Pair caught in housing struggle

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

Two people, living in an apartment in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood, appear to be caught between a city housing code designed to protect residents like them and their desire to stay in the unit they’ve lived in for the past four years even though the building is condemned.

During two of the season’s coldest nights in early January, the pair was woken by Greensboro police officers, who are tasked with checking condemned properties to make sure nobody is living in them and with providing information about emergency shelters. Willie Davis, one of the two residents, said they are adamant in their wish to stay in their apartment. With the help of property owner Bulent Bediz, Davis is working to bring the building up to code.

There is plenty of history between the city and Bediz at the apartment at 817 Lexington Street, a three-unit house near UNCG’s expanding campus and across the street from Bediz’s home. Davis helps Bediz with work, he said, and Bediz provides the free apartment and covers utilities as part of the arrangement.

The situation rose to a boiling point at a brisk noontime meeting on Jan. 9 after the two police visits, as Bediz, the tenants, two city inspectors, Neighborhood Development Department Director Barbara Harris and newly-seated Councilwoman Sharon Hightower met at the property to check improvements and discuss the issue. Half a dozen Glenwood residents and supporters showed up to back the building’s tenants, adding to an already tense dynamic between Bediz and the city.

Outside the building in the middle of the day, Hightower and Bediz immediately began arguing, Bediz contending that the city’s approach was unjust and unfeeling and Hightower responding that Bediz was missing the point.

“All I want to know is if this house is fit for human occupancy today,” Hightower said, adding that she didn’t expect it to be a public event.

With supporters remaining outside, Bediz, Davis and his roommate led Hightower and the three city employees through the apartment for an inspection. The two inspectors, clipboards in hand, pointed to peeling paint in the bedroom and marks on the ceiling, but most of the discussion focused on the temperature and a water heater.

Standing around a circular kitchen table, Bediz and Hightower argued about whether anyone should be allowed to live in the unit, with Bediz often turning to Harris and claiming the city’s process was unfair, unclear and unnecessarily bureaucratic. As an argument about the temperature of the apartment, which must be able to reach and maintain 65 degrees, flared tempers more, inspectors said.

“Barbara, this is fascism,” said Bediz, who wore an American flag sweater. “That exactly what this is. Not the United States.”

Bediz said the tenants couldn’t be forced to keep the heat on and said the city had no role in saying whether someone should turn up the heat rather than bundling up and getting under blankets, as Davis said they did. Hightower said nobody should be forced to live that way, but Bediz said that wasn’t the point.

Davis, who “” like Harris “” kept his composure, tried to explain.

“I’m trying to save money by not turning on the heat,” he said. “I think I’m comfortable.”

Davis turned the heat on specifically for the inspection, though it didn’t warm up much during the walkthrough and inspectors said they would need to come back another time to gauge it.

Hightower, who was sympathetic to the tenants but not Bediz, continued engaging with him as the inspection moved towards the back of the unit.

“Mr. Bediz, I don’t know why anyone would want to live like this,” she said.

“Because it’s better than being on the street!” he said, enraged.

“We wouldn’t let you be on the street,” Hightower said to the residents, emphasizing additional shelters that are open in the winter. “Unless the house can be brought up to code, you can’t stay here.”

Frustrated, Bediz pulled out a large binder full of documents and laid it out on the kitchen table. One document, a letter from the city dated Dec.

27, 2012, said the house was inspected and approved by the city, he said. Soon after, last January, Bediz said the city returned.

Davis said that he and his roommate are perfectly content in the unit and haven’t complained to Bediz or the city. Instead, the complaint about the building came from nearby resident Brian Higgins.

When he moved to the neighborhood in 2008, Higgins said there was a mantra of holding property owners accountable to fix up homes they owned that didn’t amount to much action. Looking into derelict properties, reporting violations and pressuring the city to enforce its housing code and rulings of the housing commission has become an unofficial part-time job for him.

Last year, with the backing of a couple other residents, Higgins said he filed 49 petitions with the city to inspect questionable properties in 2013. He submitted a petition about the Lexington Avenue property “” one of several owned by Bediz that the two have come in conflict over “” early last year because he saw people going in and out of the building and cooking on a grill in front but said he never saw lights on.

“I think it’s shameful to live across the street in a house that’s heated and with electricity while two people that do a lot of work on your houses and renovations live across the street with no electricity or heat,” Higgins said, adding that he is concerned about people living in unsafe conditions there, next door and several other neighborhood properties.

The electricity and heat were working in Davis’ unit as of the inspection this January, but Bediz said the house was condemned in March 2013 because an inspector said it lacked heat due to the gas was off. Documents in hand at Davis’ kitchen table, Bediz said the building never had gas in the first place, recounting what he described as a nonsensical back-and-forth with the city.

Elizabeth Benton, one of the city inspectors, noted that a year has passed since Higgins’ complaint prompted an inspection leading to citations. Harris said later in an interview that four violations were fixed between the Jan. 9 inspection and the preceding one, but said 23 violations persist total for the building, including several major violations.

Promising swift action on the larger items, Bediz said smaller things such as a missing light switch cover or issues in the two other units shouldn’t prevent the tenants from staying in their home.

“These things are trivial,” Bediz said. “There are rules and then there is common sense. The way these rules are written does not make sense.”

The police haven’t returned to the apartment since the Jan. 9 meeting, Davis said recently, but Harris said that was coincidental. Davis and Bediz said they immediately set to work making improvements, with an electrician coming out the next day, but Bediz said a week later that he was still waiting on the city to come and approve the fix. For now, at least, Davis said they are staying put.

Harris said that the city connected the tenants to the Greensboro Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that will cover the cost of a deposit for an affordable housing unit. The tenants recently missed the opportunity to move into affordable housing because they lacked enough money for a deposit, Harris said, and would now need to wait for a unit to become available.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Harris said of the situation. “Our goal is safe and healthy housing. Our concern, when we see someone living in condemned housing, is for their safety.”

Harris said that the city ordinance doesn’t give her department the ability to let people stay in housing that presents safety issues, adding that it is a Class 1 misdemeanor to live in a condemned building.

Davis isn’t focused on getting into affordable housing, but in staying in his home and bringing it up to code. The hot water has been hooked up, he said, and he is fixing some of the smaller issues, too.

“I think most of the major violations have been taken care of,” Davis said. “I’m trying to get the condemned signs moved. They shouldn’t violate me if it’s mostly cosmetic, but I’m working on that, too. I think they should allow me some tolerance there.”

At the time, Harris said whether the unit was fit for occupancy would be determined by whether all major violations and most of the minor violations in the unit were fixed. Exterior violations could affect the unit too, she said, and likely needed repair as well. Later in an interview, Harris said that since the case had already been referred to the housing commission, all of the violations on the property would need to be repaired.

In all, 23 violations remain, she said.

The entire process is frustrating to Davis, particularly because he never complained about the property, he said.

“I can be satisfied with what I’ve got, but you’ve got someone around the corner there pushing these issues that force me out of my place,” he said, adding that he doesn’t take it personally and considers it to be a fight between Higgins and Bediz. “If you were concerned about my safety and so forth, why are you trying to have my place condemned and me pushed out? I’m just caught in the mix.”

Higgins said that while he didn’t approach either of the tenants directly with his concerns, he brought up the property and others to the city out of concern for people who potentially lived in them.

“In many cases, these are tenants where this is the only housing they can get,” he said. “Sometimes they need people to watchdog them and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s easy to complain about government not doing something. The harder part is working with them to come up with a solution, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Higgins said some landlords take advantage of tenants who don’t have other options, and don’t make muchneeded repairs, but Davis said that isn’t what is occurring in this case.

“I’m not unhappy about it, period,” Davis said. “It’s like a safe haven for me. At least I have a roof over my head and electricity and running water. That’s a lot for me. I don’t need a lot. It’s not like the building is caving in or anything.” !