The foundations are crumbling. The floors are sinking. There’s no air conditioning. There’s no heat. The windows don’t shut. The pipes are broken. Rats, mice, and cockroaches are nesting in open cavities in the walls and ceilings. 

People living in four East Durham properties that Leonzo and Loretta Lynch inherited from the Reverend Lorenzo Lynch Sr. in 2023 say their homes have been in disrepair for years.

That’s why, when the tenants were sued last summer by Leonzo for staying past the terms of month-to-month leases they’d signed with his deceased father, they filed counterclaims, asking the court for damages. 

A Durham County magistrate ruled last fall that the tenants deserve compensation. Magistrate Judge Marlon Howard awarded $2,500 in damages to one tenant and $10,000—the maximum that can be awarded in small claims court in North Carolina—to four others on
November 29.

But the tenants haven’t received any money yet. Deborah Nash, who was awarded $2,500, appealed her judgment to district court; the amount was too low for her, she says. And Leonzo, as an executor of his father’s estate, appealed the higher judgments. 

Deborah Nash Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Now, Legal Aid of North Carolina, the nonprofit firm representing the tenants pro bono, is gearing up for a fight against the Cary-based law firm that Leonzo retained after the small claims trial didn’t go his way. The trials are scheduled to start in mid-July.

Most of the tenants haven’t paid rent on the homes in more than a year, and Leonzo isn’t asking for backpay as part of the suit: he’s just asking them to leave. But tenants say they can’t afford to relocate. So they’re still living—squatting, technically—in the four houses. 

Tenants each have certain areas of their homes they’re careful to avoid. For Deborah Nash, it’s her kitchen, where cords jerry-rigged from an uncovered breaker box hang like vines over her cooktop. For Cathy Panzarella, it’s her living room, where, three years ago, her roof caved in on top of her while she was asleep, she says, breaking her arm. 

Panzarella, 61, and her husband, Tommy, live off their Social Security checks. So does Nash, 66. Joseph Davis, 63, worked for Durham’s street cleaning division for three decades and is raising two teenage sons on a modest pension. Kimberly Smith, 34, who has three kids, relies on unemployment; it’s hard to get a job without transit, she says. Pamela Page, 42, is a single mom of two and gets by on a patchwork of income from child advocacy work.

The tenants started renting the homes between four and six years ago. Until the Lynch family patriarch died in January 2023, tenants paid him between $500 and $1,200 a month in rent, according to court records. Over the course of their tenancies, they paid between $16,000 to $40,000 in rent on homes that they allege were in disrepair the entire time. 

The tenants say they also paid for rodent traps, paint, space heaters, and window air-conditioning units to make the homes livable. Some hired their own contractors to repair gutters, windows, and plumbing fixtures. Two tenants say they have run themselves dry paying astronomical water bills caused by leaky pipes.

The counterclaims tenants filed in response to Leonzo’s initial suits specify that they are requesting “monetary damages in the form of retroactive rent abatement for each month” of their tenancies in amounts equal to “the difference between the fair rental value of the premises had they been in fit and habitable condition” and the value tenants actually received. Tenants are also asking for “incidental and consequential damages resulting from” their landlord’s “acts or failures to act,” according to court records.

At the upcoming trial, tenants could potentially be awarded even more than $10,000 each because district court doesn’t have the cap that small claims court does. Or they could leave empty-handed.

Eviction cases aren’t rare in Durham. The eviction docket at the Durham County courthouse typically has between 150 to 200 cases per week. But these five cases are perhaps a bit more charged because of who the plaintiff’s family is. Lorenzo Sr. pastored one of Durham’s most prominent Black churches for decades. Leonzo pastors a large church in Charlotte. And Loretta served as the attorney general of the United States under President Barack Obama.

When Lorenzo Sr. died at age 90 last January, he left everything to Leonzo and Loretta, including 18 properties in North Carolina worth an assessed value of $1,099,315. According to property records, Lorenzo Sr. acquired the properties over the course of three decades beginning in 1970.   

Loretta’s role in determining the fate of the East Durham properties where tenants have lived is unclear. In a case report regarding one of the properties, code enforcement officer Laurin Milton wrote in an entry last January that he “spoke with son, Leon [sic], who stated … He and sister will be settling the estate in the coming weeks and making decisions as to properties owned.” Two months later, Milton wrote in a subsequent entry that Leonzo “plans to meet with his sister and a potential property manager to determine next steps for each property.” But Loretta does not appear to be in direct communication with the city about the properties and is not named in the lawsuits.

Neither Leonzo Lynch nor representatives from Brownlee, Whitlow & Praet, the law firm he retained, responded to multiple emailed requests for comment. Loretta Lynch did not respond to requests for comment that the INDY delivered via voice mail, email, and fax.

Lorenzo Lynch Sr. always collected the rent from his tenants in person, even at age 90.

He’d sometimes chat with them about his long-term vision for his properties. Page says Lorenzo Sr. told her that he wanted his kids “to refurbish these houses and make sure they were for low-income families.” 

“Him buying all these homes was about building the Lynch legacy,” Page says.

Pamela Page with her daughter, Phoenix Rose Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Most tenants weren’t aware of how large the Lynch legacy already loomed. Lorenzo Sr., a fourth-generation Baptist minister from Eastern North Carolina, came to regional renown during his first few decades in the ministry. In the summer of 1960, he invited college students who were organizing the Greensboro sit-ins to use the church that he pastored at the time, Providence Baptist, as a planning space, per his obituary, and continued to model an approach to faith that straddled civic engagement and civil rights over the course of his career.

In Durham, where he moved in 1965, Lorenzo Sr. was best known for pastoring White Rock Baptist Church. The church had evolved in tandem with Durham’s historic Hayti community and faced the same existential threat the community did when the Durham Freeway was constructed in the late 1960s. Lorenzo Sr. led the process of securing White Rock a new building on Fayetteville Street, where it still stands today. 

He was also a fixture in local civic circles, serving as the economic development chair for the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and mounted an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1973.  

Lorenzo Sr. and his wife, Lorine, a librarian who died in 2019, raised their kids in Durham. Their eldest son, Lorenzo Jr., who died in 2009, was a Navy SEAL. Leonzo, the youngest, followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry. After attending UNC Greensboro and earning a master’s degree in divinity from Duke University and a doctorate from the United Theological Seminary, Leonzo went on to pastor at churches around the state. He joined Charlotte’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1997 and is now the senior pastor.

After graduating as valedictorian from Durham High School (now Durham School of the Arts) in 1977, Loretta attended college and law school at Harvard University and worked as a federal prosecutor before she became the first Black woman appointed U.S. attorney general in 2015. Now she’s a partner at a multinational law firm based in New York City. Earlier this month, she returned to Durham to deliver the commencement speech at the North Carolina Central University School of Law.

“Him buying all these homes was about building the Lynch legacy.”

pamela page, tenant

Tenants say they knew Lorenzo Sr. had a notable presence in Durham, and that his kids were off doing big things. Lorenzo Sr. had a striking gift for connecting with people, his tenants say.  

“He was a good man,” Page says. “Very knowledgeable … never disrespectful. He was always sharing home remedies and bits of wisdom.”

“When my son died, he brought me sodas,” Panzarella says.

Cathey and Tommy Panzarella Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

But the Lynch family’s prominence never figured into their day-to-day reality, tenants say, which was that their landlord was old and in failing health and that no one seemed to be coming to pick up the slack.

Tenants say they thought Lorenzo Sr.’s memory was starting to slip in the later years. They also say that when they told him they needed repairs, he sometimes hired people to come by who weren’t professionals and often left their homes in the same condition, if not worse. Tile was placed in Davis’s kitchen that now “cracks and shifts underfoot,” according to court records. (During Lorenzo Sr.’s memorial service in February 2023, which was livestreamed on YouTube, Loretta noted that her father “would pick up [men] from the homeless shelter to have work on his real estate,” saying he spoke to them with the same respect he did President Obama. “He truly did walk with kings, but never lost the common touch,” she said.)

Two tenants tried going to the city for help. In November 2020, Smith called in a complaint to Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services (NIS) about the duplex she lives in on Potter Street. Panzarella, who lives in the other half, phoned Durham One Call seven months later to complain that “her roof fell in” and “that she has made complaints and concerns to her landlord many times and he has yet to address this issue.”

Both sides of the duplex failed NIS inspections, so the department sent notices to Lorenzo Sr. ordering him to correct specific code violations, according to NIS reports. Lorenzo Sr. didn’t comply, reports show. The NIS conducted more inspections and sent more notices over the next two years. Lorenzo Sr. ignored those, too.

Finally, in November 2022 Lorenzo Sr. contacted the city to say that he would soon be making repairs to the duplex, according to an NIS report. 

Two months later, he died. Panzarella and Smith say that aside from a paint touch-up, the repairs never happened.

A lightbulb in Deborah Nash’s house Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

No one told the tenants Lorenzo Sr. was dead. When he didn’t show up to collect the February rent, they put two and two together and waited for his heirs to contact them.

In April 2023, a letter from his son arrived at the three-bedroom house where Page lives. It was addressed to “Tenant” and stated that starting in May, the house would be managed by H-Co, a Chapel Hill–based property management company. This seemed like a good sign. An H-Co representative came by a few weeks later and showed Page how to start paying rent through a portal on the company’s website. (H-Co did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But Nash, Panzarella, and Smith say no one contacted them until June, when they were served summary ejectment complaints—the equivalent of eviction notices in North Carolina. Court summons were attached. 

Leonzo, as an executor of his father’s estate, was demanding “immediate possession” of their homes. They were being sued for staying over the terms of
their leases.

Or, someone was being sued. The complaints and summonses that Nash, Panzarella, and Smith received were addressed to “Unknown Occupant/Tenant,” according to records the INDY reviewed. 

The next month, Davis got the same materials, addressed to “John Smith.” Page did, too.

Nash, Panzarella, and Smith, went to the Durham County Courthouse for initial hearings on June 23. Panzarella had heard of Legal Aid and tracked down one of the nonprofit’s attorneys, Robbie Breitweiser, at the courthouse clinic. Breitweiser agreed to represent Panzarella and her neighbors.

Page and Davis went to the courthouse for initial hearings in late July. Davis, who’s friends with the Potter Street tenants, had been advised to seek out Breitweiser. Page says she went in with no plan but encountered a reporter who asked if she needed help and, after hearing about the case, advised that she go to the Legal Aid clinic.

Tenants say Breitweiser spent the next several months trying to negotiate settlements with Leonzo’s attorneys but that the most they were offered was $2,500. The tenants passed. 

When Magistrate Judge Howard awarded four of them four times that much last November, they were glad to have rejected the initial settlement offering. And Nash, who isn’t sure why she was awarded $2,500 while the others won $10,000, felt hopeful that a higher court would bring her up to par.

“Why didn’t she and her brother help Mr. Lynch fix our houses? Why didn’t they even know our names? What are they gonna do with the money they get from selling these properties?”

cathy panzarella, tenant

Leonzo’s appeals caught them off guard. The Lynch family has the money, the tenants say. They point to the stature of the plaintiff’s sister, as well as the law firm that Leonzo brought on for the appeal as case in point. The attorneys at Brownlee, Whitlow & Praet charge between $265 and $500 an hour for their services, according to a client intake specialist.

Panzarella says she knows Loretta isn’t officially involved in the legal dispute but feels as though she’s a relevant player because she also inherited the properties.

“Why didn’t she and her brother help Mr. Lynch fix our houses?,” Panzarella says. “Why didn’t they even know our names? What are they gonna do with the money they get from selling these properties? I want to know what kind of trips they’re going to take with that money.”

Tenants aren’t sure what to expect for the upcoming trial. 

It shouldn’t pose a problem for them that Leonzo himself isn’t the one who leased them the homes. 

“A landlord’s death doesn’t extinguish the legal rights of his or her tenants, nor does it generally preclude liability for acts or omissions that occurred when the landlord was alive,” Breitweiser wrote in a statement to the INDY. “The Rules of Professional Conduct require attorneys to advocate zealously on behalf of their clients, regardless of who the opposing party is.”

Still, North Carolina law doesn’t do much to defend tenants’ rights. Two months ago, the state Supreme Court ruled 5–2 that a tenant who was maimed by a gas explosion in a Durham rental home could not sue his landlord for negligence because there wasn’t evidence that the tenant had previously communicated a need for repairs. 

That ruling could bode poorly for Nash, Davis, and Page. Unlike Smith and Panzarella—whose complaints to the city in 2020 and 2021 resulted in prompt NIS inspections and issuances of orders for repair to Lorenzo Sr.—the other three tenants did not make complaints to the city while Lorenzo Sr. was alive. The NIS didn’t inspect their homes until last summer, after the legal dispute began. While those inspections found dozens of code violations that clearly stem from years of neglect, the duration of the disrepair may end up mattering less in court than the evidence, or lack thereof, that Lorenzo Sr. was made aware of it. 

Regardless of how the trial concludes, though, the fact that all four of the homes are standing, occupied, and up to date on inspections is coming with its own costs for the plaintiff and his sister.

For example, the city of Durham condemned the duplex where Nash lives on Potter Street in October, but because the residence is still standing and in use, the city did maintenance work on it two months ago and placed a $556 lien on the property that Lorenzo Sr.’s heirs will have to pay off.

The cooktop in Deborah Nash’s kitchen Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

The city is also preparing to restore heating facilities in the house where Page lives on Bryant Street, according to a December ordinance that states that Leonzo and Loretta “failed or refused to comply with” a previous order to render the home “fit for human habitation.”

The first quote for the installation came in at $16,000, according to Robb Damman, an NIS contract services manager the INDY bumped into while visiting Page in April. That’s also money that the city will front as a lien and the owners will need to pay back. 

“We’re looking at all new ductwork, all new heat pump systems—state of the art,” Damman says.

Damman admitted it’s a bit surprising to do $16,000 of work on a house built in 1940 that has substandard heating equipment—one of 20 violations in an open code enforcement case—and is likely to be torn down.

“The code states that the property needs to be able to maintain a heat to 68 degrees, measured within the middle of the room,” Damman says. “Currently this structure can’t meet that standard. So we have to move forward with our process.”

Kimberly Smith’s kitchen Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Panzarella is sitting on her front porch on Potter Street. Next door, Nash is, too. Smith is away, but her 19-year-old daughter just popped over to Nash’s duplex to brave the precarious cooktop and make everyone some food.

“We don’t like living here,” Panzarella says. She points at her front door, which is covered in mildew.

“But we do like living here,” she says, nodding at her neighbors.

Panzarella, Nash, and Smith all spent chunks of their childhood living on Potter Street. Smith is Nash’s niece. Panzarella and Nash call each other sisters even though they’re not actually related. 

The street is short, just one block, and ends in a dirt cul-de-sac. Up the hill and through some trees, cars are whooshing by on the Durham Freeway.

“I watched them dig out the highway,” Panzarella says. “We would cross over the big pile of dirt to go trick-or-treating in the other neighborhoods.”

In a geographic sense, all of the tenants like where they live. Resources for their children are within walking distance. Their streets are quiet and relatively safe: “No one bothers you here,” multiple tenants say. 

After the trial, they’re hoping to relocate nearby.

But even if they’re each awarded damages, they’re not sure if that will be feasible. The pickings are slim, literally: Those skinny new builds with “For Sale” signs in the front yard with QR codes that lead to websites that say things like “Modern and sleek” and “A minimalist’s dream come true” are everywhere. Two of them on Bryant Street sold last year for a little under $350,000 each. Both houses are smaller than 1,300 square feet.

“It’s still a good community,” Page says. “But they strong-armed some folks up outta here, didn’t they, T?”

T is Page’s neighbor, a lifelong resident of Bryant Street who happens to be strolling by at this moment. She squints and nods, then keeps walking.

Page looks at the skinny houses down the street. She’s been wondering about other properties Lorenzo Sr. owned in the area. 

“There’s a lot that I didn’t know before this,” Page says. “Who knew that your landlord was supposed to provide heat? I didn’t know that was a part of the landlord-tenant relationship.”

“I’m a fighter,” she says. “We’re gonna do this in a cordial way and we’re gonna move forward. But what about the people who aren’t fighters? What about the people who are scared to say no?”

The INDY visited all 14 properties that Lorenzo Sr. left his children in the Triangle.

One property is in Southeast Raleigh: a one-story brick house that looks reasonably well maintained but that the City of Raleigh in 1997 deemed “unfit for human habitation.” When the INDY stopped by in April, three men at the door said they don’t know the Lynch family and that it’s none of the INDY’s business who they pay their rent to.  

One is in downtown Hillsborough: a falling-apart house in an affluent neighborhood that the town of Hillsborough similarly declared “unfit for human habitation” in 2017. A neighbor told the INDY that the house hasn’t been occupied in at least a decade.

The other 12 are in Durham. Of those, four are the homes where Nash, Panzarella, Davis, Smith, and Page currently live. One is an undeveloped parcel on Justice Street in North Durham. The final seven are clustered on two streets in East Durham, Atlantic Street and Colfax Street. 

“I’m a fighter. We’re gonna do this in a cordial way and we’re gonna move forward. But what about the people who aren’t fighters? What about the people who are scared to say no?”

Pamela Page, tenant

On Atlantic Street, Lorenzo Sr. left his children three houses and a vacant parcel. On Colfax Street, he left them two houses and a vacant land parcel. All of the properties except one have histories of code violations, ordinances for repair, and liens.

 According to court records, around the same time that Nash, Panzarella, Davis, Smith, and Page got sued last summer, tenants on Atlantic and Colfax Streets did, too. 

Two summary ejectment complaints were issued to unnamed occupants at 2537 and 2533 Atlantic Street. A third was issued to a named tenant, Alvaro Herndandez, at 1210 Colfax Street. 

Upon visiting the properties in April of this year, the INDY found empty lots.

On Atlantic Street, grass has started to fill in the rectangular dirt plots where the houses stood. Toward the back of the site, there’s a pile of wood fragments with personal belongings mixed in, including a floral pillowcase, two striped shirts, a broken lampshade, and a Charles Mingus poster that’s still attached to a piece of a wall. A neighbor on his way to work told the INDY that the houses were torn down about six months ago, but were occupied as of a few years ago. 

On Colfax Street, there’s a similar scene: dirt plot, grass, furniture, and children’s toys. 

When the INDY knocked on the door of a skinny new build around the block, a woman answered and asked, “Are you staying in an Airbnb, too?”

A Colfax Street resident had more information. Through a crack in her screen door, she said that the house at 1210 had been demolished two or three months ago. She said a Hispanic family had lived there before, but she didn’t know them.

“One day,” she says, “they were just gone.”

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to [email protected]. Comment on this story at [email protected]

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