Josh Stephenson, the man who crisscrossed the country throughout much of his early life, has finally put down roots here in the Bronx.
In October 2019, Stephenson was tabbed the executive director of West Bronx Housing & Neighborhood Resource Center in Norwood. Recognizing how important housing is in the borough, especially now as people try to rebound from COVID-19, Stephenson says he loves his job.
“I’m glad that I’m able to do something positive for NYC and the people in the Bronx,” he told the Bronx Times. “This is truly an amazing city and borough.”
However, the path to his new position did not happen overnight.
Stephenson, 36, was born in Nebraska and as a baby moved to Miami with his mom. Raised by a single mother, Rebecca Stanton, they lived in the poor communities of Liberty City and Little Havana. As Stanton worked and went to school, Stephenson had Spanish-speaking babysitters who quickly taught him their language. While those areas were crime-ridden, he never noticed.
“I didn’t know I was in danger,” he said.
From Miami, they picked up and moved to Syracuse where his mom earned her masters degree before, again, relocating to California. “We moved house to house every year or two,” he said.
Stephenson loved science and wanted to be an astrophysicist, but chose to pursue political science and international relations at UC Berkeley instead. He graduated in 2010, but could not find a job, so for three years he worked at a pizzeria and made pizza. His mom, who had moved to NYC without Stephenson, suggested he move there. Stephenson took her advice and relocated to the East Coast.
In New York, he continued in the food industry and waited tables for a while until he landed a job at a lobbying firm. But in 2015 everything changed when he got an internship with then-Councilman Andrew Cohen. He was quickly brought on full time as the director of constituent services. “He [Cohen] was an excellent boss,” he stated. “He trusted me to do my job and I did it well.”
According to Stephenson, while the job covered an array of topics and he dealt with residents’ complaints on a daily basis, it was the housing aspect he fell in love with. During his time there one of the people he spoke often with was Sally Dunford, the executive director of the West Bronx Housing & Neighborhood Resource Center. In 2019, she informed him she was retiring and based on that relationship she offered him the position.
Caught off guard, he accepted the role and began a new chapter in his life, again. Since taking the reins, Stephenson has seen the impact he has had on the community. “With this job I actually got to do what I was passionate about,” he said.
Stephenson explained that many in the Community Board 7 area like Norwood, Bedford Park and Kingsbridge face housing issues. Furthermore, many of his clients are Spanish-speaking, live on fixed incomes and don’t know the housing laws. He helps them with things such as tenant organizing, eviction prevention and paying arrears. He was busy before the pandemic, but once COVID-19 began there was an even greater need for assistance, he said.
Making matters worse is the fact that most of his staff retired due to the pandemic, leaving just him and one employee to run the center. But Stephenson has not let that stand in his way. Since July 2020, his organization has met with more than 8,000 people and characterized the past year as quite emotional, with many Bronxites worried about losing their homes.
“People are terrified,” he said. “A lot of people have been in their apartments for ten or twenty years.”
Stephenson noted that during the height of the pandemic people had to choose between paying rent or buying food, which forced thousands to wait on long lines at food pantries. However, he still fears that when the state-mandated eviction moratorium on rental apartments is lifted at the end of August, many people will end up homeless.
Looking to the future, Stephenson wants to finish his master’s in public administration at Baruch College and continue to grow the nonprofit. While this isn’t something he imagined as a career when he was a child, he wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
“I love working with people and like focusing on housing,” he said. “The law protecting tenants is only good if the tenants know their rights.”