City targets ex-NBA star for 'slum' housing
Walker 'humbly apologizes' for 'failings of my company'
Mold, lack of heat and buckling floors forced tenants to abandon this building at 6854 S. Cornell Ave., another property that until recently was owned by Walker's company. (Tribune photo by Zbigniew Bzdak / November 19, 2009)
LINK TO IMAGES
November 29, 2009
The Prairie Avenue apartment building -- described by the city as a slum nuisance -- sits a short drive from where Antoine Walker once dominated basketball games, a prodigy at Mount Carmel High School on his way to escaping South Side poverty to become a fabulously wealthy NBA star.
At one point, bricks fell off the building's facade, a hazard that went unfixed for months, city records show. Before that, a broken sewer pipe filled the basement with feces, toilet paper and other debris, creating an odor that forced families to move their children out.
The angry tenants don't know Walker, 33, who reportedly earned $110 million during a 13-year pro career that included winning an NBA championship ring. But the 6-foot-9 former all-star -- known for a partying lifestyle that stretches from the golf course to the velvet-rope club -- plays a big role in their lives.
His company owns the building.
Amid a pile of financial troubles and legal actions capped off earlier this year with his arrest in Nevada for nearly $1 million in bad gambling debts, Walker is being pursued by city officials, bank attorneys and tenants' lawyers for housing problems that have resulted in what the city says are public hazards.
Real estate investment companies that list Walker as an investor or principal -- Walker Ventures LLC and AW Realty LLC -- are the target of more than a dozen lawsuits alleging poor management of numerous properties, unpaid debts and damages caused by shoddy repair work. In one case last month, the city won $950,000 in court-ordered fines against Walker Ventures.
Speaking to the Tribune Friday by telephone, Walker appeared contrite about the problems, blaming them on the bad economy, "a lot of financial mistakes throughout my career," and putting trust in other people. "I would like to humbly apologize to everyone who has been affected by the failings of my company," Walker said. "It was never intended to present [tenants with] unacceptable living conditions."
In an era of celebrity scandal and richly rewarded fame, it's not unheard of for a multimillionaire athlete to suddenly turn up with financial problems. But as Walker carved a path of luxurious living from Chicago to Miami to Las Vegas, running up millions of dollars in debts to banks, casinos and at least one agent, the company bearing his name was leaving scars on the poor, urban landscape of his youth.
On Cornell Avenue, a 13-unit building developed a mold problem so bad that a 7-month-old boy repeatedly woke up coughing, a tenant lawsuit says. The toxic fumes and a lack of heat drove all the tenants to abandon the building, which the city declared "a hulking public nuisance" before Walker Ventures eventually lost it in a bank foreclosure.
On Minerva Avenue, another Walker Ventures building suffers from spotty electricity and a mouse and roach infestation that resulted in its failing several inspections tied to federal rent subsidies, government records show. Shoddy conditions and a problem with squatters drove most tenants away, and this month a team of city inspectors and police found several code violations, city officials said.
In Country Club Hills, raw sewage leaked from bad pipes inside a condominium owned by Walker's AW Realty and managed by his mother, Diane Walker, according to a Cook County lawsuit that described how the leak destroyed the unit below.
Many of the tenants were surprised to learn that their problems traced back to a former NBA star.
"This is your property and you're supposed to be somebody?" demanded Kywanna Leftridge, 29, who lost most of her belongings and had to move temporarily into a homeless shelter with her son, 13, after her apartment in the Prairie Avenue building flooded. "It was horrible."
Steven McKenzie, an assistant city corporation counsel, said that a number of foreclosed and now-abandoned properties have grown into neighborhood nuisances. One of the examples he cited was the Cornell Avenue building, which leaked natural gas in the vestibule as squatters were smoking upstairs, a fire hazard documented in court records.
Known as affable and media friendly, Walker has been elusive when it comes to many of the property accusations. The tenants haven't seen him, and lawyers have been unable to find him to serve papers. McKenzie did extensive research, pulling records available only to law enforcement, to make sure the former NBA player was the same Antoine Walker behind the real estate company.
The former star for the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat -- who has not signed with another team this year -- talked to the Tribune Friday from Chicago in a telephone interview arranged by his publicist in New York. Before that, he had not returned repeated messages left by the Tribune with his attorneys, family and friends.
In Tinley Park, Walker's mother, Diane, struck a tired air of defiance this month at the door of the $2.5 million mansion the ballplayer bought her. In the brick driveway, engraved with a large "W," sat four luxury cars.
Diane Walker defended her son, noting how he has counseled troubled teens and helped others pay for college through his charitable Eight Foundation. "Talk about the goodness of his heart and what he's done," she said.
Of the two real estate companies tied to the athlete, Walker Ventures has been most aggressive during the past several years about acquiring apartment buildings -- mostly on Chicago's South Side. The company was launched out of Coral Gables, Fla., in 2006, the same year Walker helped the Miami Heat win the NBA championship, according to Florida state records.
As a limited liability company, it lists three principal "members," or owners, including Walker. In addition to using Walker's name, the company features his address and signature on its registration paperwork.
"I wanted to be part of restoring the neighborhood. I've always been passionate about the South Side," he said, expressing regret that he did not wait to invest until after he retired and "had more time to be directly involved in the company."
Walker has left day-to-day operations of Walker Ventures to one of the company's two other members, Frederick G. Billings, 44, who Walker said had been a friend for 18 years.
Billings, who has owned construction and tax consultant companies, is out on bond after being arrested in March on charges of running a mortgage scam in Chicago that netted him more than $700,000 in illegal loans, court records show.
As part of that case, he faces felony counts of fraud, forgery and theft, and in another case, he is accused of fraudulently collecting $10,000 in federally subsidized rent payments, though those actions are not connected to Walker Ventures or AW Realty.
Like Walker, Billings has run up gambling debts in Las Vegas, in his case totaling $229,000, according to a 2005 federal bankruptcy filing that allowed him to avoid paying it off. The bankruptcy filing also helped Billings avoid paying another $1.5 million he owed, some in unpaid taxes and the rest to investors, former customers and other creditors, U.S. Bankruptcy Court documents show.
When reached by the Tribune, Billings declined to comment, other than to cite a court filing in July that seeks to dismiss him from one city lawsuit against Walker Ventures by claiming that he is only a "managing member" for the company and not the owner or developer.
"Nah, I don't want to discuss that stuff, man," he said, before hanging up.
Walker said Friday that he was unaware of Billings' other legal problems. "I wouldn't have put my reputation on the line had I known about them," Walker said.
Walker said he became aware of his companies' problems only when court summonses from Chicago began arriving on his doorstep in late 2008 in Miami, where he currently lives. He said he was "saddened" by the allegations. "I was misguided into trusting other people and put my money and faith into other people's abilities," he said.
Walker Ventures tenants, some of whom remembered watching Walker's buzzer-beating shots on TV, have mostly interacted with Billings about their living conditions.
"Someone said the basketball player Antoine Walker owned this property, but I could not believe that; I didn't want to believe that," said Barbara Brooks, among a group of tenants in the Cornell Avenue building who sued Walker Ventures over the mold and other problems.
That 2008 case was settled, but when one tenant tried to cash a $1,000 check signed Antoine Walker, it bounced, said attorney Paul Bernstein, who represented the tenants. The check eventually went through, but none of the five other tenants named in the suit have received their $1,000 settlement payments, he said.
Near several vacant lots in the city's Washington Park neighborhood, the Prairie Avenue building serves as collateral for another financial problem: a $1.5 million promissory note to the JP Morgan Chase bank, signed Antoine Walker. The note was never repaid, according to a court judgment.
The city declared the property in violation of its "slum nuisance" ordinance in a lawsuit this year trying to force Walker Ventures to do repairs.
Before a court-appointed receiver moved in, the building's crumbling facade repeatedly poured bricks onto a public sidewalk. Miquel Evans, 17, said a large slab nearly hit him in the head in April when he walked up to visit his cousin Lonyae Almond.
Walker Ventures allowed that hazard to fester for months, despite repeated orders to fix it, city attorneys said.
After the broken sewer pipe filled the entire basement with a knee-deep pool of raw sewage, "everything was mold and mildew for months," said Almond, 31, adding that the problems began shortly after Walker Ventures took over the building in 2008.
"My daughter couldn't stay here for months because the smell was so bad; it was unbearable for anyone to live here. (The smell) was even inside our clothes, it lasted so long."
Inside the Minerva building, now in foreclosure proceedings, Antoinette Joseph and her three children -- ages 13, 11 and 9 -- noticed that trash began accumulating out back for months shortly after Walker Ventures assumed control of the building last year.
"Sometimes, I lie in bed and there's a mouse in bed with me. One time, it just sat there and watched me," Joseph said.
McKenzie said that city officials have begun to look into other Walker Ventures properties, and plan to place liens on those buildings in order to collect unpaid fines. Under laws governing limited liability companies, the city cannot go after Walker's personal assets, McKenzie said.
Walker said he's working to resolve his financial problems and hopes to reach a resolution with the city over its lawsuits.
"I accept full responsibility for the debts of my company," he said, adding that he's working hard to sign again with an NBA team. "I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life.
"Hopefully, I can make wiser choices, on and off the court," he said