or leave them empty.

The city also has recently gained the power to board up derelict buildings, which accounts for some of what I saw.

My perusal of property ownership records at the Durham county assessor's office revealed that owners of abandoned properties fit various profiles. Some are absentee owners living in Philadelphia, New York or Washington DC. In these cases they often have inherited the property and obviously are taking no active interest in it.

Other owners of Durham abandoned properties include large and small investors in rental properties, as well as churches and local businesses using front names.

Too often these owners are what Alice Suggs called "the big man." They tend to be white and live in affluent parts of Durham or other upscale places.

For example not far from the Community Shelter, a house sits abandoned and boarded at 608 North Elizabeth in East Durham. Public records in the county assessors office indicated that the property was owned by Layton D. Rhew. These same records show that Rhew has been owner of a dozen other properties.

Rhew didn't pay his property taxes for 608 North Elizabeth, so the county auctioned it off on April 17 for $7700, though its assessed value was over $15,000. Of six other properties auctioned off by the county around that time, four belonged to Rhew, included one other in East Durham and another near the West End.

The county has tax liens on six other Rhew properties.

Perhaps Mr. Rhew is having financial difficulties. But his slum properties have certainly helped put him where he is today, at 1800 Grady Drive in North Durham, with a shiny white Cadillac parked in his driveway.

Not far from 608 North Elizabeth an abandoned house at 1003 Morning Glory has suffered two fires in the past year. Nine people had to be evacuated in the middle of the night last winter during the most recent blaze. The owner of the property is Barbara Overton, who lives in the affluent coastal town of Southport, NC.

In the West End, two apartment buildings at 615 and 617 Carroll Street are empty, windows broken out, yards overgrown and full of trash. They're owned by Marion Bowling, who lives at 3625 Stonybrook Drive in North Durham, her back yard bordering on Willowhaven County Club.

Bowling also owns another property in Walltown. In fact, it isn't unusual to find owners with properties in East Durham and Walltown, Walltown and the West End, or all three areas.

The likes of Rhew, Overton and Bowling are small fry, however, compared to outfits like Family Real Estate and Investment Company.

You won't find this company listed in the phone book. Its address at the assessor's office is a post office box. In the City Directory it's listed at 2901 North Duke Street. Also listed at this address is Rosenstein Eye Center, owned by Dr. Robert Rosenstein.

Rosenstein's home address is listed as 2201 Wilshire Drive, among the mansions of Durham's Forest Hills neighborhood.

I called the Eye Center, saying I was interested in one of Family's properties, and was told to call Rent Man and given his number.

You won't find Rent Man in the phone book either, nor in the City Directory. I called and talked with Recil Smith, who said Family Investment and Real Estate was his largest client. "I manage 200 units, and over 100 for Family," he told me.

I told Smith I was looking for a fixer upper and was interested in a couple of Family properties I'd spotted. One is at 720 Kent in the West End. Smith told me there were six one-bedroom units in the building, with three currently occupied by elderly tenants paying $135 a month. "We had drug dealers in the other three, so we boarded them up until they clean up the area," he said.

Smith said he'd thought of converting the building to three 2-bedroom units. "Then you could potentially get $800 a month from the building for basically not doing anything. If you could afford to put in central heat and AC, then you could get $450 a unit."

Smith also told me another way to make money was to buy up "fire jobs". Burnt out buildings such as Overton's on Morning Glory accounted for a number of abandoned places I saw.

"A couple people I know specialize in buying fire jobs," he said. "If I do a rehab job on one for $30,000, he can do it for 22. He has people with alcohol problems working for him. He pays them in ... well ... he can do the job for 75% of my cost."

For the time being, Smith said, Family and he weren't planning to put any money into 720 Kent. "We're sitting back, waiting for things to improve in the neighborhood," he said.

This attitude presents a dilemma for group's like the Durham Community Land Trust. In its eight-year history the Land Trust has developed 70 properties in and around the West End as affordable housing, half with home ownership.

A few years ago West End residents themselves marched on an abandoned building at 711 South Buchanan that was being used for drug activity. They boarded it up themselves. Subsequently the Land Trust bought it and fixed it up. Today it's a nice home for a Senior Citizen.

The Land Trust is starting to rehab an apartment building it recently took title to nearby at 720 Carroll. "It was full of crack vials when we first went in," Martin Hahn, its executive director, told me. "But now it will continue the revitalization of the area."

Unfortunately this revitalization is also playing into the hands of Family Real Estate and Rent Man. Real estate speculation and gentrification are waiting in the wings, which in turn creates displacement and homelessness.

I also told Recil Smith that I was interested in a Walltown property, 1118 Lancaster, near Northgate Mall. Family owns 13 properties on this run down, drug- addled block.

Smith informed me that one side of that duplex was boarded up and the other still occupied. He also told me that a sale was pending there. "Family owns 21 properties in Walltown and there's sale pending on all of them." When I asked him who the buyer was he said, "I'm not at liberty to say."

But Kendall Abernathy, director of the Durham Housing Department, had already told me that the city is planning to develop 30 some places in Walltown and a similar number in East Durham for affordable home ownership. Abernathy said a number of boarded up buildings I'd seen in those areas would probably become part of that program.

And a community activist familiar with Walltown told me, "The community there has been trying to buy Rosenstein's properties in the neighborhood for three years. But he wouldn't sell until the city came along with the kind of money he wanted." Homes Not Jails

Houses are for people to live in. Society, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If owners abandon their properties, others will be attracted to them for their own purposes, some good, some not.

Empty houses can destabilize and even destroy a community. The owners' neglect creates threats of arson, injury and violence in a neighborhood.

As vacant buildings increase, low income housing is lost. This creates more of a shortage of this housing which leads to higher rents and more homelessness.

Homeless people seek out empty buildings for desperate shelter from the cold and rain and the stress of the streets. But so do drug abusers and dealers and people looking to vent through destructive behavior.

What all these people have in common is that their interest in the property is temporary and passing. For homeless people who want a permanent place to live, the opportunity and means are usually not there.

Some valiant efforts are being made in Durham to fix up abandoned buildings. The Durham Department of Housing, in existence only since last July, is aggressively attacking the problem of abandoned housing in the city, along with community groups like the Land Trust.

As previously mentioned, the city is now boarding up derelict buildings and working to create affordable home ownership. In this year's budget, one cent from each dollar in property taxes collected is slated to be used for the latter program.

"Our two main goals are to increase home ownership in the city from 45% to 50%," Kendall Abernathy told me, "and to reduce substandard housing. There's a huge number of people living in houses that shouldn't be lived in."

"We are making some progress," Abernathy said. "But all this doesn't solve the vacant building problem." The department is hampered by lack of funds. It has eight inspectors for the whole city.

Indeed, it appears that property owners can abandon their properties a lot faster and easier than the city and community groups can fix them up.

The big man in the big house still rules, and in that great and sad sense not much has changed since ante-bellum days. Except that back then at least the master usually put a roof over his slaves' heads. Today they're still struggling to escape from the shadows of all his jail houses.

Michael Steinberg is an investigative journalist living in Durham. He recently lived in San Francisco and worked with homeless people there to take over abandoned buildings in the group Homes Not Jails.

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