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Whose Harlem Is It?

1980 65 East 125th Street   

In 2005, Suggs bought a pretty four-story limestone townhouse on a prized block of historic Hamilton Terrace, her second property in Harlem. She paid $895,000; once it’s renovated, she says, she believes it could sell for $4 million. What makes the purchase notable, her critics say, is that Suggs had originally been hired to sell the place. The owner, a woman named Henrietta Rouse, had lived there since 1976. Some suspect that Suggs deliberately never found a buyer until she could snap it up for a below-market price. Suggs paints herself less as an owner than a steward of the property. “Oh, I love Mrs. Rouse,” she says with a giggle, showing me around the house one sunny afternoon. “She’s like my older sister. This is really her house. I’m just taking care of it.” But others see it differently. “I remember the conversations,” says Bianca Ferraioli, a retired broker who once worked for Suggs. “Willie wanted to put it in her nephew’s name, because she thought it would look suspicious if she put it in hers.”

Suggs has frequently been accused of dubious, and even illegal business practices. More than a half-dozen of her former sales agents have reported her for various offenses. Some say they saw Suggs misrepresent homes to potential buyers, and even to her own sales agents. One trademark Suggs move is to hold up closings with last-minute demands for money. Having voluntarily spent her own money on improvements to boost a property’s sale price (and her commission), Suggs would then file liens against the property to force the seller to reimburse her. In 2004, she was sued for a lien she presented for just $8,995. In 1999, six former sales agents filed a joint complaint with the state office that grants brokers licenses, accusing Suggs of not paying the portion of commissions she’d verbally promised them. The complaint went nowhere (a common outcome for that office, some brokers say), but two sales agents remember Suggs responding to objections by saying, “This is Harlem. We make up the rules as we go along.” “Every commission check she’s given me has bounced,” says Micki Garcia, who worked for Suggs a few years ago as a sales agent. “Three times I had to take her across the street to the bank to make sure there were funds.”

Suggs has also been accused of being vindictive. “When she fired someone, she’d create a conspiracy against the person after the person was gone,” says Garcia. “She’d talk about that person with new people, so they’d all have the same impression. She just got threatened whenever she saw anyone start to grow.” And Suggs had a strange tendency to call the police whenever she decided to fire someone. She did it to Marilyn Henderson in 1998, and Aaron Willoughby in 2000, and Lisa Downing in 2004. These people, Suggs tells me, were disturbing the peace—some were pressing her for money, others were confronting her in different ways. “You cannot make a scene. I don’t care who it is. In my family, if people misbehave, you call the police. That’s what they’re there for.”

No one had much success pushing back against Suggs until 2000, when she accused a sales agent named Raquel Brown of stealing files from the office in the middle of the night. Young and ambitious in her own right, Brown had just handled a record-breaking $660,000 sale at 416 Convent Avenue. Shortly after, Suggs filed theft charges against Brown at the 30th Precinct, and later sued her. Brown countersued, denying any theft and accusing Suggs of “abuse of process,” or using the legal system for personal ends. The lawsuits wound through the courts for seven years. A judge determined in 2003 that there had been no theft of files—that Raquel Brown was just working from home like many sales agents do. The abuse-of-process case made it to trial last November. After a short deliberation, the jury ruled against Suggs, awarding Brown $2.6 million, one of the highest judgments ever in an abuse-of-process case in New York.

The judge later reduced the award, and the parties reached a settlement. Neither side will discuss the terms, but Brown says she feels vindicated; some close to her have suggested that Suggs ought to lose her real-estate license over the matter. “Will the public place its trust in a broker found guilty of abuse of process?” Brown asks. “How her story is going to end will be very interesting.”

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and Suggs is showing me a tidy one-bedroom co-op she is selling on a high floor of a doorman building on 145th Street. There’s a brilliant south-facing view of Harlem, and Suggs is pointing out the major landmarks—City College, Columbia University, the tall but dingy Adam Clayton Powell building. She takes special note of the larger condo and co-op developments, particularly those that are friendly to new people from outside the neighborhood. Then I ask Suggs what the word gentrification means to her.

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