New York's Ten Worst Landlords, Part 1

In a city of slumlords and broke-ass apartment buildings, these stand out.


Landlord: Humphrey Stephenson

Not exactly a real estate magnate, Stephenson claims to own only one building, 141 West 119th Street in Harlem, and he lives on the first floor of the four-story, 19th-century ex-mansion. He shares the building with his wife and daughter (who live on another floor) and an ever-revolving handful of tenants.

Jared Gruenwald
Jared Gruenwald

Stephenson makes this list not because he fails to provide heat, or because he has evicted hundreds of people. It's because some of his tenants and ex-tenants say he's a really, really angry guy who freaks them out with fits of crazy temper, maniacal rage, and unfair and unsettling behavior.

In an interview with the Voice, Stephenson angrily says, "They can't get me angry! I just take it!"

Quotable: "He cursed at me every single night and day," says one former tenant. "Sometimes you wonder if he don't sleep."

What it's like to live there: This is one of those beautiful Harlem mansions built more than a century ago and slowly going to seed. Inside, say tenants, the vibe is Dickensian. The dimly lit house is shabby, and it's decorated with posters and iconography of Stephenson's native Jamaica, including plentiful images of the late Ethiopian king Haile Selassie, who is worshipped by Rastafarians. A colorful cloth crest announces the British Jamaican Benevolent Association, which owned the building from 1949 until Stephenson took it over four decades later.

Current and former tenants tell similar stories of Stephenson's rages and alleged acts of downright cruelty. All but one requested anonymity because they say they fear retribution.

Two female tenants—one former, one current—say that as they headed off to work every day, Stephenson would trail them out the door and down the block, cursing them and calling them prostitutes, worthless sluts, and thieves.

The former female tenant, a Jamaican immigrant who says she fled the building with her two children in October, recalls that if she or her 21-year-old son came home after 7 p.m., Stephenson would lock them out. "It was like living in prison," she says. "We couldn't talk, in the hallways or on the steps. I cried all the time because of the whole thing. I even developed high blood pressure—I never had that before."

As a recent immigrant without papers, the woman was afraid to bring a lawsuit against Stephenson. She and her kids are now crashing on the living-room floor of a friend's home in Manhattan.

Neighbors, too, are familiar with Stephenson's temper, as is tenant advocate Yarrow Willman-Cole, who says she got a mouthful of nasty curse words on her voicemail recently from Stephenson.

Tenants say Stephenson routinely denies them use of the bathroom at night. The Jamaican immigrant says she had to urinate and defecate in a pail, which she would dump into the upstairs toilet in the morning before leaving the house. This situation is especially dehumanizing, tenants say, for a sick, elderly tenant who has trouble walking up the stairs on her own and struggles with the bucket. (The woman, a longtime tenant, declined to comment.) Another current tenant says that, for the better part of 2009, he had to take showers at a friend's house across the street because Stephenson locks the bathroom.

The creep show has other acts: Stephenson broke the lock on the bedroom door of a current female tenant and wouldn't replace it until a housing court judge ordered him to do so last month. A new lock is finally on the door, but the tenant is staying with relatives, afraid to come back.

One former tenant, Nakeeta Wills, was in her mid-twenties and had just moved to the city from Rochester when she made her way to Stephenson's house, which she had learned about through a family friend. She says she paid Stephenson about $130 a week while working as a receptionist. The building was dirty and in disrepair, she recalls, but she was so enthralled with living in New York City that she didn't really mind. Stephenson was kind to her when she first moved in, she says, but after a short time, he descended into seemingly uncontrollable fits of rage. He took to prowling around her door at night, and opened her door and left beer cans in her room, she says, and would also accuse her—while her fiancé was visiting the building—of soliciting sex from him.

Wills moved out for a short time, but says Stephenson convinced her to come back. The day she was to move back in, though, he changed his mind and refused her entry, she says, and her moving van was left to circle the block and sit idle for hours with her boxes inside it.

"I feel like this experience was my crazy New York story," says Wills, who finally left the mansion in 2005 for a more peaceful place in Harlem.

Mitigating factors: While amicably showing a Voice reporter around the house, Stephenson denies ever having cursed at anyone ("I don't curse out nobody"). But when he starts talking about his tenants, he starts cursing.

As to the specific horror stories by tenants, Stephenson doesn't deny locking the bathroom on the tenants but says he did so because the toilets needed repairs. As far as locking the female tenant out of her room, he says he did so because the woman was living in filth and he needed to make repairs in the room. (He then shows the room, which was, in fact, very dirty and had a single wooden slab instead of a bed.) He also shows that he had a police restraining order against the woman's boyfriend, which he says he obtained after the two men fought over Stephenson's breaking the lock on the door.

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