The charges that Phyllis Black outlines against her landlord in a sworn affidavit are sweeping and shocking. But if there’s one thing she wants him to know, it’s this: She isn’t leaving her home.
In the nearly two years she’s lived at 711 49th Street NE, the 54-year-old Deanwood resident says she’s dealt with below-freezing temperatures in her apartment, nests of mice, and gaping holes in her floor, to name just a few housing code violations.
But the price is right, the location is good, and the neighbors—you can’t beat them. Many tenants there have known each other for years, and they’ve formed a community. Black tells City Paper that they “bonded over the deadbeat landlord.” Her friends there, as well as those living in its sister building just a few yards away on the same lot, feel the same way. Only about a dozen families live in 711 and 719 49th Street NE.
On June 28, the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced it had filed a lawsuit against the landlord of those two buildings, Thomas K. Stephenson, for failure to abate a number of housing code violations.
Not two months later, Assistant Attorney General Stephon Woods filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against Stephenson, asking the court to “compel prompt abatement of housing code and other issues which threaten the health, safety, and security of the tenants.” In the motion, Woods cites at least eight different violations, with problems ranging from rodent infestations to faulty fire extinguishing equipment and smoke detectors.
The lawsuit is the culmination of years of drama: of friendships gone astray, of mortgages unpaid, of complaints and requests unmet.
When City Paper called Stephenson to comment on the city’s lawsuit, he told City Paper to talk to his lawyer, but declined to provide contact information for that lawyer, instead saying he would call the paper back. He didn’t call back, or at least didn’t leave any voicemails, and did not answer subsequent calls. Stephenson also did not have a lawyer respond to the city’s complaint, instead answering it himself.
“Defendant denies all the allegations of facts in the complaint,” reads his handwritten answer, filed July 18. “Defendant avers that the complaint made by tenants we [sic] made to avoid the payment of rent and to avoid eviction. All but one of the tenants have been evicted or have moved pursuant to an eviction order. The remaining tenant is scheduled to move.”
In fact, City Paper met with five different residents of Stephenson’s 49th Street apartments in August, and none of them had plans to leave. Tenants in the rent-controlled buildings, who have paid between $950 and $1,100 for a two-bedroom apartment, say they can think of only two vacant units. (It is true, however, that Stephenson has filed a number of eviction lawsuits against his tenants. A quick survey of D.C. Superior Court records indicates that Stephenson is particularly litigious.)
711 and 719 49th Street NE are hulking, three-story brick rectangles that sit on an overgrown lot, which is roped off to prevent residents from walking on it. Inside, on each staircase landing, cans of empty mango iced tea from 7/11 prop open the windows to increase circulation in the stairwell, which is narrow and punctuated with cobwebs and desiccated insects.
In Black’s third-floor apartment, a cluster of her neighbors and friends sit in a crescent across the living room, alternating between righteous anger and hysterical laughter when they talk about Stephenson. For nearly two hours they swap horror stories about their apartments and recount, with varying degrees of indignation, the ways in which he has slighted them. Nothing gets them going like the mice.
“I’m telling you, it was miserable. Them things was everywhere. They were having babies everywhere,” Black says. It’s at this point that they all pull out their phones, tapping through months of documentation to find videos they’ve taken of dying mice struggling against traps.
Tenant Omar Williams pulls up a grainy video of a mouse caught on a sticky paper trap. (Stephenson allegedly cuts new traps in half before giving them to tenants.) Because the trap is half the size it’s supposed to be, only half the mouse is stuck to it. Its lower back is trapped but its torso and the tip of its fleshy pink tail are free, and it cries something terrible as it flings its limbs around. “Just wait,” Williams says as the video ends. He flips to a photo of a rat the size of a baseball hunched over in his kitchen.
Black, not to be outdone, shuffles back into the room with a stack of photos in hand. Many are blurry shots of dead mice plastered to the traps, blood spattered like a Jackson Pollock behind them, but I come across one with a gelatinous pink blob and ask Black if that’s another mouse.
Casually, coolly, Black glances at the photo and says, “No, that’s a cluster of babies. Like it’s jelly beans stuck on the tacky strip.”
By all accounts, Stephenson is a formidable landlord.
The 67-year-old is a veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department, having served there for 25 years—including as an undercover officer in the seventh district—until he retired in 2010.
Adding to his mythology is the time MPD placed him on administrative leave after federal agents at Miami International Airport seized 90 pounds of cocaine stored inside a piece of luggage apparently traveling alongside Stephenson on a flight from Guyana. It was detailed in a 2005 Washington Post article.
Many of his 49th Street NE tenants, including Williams and Black, have known Stephenson for years, either socially or because they’ve rented from him before. They call him “Tommy.” He used to invite them over to his Sheriff Road NE home for cookouts, and Williams and Black describe evenings sitting around with Stephenson, drinking and grilling.
Jana Perkins, who used to be homeless, says Stephenson allowed her to live in the laundry room in one of the two buildings he owns nearby on Sheriff Road NE, and she stayed there until she moved into 711 49th Street NE in November of 2016. But, as she points out, “being a good friend and being a good landlord are two different things.”
Tenants believe it’s this familiarity that makes Stephenson think he can say or do anything to them, to the point of harassment. Black reports that he calls her “bitch,” and routinely yells at non-residents to “get the fuck off my property” if they stand on the sidewalk in front of the building. Residents of 711 and 719 have taken to feeding Stephenson’s two pitbulls, which he keeps in a side yard on the property behind a chain-link fence crawling with poison ivy.
Almost immediately after acquiring the two properties on 49th Street NE in 2000 he encountered financial difficulties. Publicly available property records from the Office of Tax and Revenue show that Stephenson has racked up about $67,000 in liens since 2001 across his properties on 49th Street NE, Sheriff Road NE, and Foote Street NE, the bulk of that from the city’s water authority, which has cited him dozens of times for delayed payments. He’s been fined as far back as 2006 by the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for “wrongful housing” conditions at the 49th Street apartment buildings.
Property records also show that the banks that own the debt on his Sheriff Road NE and at 711 49th Street NE properties have threatened foreclosure multiple times—as far back as 2004 for 711 49th Street.
What residents see him do for repairs, he does on the cheap. Black describes a day this spring when she came into her apartment to find a maintenance worker, who she didn’t know, passed out in her living room with a needle in his arm. He was supposed to be fixing a hole in her bathroom floor that led straight into her downstairs neighbor’s bathroom. (“She’d yell up at me, ‘Don’t look at me while I’m in the shower!’” Black chuckles. Another tenant who lived for nearly eight years on the first floor of the same building reported in an affidavit that water damage caused her bathroom ceiling to collapse.)
Williams was also friends with Stephenson for years before moving into 719 49th Street NE, and would occasionally complete contracting work for him. He used to think of him as “a cool person.” But Williams became turned off by Stephenson’s behavior when the property owner would try to short-change him on payment.
“That’s how we fell out as friends,” Williams says from his living room. “But by that point, I was already living here.”
Since April of 2015, DCRA has cited or prepared to cite 719 49th Street NE at least 11 times for housing code violations. Next door, at 711, that number is 17.
The first full winter Black lived in her apartment, she tells City Paper, the heat went out and a thermometer in her living room at one point read 20 degrees. Other tenants have experienced similar problems. Perkins says she used to use her oven as a heater during the winter because the apartment would get so cold.
In her sworn affidavit to the attorney general’s office, Black says that her oven constantly leaked gas, prompting her carbon monoxide detector to periodically beep; she testified that she was hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter of 2017. Ten months after she moved in, Stephenson replaced her stove, but Black says she’s having issues with the new one, too.
Williams, who lives at 719 49th Street NE, recounts his own horrors: He says an air conditioning unit leaked fluid so badly this spring that it fell from the third floor down through the ceiling of his own first-floor unit. He was out buying snacks for his 9- and 13-year-old daughters, who were home at the time of the crash. “They said to me, when I came back, ‘Daddy, there was a loud thump,’” Williams says. He points to the stretch of ceiling that’s been visibly patched.
That hallway leads to the kitchen, where Williams says you’ll regularly see mice skittering behind his stove. Sure enough, he pulls the stove from the wall, and a handful of gray mice the size of matchboxes lay immobile on a trap. Every now and again, he’ll see a mouse make a beeline across his stove.
And don’t get him started on the dishwasher. “The smell that comes out of there is horrific. It’ll literally run you out of your apartment.” He clasps his hands together, as if in prayer, and shakes his head. “I just thought, ‘Oh my god, I cannot do this.’”
During the group’s conversation inside Black’s apartment, the discussion turned toward how to evacuate in an emergency. (They are, after all, worried about the carbon monoxide.) Williams and Black consider the windows, but point to the screens, which in each building are drilled into the wall. “If a fire breaks out, I ain’t going through the window, because the screens are screwed in,” Perkins says.
Partway through this conversation there’s a knock on Black’s door, and a lithe, towering figure walks into the living room. Perkins’ terrier, Bear, immediately runs to the 59-year-old, who folds himself into a chair. His name is Xavier Drake, but everyone calls him Six.
He’s wearing jeans, a baseball cap, and a jersey from D.C.’s NFL team, and he’s winded. He’s just come from chemotherapy, but immediately turns to me and intones, “Ghetto’s not the word for my building.” Six lives next door at 719, and says he’s seen the way Stephenson has treated his tenants.
Inside an electrical closet in Six’s third-floor, two-bedroom apartment, a leaking condensation pump pools water onto the floor. The closet leads straight into the attic—“You can hear things running around up there at night,” he says—and there’s a sawed-out chunk of the wall from an unfinished repair.
When Six talks about Stephenson, he does it with a steely resolve. “He feels, in his heart, like he doesn’t owe anyone anything,” he says. Next to him, Black cranes her head around to chime in: “We’re human, too,” Black says about their former friend. “I know he doesn’t live like this.”