A set of homes near downtown Durham is locked in a property dispute. The residents, meanwhile, remain in squalor. | Durham County | Indy Week

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A set of homes near downtown Durham is locked in a property dispute. The residents, meanwhile, remain in squalor.


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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, Matt—the 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 condition—or how to get the situation fixed.


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