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‘Keeping the train moving:’ Darnell Johnson’s fight for affordable Boston housing

Amy Pollard
‘Keeping the train moving:’ Darnell Johnson’s fight for affordable Boston housing
Darnell Johnson (center) holds a bullhorn during an affordable housing demonstration in Dorchester last year. Johnson heads the Right to the City Coalition, a group of organizations working on preserving affordability in Boston’s housing market. (Photo: Ernesto Arroyo)

It’s Thursday morning and Dorchester is alive with commuters — workers in orange jackets and hard hats, businesswomen in suits, a nun in full habit, the occasional twenty-something hipster. Walk further away from the Ashmont T stop, however, and it becomes harder to imagine Dorchester as the hub of upscale housing that developers have proposed. Sidewalks are crumbling. Garbage litters the alleyways between old auto shops, barbershops and laundromats. Newspapers and trash bags tumble into the street. But local advocates worry gentrification is coming.

It’s a process that Darnell Johnson, coordinator at Right to the City Boston (RTC), confronts every day. “I don’t remember fighting for Louisville in the way I fight for Boston,” says the 43-year-old Kentucky native. “Here, it’s territorial.”

Johnson spends his days in a weathered brick building a few blocks north of the Fields Corner Red Line station. The RTC Boston office, shared with the social justice group New England United for Justice, feels more like a house, with wood floors, a hallway and a kitchen. It gets a lot of natural light. A “History of Rent Control in Boston” poster runs the length of the hallway, with blue, pink and yellow sticky notes showing key legislation on rent stability, rental inspection, condo conversion and other housing issues since 1977. In the conference room, where Johnson spends much of his time, a map of Boston’s wards and precincts hangs opposite a painting of a woman speaking into a megaphone, the words “Pass Just Cause Eviction” rolling out.

These decorations remind Johnson every day of the issues at stake in his work. Dorchester, the largest of Boston’s 23 neighborhoods, faces a surge in property owners selling to real estate developers who then renovate the units and increase the rent, hoping to court Boston’s growing class of students and young professionals. Such development dramatically changes neighborhood communities and often pushes long-term tenants out of their homes.

Social justice education

Johnson’s interest in the politics of displacement began during his undergraduate years at the University of Louisville, where he worked with the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ rights coalition that pushed to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the Kentucky civil rights code. After graduating in 1997, he spent ten more years organizing with the Fairness Campaign and then started working with Jobs with Justice in Kansas City, Missouri.

He doesn’t remember the exact moment he was drawn to social justice work but in many ways it was in the cards all along. “My mom always said I was the one who tore the toys apart to try to put them back together again,” he says.

He’s also seen the devastating effects of displacement up close. “I have family members who have gone through evictions and been displaced and lost their jobs,” he recalls. “I also have gay friends who have been beaten because of their sexuality.”

Johnson will talk your ear off about race, class and gender, especially his experiences as a black man from Louisville, a city sharply divided along racial lines. Actually, he’ll talk your ear off about a number of things: cooking, theater, music. Johnson was a performing arts major, and it shows. He speaks with natural rhythm; he often pauses for effect. His voice is calm and unassuming but at any given moment he’ll break into an exuberant laugh that fills the room.

“He always does his work with a smile,” says Noemi “Mimi” Ramos, 35, who works with Johnson as organizing director of New England United for Justice. “I think people feed into his energy, which is why they come into the work.”

Nonconformist

Johnson is tall, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he casually leans back in his chair and sips his coffee, every so often adjusting his glasses. His hair is short nowadays. He used to wear dreads down to his shoulders, but has since cut them off. “Just walking down the street, I was perceived differently than with my short hair,” he says. “My hair, signaling a class separation, a difference from people, a safety issue!”

With or without his dreads, Johnson has never been particularly good at conforming. He tried to work a retail job, make money and live the American dream, once. Burned out after attempting to expand a local chapter of the Kansas Organization for State Employees (KOSE), he took a job at a men’s clothing store, declaring, “I’m not doing social justice work no more.”

But he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The low wages and lack of health benefits led him to clash with the company. He quit after two years and moved to Boston to join RTC in 2014.

RTC Boston brings six grassroots organizations together in the fight against gentrification and displacement: City Life/Vida Urbana, Chinese Progressive Association, New England United for Justice, Boston Workers Alliance, Alternatives for Community and Environment and Neighbors United for a Better East Boston. As RTC Boston coordinator, Johnson provides tools, resources and aid to these organizations. Together, they’re currently pushing for the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act, named after the late civil rights activist Jim Brooks. The bill would replace the current no-fault eviction law with a just cause eviction law, requiring landlords to provide a reason for eviction and to notify the City of Boston, enabling the city to collect data and inform tenants of their rights.

“It’s a lot of relational work, as well as just keeping the train moving,” says Johnson, who did an “e-blast” that morning, communicating with 3,000 people across the city about door-to-door canvassing efforts.

He rattles off a list of actions that member organizations led in March: a sit-in at Mayor Marty Walsh’s office for affordable housing, a rally against the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s controversial Plan JP/Rox meeting, a protest in Hyde Park over a real estate developer’s plans to renovate its apartments and increase the rent. If the just cause eviction law was in place, tenants would have “a bit longer to stay in apartments,” Johnson explains, “and it would give the city knowledge of who the bad actors are in Boston, arbitrarily raising the rent.”

Commitment to service

Not everyone welcomes the bill, which was debated for six hours at the March 6 city council hearing. Critics, largely real estate and landlord associations, argue that just cause eviction is rent control, which was banned in Massachusetts in 1994. They also claim that the bill would hurt small landlords already pressed for resources.

But Johnson keeps moving forward. If there’s one thing he has learned about housing justice advocacy, it’s that the train never stops. He tries to relax outside of work, listening to live music or playing classical piano. Lately, he’s been cooking more, in particular trying to master his mother’s fried chicken recipe, letting it sit long enough to fully cook. But he’s impatient. The chicken always burns. And there’s always another meeting to attend, another street to canvass, another funder to call.

“I was raised in a house of service — service to my church, to my community. I always tell folks, ‘This is my ministry,’” he says. “Opening my mouth and being a spokesperson for the marginalized community. I just don’t know any other way.”