- Photo by Lisa Sorg
- Larry Partée says the Durham Housing Authority is trying to evict him as retribution for bringing attention to problems at Preiss-Steele Place.
A grand jury indicted him. The Durham Housing Authority revoked his Section 8 voucher.
And last Tuesday, Larry Partée was at the magistrate's office, fighting his pending eviction from Preiss-Steele Place, an affordable housing complex. And despite a magistrate's ruling in his favor--and Durham Assistant District Attorney Doretta Walker characterizing him as "small potatoes"--the Durham Housing Authority seems hell-bent on ousting Partée, the outspoken president of Preiss-Steele's residents' association, from his home of four years.
Simply put, Partée, a chronically ill, 58-year-old former health counselor, is in the eyes of the DHA a dangerous felon--a copyright violator--who must be stopped. That's to be determined by the courts, but Partée certainly is a tenacious tenants' advocate who has clashed with Preiss-Steele property manager Tammy Atkins about what he describes as chronic, long-term problems at the 102-unit community: lack of air conditioning in public areas, including hallways and the residents' association office; bundles of trash spilling from the chutes; unlocked security doors; malfunctioning elevators; and filthy common bathrooms.
Partée said his arrest on copyright charges, within a month of his election as president, is payback for his persistent rabble-rousing.
"I feel singled out, discriminated against and harassed," he said.
Durham Housing Authority Corporate Communications Director Jean Bolduc said DHA officials couldn't comment on Partée's case because they might have to testify in criminal proceedings. Yet, evidence suggests the DHA would like Partée and his complaints to quietly go away. In a Sept. 1 letter, DHA Executive Director Harrison Shannon Jr. reminded Partée that Sonny McMahand, the authority's chief operating officer, asked that Partée "consider handling this complaint through an informal private review process as opposed to making it a public issue."
However, Partée is not a quiet man. He has sent missives to Atkins and the DHA--and since his arrest, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development--about tenants' rights and what he views as mismanagement by Development Ventures, Inc., a nonprofit owned by DHA, which runs Preiss-Steele Place and other projects.
During a recent tour of the complex, Partée unlocked a third-floor bathroom, pushed aside two shopping carts stacked with empty boxes and pointed to the bathtub, which is for residents whose apartments have only showers. The bottom of the tub appeared to be the beginnings of a garden, as it was covered with dirt. The floor of the sit-down shower, designed for Preiss-Steele's elderly and disabled residents, was also coated with a black and green substance. "It's been like this for a long time," Partée said.
A week later, when a city housing inspector visited at Partée's request, the carts were gone, but the dirt remained.
Inspections dating from 2002-06, conducted by the N.C. Housing Finance Agency, which monitors Preiss-Steele, concluded that exterior and common areas were well-maintained. Yet Partée said subpar conditions have been the norm for at least three years, and violate the lease agreement requiring management to "maintain decent, safe and sanitary conditions in all common areas and supply reasonable amounts of heat and air conditioning."
In the residents' association office, which is available to all tenants, a digital thermometer registered 87 degrees. Another resident told the Independent that she feels unsafe because unknown people stroll the halls and turn doorknobs to see if any units are unlocked. A third-floor tenant acknowledged to the housing inspector that her husband had become ill and pulled the apartment's emergency cord, which malfunctioned. (It has since been fixed.)
Partée's legal predicament stems from his posting in June of flyers in Preiss-Steele elevators. The flyers announced he had more than 100 movie DVDs and listed his phone number. He had shown movies twice, he said, once in the library to fewer than a half-dozen residents and again during a building-wide gathering; both showings were free.
"I show the DVDs because many of the elderly residents can't go out to the movies or can't afford it."
Partée said he bought some of the discs "at the barbershop, outside the RBC Center during Hurricanes games and occasionally outside movie theaters, where the movie had just played." He said he recorded some from TV documentaries and others were originals, for which he printed his own jackets and labels on his laptop computer. A few he duplicated for his 9-year-old son.
Several days after Partée posted the flyers, Atkins called Durham police, who seized the DVDs from Partée's apartment and cited him with "possessing with the intent to sell or distribute less than 100 unauthorized visual recordings which did not contain the true name and address of the original manufacturer," a misdemeanor.
A month later, police revised the original count of 84 movies to more than 100, and arrested Partée on upgraded felony charges.
Undeterred and free on $2,500 bond, Partée wrote to Atkins complaining that several entry doors had been left unlocked the previous weekend and asked that security cameras be installed on side exits because of alleged drug trafficking outside.
The same day, Atkins notified Partée that he would be evicted on Aug. 31 because of the pending criminal copyright charges. "By posting these flyers in the elevators ... you were proliferating the possession of illegal material among the senior citizen population, which is a serious detriment to this community," her letter read.
After the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to pursue charges for federal copyright violation, Walker sought an indictment based on the police officer's felony arrest.
The grand jury indicted Partée on one felony charge of possessing 110 DVDs that didn't have the manufacturer's name and address with intent to sell or rent them, and one charge of possessing pirated DVDs. If convicted, Partée, who lives on $900 a month in Social Security disability benefits, faces up to $150,000 in fines and 15 months in jail.
Walker said she couldn't comment in detail on the case, but noted she had recently attended a training session on intellectual property. "These cases are a big thing," Walker said. "They're usually associated with other criminal activity."
However, Walker added that Partée's case "is nothing special," and acknowledged she could have chosen not to indict even though the officer filed felony charges. "Had his [Partée's] attorney not handled it that way...," Walker said, trailing off. "I can't comment on the case." She also refused to elaborate on the dispute between her and Daniel Read.
At Partée's eviction hearing, Read, who was appointed by the court to represent Partée, told Magistrate David Pickett that there is no evidence Partée showed or possessed any movies for financial gain. Atkins acknowledged she had no proof. Pickett dismissed the complaint for lack of evidence.
Approached in the hallway after the hearing, Atkins didn't respond to the Independent, but the DHA's Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Anderson spoke for her: "She's busy right now."
As for Partée's complaints, they prompted McMahand to call a mandatory meeting for all Preiss-Steele residents. According to Partée, who attended the meeting, which was not open to the public, many residents reiterated his complaints about security, dirty floors, air conditioning and garbage, but acknowledged "the management team was doing the best they could."
The DHA's Jean Bolduc confirmed in an e-mail that she and McMahand heard concerns from residents about safety and trash issues. Bolduc added that Atkins manages five properties; DHA is considering reducing that number as part of restructuring. Atkins will continue to manage Preiss-Steele, Bolduc wrote, "but her workload will be less demanding and geographically scattered, which will be helpful to everyone involved."
Although Partée kept his home, he still faces the indictment. More imminently, he lost his Section 8 voucher and must pay the full $457 monthly rent instead of just over $200. Still, after his eviction hearing, his spirits were buoyed.
"I have to figure out how to pay my rent, but I will somehow."
Yet, while Partée took the bus back to Preiss-Steele, DHA officials started filing paperwork to try to evict Partée again--this time based on his indictment, rather than his arrest.