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Lender-forced property auction marks partial unwinding of one long-held Durham rental property empire

The most-popular item for viewing on the Triangle web site of the LoopNet commercial real estate system last week was the announcement of a lender forced estate auction, noting an early June date when 48 different apartment units in the Bull City will hit the auction block.

The count includes twelve units in three quadplexes on Atka Court, the tiny cul-de-sac near Holloway St. where thirteen year old Shakanah China was killed in a drive-by shooting last week -- the latest violent episode on the street, the N&O noted, where a homicide occurred in 1995, a survived shooting took place in 2009, and where DPD calls for service have reportedly been common.

The Atka Ct. units are swept up in what appears from the LoopNet posting to be a partial unwinding of the real estate empire of Bobby Roberts, the one-time Durham developer who claimed in a much-covered court case in the late 1990s that he had built more than five thousand homes in Durham in a career dating back to the 1950s.

The 79-year-old Roberts died last summer; less than a year later, these forty-eight units are hitting the market.

And like Atka Court, which residents say has long been plagued by shootings, some of these properties are or are adjacent to properties that have seen more than their share of crime problems, a search of news reports suggests.

Twelve units will be auctioned at the Brentwood Park complex on Junction Rd., which saw at least two shootings, one fatal, in 2006 and 2007; it was also the listed address of a man accused of sexually assaulting a Duke student at an off-campus party several years back, though Roberts told the Herald-Sun at the time that the man hadn't lived there in several years. A 2007 homicide took place at 1309 Hudson Ave., the address of a third property fingered in the lender-forced sale.

The Roberts estate or relatives appear to control just fewer than half of the 190 units in the Brentwood Park complex, according to property records online, while the vast majority of properties in tax records for 1309 Hudson are owned by the Roberts estate or by his wife or other relatives.

Two triplexes on Geer St. are also for sale.

All told, the 48 units for sale represent about one-third of the more than 140 properties (including distinct units) listed in the name of the Bobby Roberts estate through Durham tax records online -- though as the presence of the names of his brother, wife, a daughter and the like shows, the Roberts family continues to be a major stakeholder in the Durham housing and rental market, including in many of the complexes where properties are coming up for sale.

Altogether, Roberts' estate plus his construction company, wife, brother, children and grandchildren are listed as owning more than 465 properties in Durham County. On Hudson Ave., where one 18-unit apartment building (Unit F) is on the auction block, wife Florence appears to control the better part of two 18-unit buildings, while Roberts' daughters control one building apiece.

Still, the sale -- about whose root cause nothing more is known than the brief headline in the LoopNet entry -- comes at the end of a career that was both productive and controversial for Roberts.

His career dated back to the mid-1950s, when Roberts received a general contractor's license and proceeded to build single-family and multi-family housing throughout Durham, ultimately leading him to have been one of the most prolific builders in the history of our community.

Press reports note challenges in the final decades of that career.

Bobby Roberts and his brother Bryant were swept up in a lawsuit that led to more than a dozen stories in the Herald-Sun back in the late 1990s, when more than two dozen homeowners sued or settled with Roberts Construction over foundation problems and other damages in a mid-1990s development.

Two homeowners ultimately were awarded triple-damages that were upheld on appeal, with damages apparently exceeding the high-five-figure purchase prices of the home; most of the cases were settled confidentially before trial.

During the case, Roberts' GC license was found to have never been renewed since its initial issuance, with the contractor and company owner relying on the licenses of a brother and foreman; Bobby Roberts signed a consent order with the state over the matter that admitted no guilt, while Bryant Roberts agreed to halt his use of his permit for six months as a result, the Herald-Sun reported in 1998.

The Robertses were also the subject of an investigation by the state real estate commission in the early 1990s over their property management company; that action alleged tenants and property owners' funds weren't maintained in escrow accounts as required, and stemmed out of tenant complaints of illegal evictions and property padlockings by the management company. 

Bobby Roberts' real estate broker license was also suspended by the state in 1981 due to "criminal convictions," according to a 1996 Herald-Sun story.

Now, at career's and life's end, a third of the properties remaining in Roberts' name at his passing -- though less than 10% of the total family holdings -- are ready to find their way to new ownership.

For Durhamites, the question of who'll steward those properties into their next uses is one worth watching.

The auction is set for 1pm on June 2 at the Courtyard by Marriott on Front St. north of I-85.



IS there any photo of Bobby Roberts or James 'Fireball' White? I've never seen one and would love to place a face with the name(s).


Fireball's ran with his obituary in the Herald Sun

Steve Graff

You can find the obituary with picture on the following page about halfway down the page.


it's 'Bentwood' - no r.

Subcomandante Beaver

Did somebody say "wood". I know a lot about wood, and beaver, for I am Subcomandante Beaver! The failure of the corrupt neo-liberal capitalist system continues! The foreclosure crisis and gentrification spatially destroy ponds, damns and lodges, displacing poor, working class, migrant and beavers of color to the periphery of beaver ponds.
We, the Durham Coalition for Urban Beavers, come together to defend mammalian process in the Beaver Pond! At stake is not simply our city's beaver pond, but rather the dangerous precedent that only those who can mobilize vast sums of wood can have a voice in the future of our city's beavers!

Garrett Davis

Claimed to have built 5,000 housing units. He's like the Wilt Chamberlain of rental property development.


That number is probably pretty accurate. If you seen one of Bobby Robert's've seen them all. Same can be said for the younger Roberts properties which a sample can be found along Old Chapel Hill Rd.

I guess you could say that he was the Donald Trump of "affordable" housing in Durham. I'm not sure of the mixture of rental vs. homeowner but he developed most of the Dearborn Rd. area and several other communities in North and East Durham.

Frank Hyman

@ Subcomandante Beaver

More rhetoric please !


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