Turning the Heat: An Interview with Tina Johnson

The Urban Design Forum’s 2019 Forefront Fellowship, Turning the Heat, addressed ways urban practitioners can advance climate justice principles across New York City. In partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, Fellows surveyed neighborhoods, studied buildings, interviewed local and international stakeholders, and produced creative research on mitigating heat. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on creating circular economic and sustainable models in NYC, developing community resiliency within NYCHA housing, factoring design into preventative care, and establishing a climate first approach to housing which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
The following interview with Tina Johnson, founding member of the We Act for Environmental Justice membership steering committee, accompanies Community Resiliency. Read the full set of Turning the Heat proposals and interviews here.

Rhonda-Lee Davis: How could we foster discussions around resident-led strategies for resiliency on NYCHA campuses?

Tina Johnson: There’s a problem with how people look at NYCHA like, “NYCHA is over there. They’re on that campus.” It replicates the isolation that people experience when they’re living there, because the problem is always “over there.”

If you want to talk about issues with NYCHA buildings, people don’t understand that NYCHA is subject to different rules than a private landlord. NYCHA is governed by rules that come from HUD. For many years, we were told, “Oh, you should call 311 about that.” Actually, I can’t call 311. “Yes, you can.” These discussions deteriorate into an assumption that the NYCHA resident hasn’t tried to follow through. Now, sometimes that is the case. But in many cases, people are actively trying to address their issues.

Once these issues started coming out into the media, and there were all these scandals, many people were apologetic, like, “I didn’t know that was it.” Well, you would have known that was it if you looked at me as a person, and you listened to me, and you didn’t see NYCHA tattooed across my forehead.

NYCHA residents are also afraid to talk to each other. I’ve lived there my whole life, so my story in the Grant Houses is intergenerational. I have to know people, because I have to keep face, I come from a big family. I have a different foundation to hold on to. But some of the people that move in are not keyed into that core. Maybe they came out of a homeless shelter, or maybe they’re coming from another development somewhere else. A lot of people look for a way to distinguish themselves, to say, “I’m one of the good ones. I’m not part of all those stereotypes.”

The problems that exist with NYCHA are certainly around physical plan, but there is also a mental health burden. It’s coming into public spaces and feeling like you have to hide where you’re from, or coming up against stereotypes. The way that things are now, it’s going to take too long to coax these stereotypes out of people.

That’s why I feel like an urban design structure would be the best way to tackle this problem, because it’s dynamic. You could talk about things like: what is the value of the campus? What are the values of the old growth trees? Out of the percentage of old growth trees in Manhattan, how many of them are on NYCHA campuses? What about if we split it up and we start building buildings on parking lots and parks, is that going to decrease the value of the land? Can we reinterpret the green space so that people can have growing beds, or gardens and take ownership?

So that’s one part. But then you also could get past the stereotypes, and people could start to conceptualize the value of NYCHA campuses.

RLD: My team has been thinking extensively about the idea of a social hub and the intricacies that go into successfully creating social cohesion. We’ve also been thinking about what that means for the large senior population of NYCHA.

TJ: I have found that it’s better to think of social cohesion in the process of other activities.

Rather than just thinking that we need a center where people can meet, we need to first think about what would make a center work.

We’d have to have babysitters. We’d have to have food. If you think about all those other things that go with it, then maybe you can find other arenas for those activities.

If I had a community center, maybe I would have the groups run by seniors. I would have some of the youth teach seniors how to use computers. If there were seniors that didn’t want to do computers, maybe they wanted to help the little kids with their homework. This would foster an atmosphere of social cohesion between the old people, the young people, and the middle generation.

Grant Houses, Photo: Creative Commons

RLD: What way is there for people to NYCHA residents engage in community action?

TJ: There’s the typical way that people would engage: identifying the issue, organizing around it, and putting pressure on the people that can make decisions. It’s possible to do that within NYCHA. But at the same time as that is happening inside NYCHA, it is equally as important for the outside community to embrace it.

For that to happen, social cohesion activities should also invite interaction with the surrounding community. For instance, where I live, people will come over to the NYCHA campus to walk their dogs. I would not be against having a dog run where the people who own dogs in NYCHA, and the people who own dogs outside come together and foster relationships. For every problem, there’s an opportunity. The land is part of a community.

The rules and the laws would have to be changed internally. But if we can make the ownership of NYCHA campuses happen by the community and by the taxpayers, that’s also a way to take it out of the realm of the tenants against NYCHA.

Even though I live in NYCHA and NYCHA makes the rules that govern living in the apartment, NYCHA doesn’t control my humanity.

It doesn’t control who I’m able to talk to, who I’m able to work with. Working across the table to increase pressure from rank and file citizens would help the rank and file tenants. Right now, all the discussions are in the realm of policy-speak, legal-speak, and no one really understands. But the issues are very simple.

RLD: I’m really interested in questions, legalese, issues, and concerns around repairs. Do you have any insight on the process and improvements that need to be made to how repairs are handled?

TJ: My development had the highest number of pest complaints and none of them were addressed. Then, when the media asked NYCHA why they weren’t addressing them, they said, “We didn’t have the money.” But it did not stop an assistant manager from telling me, “That’s not our fault. It’s your fault. This is the way you live.”

We have to advance the conversation past that. People need to say, “Enough is enough.”

When you go to these websites, and you look at the repair schedule and budget, you have the developments with the worst problems getting the attention first. But they’re not going to be righted until four years from now, and then they still have to do the people who weren’t at the top of the list.

In the meantime, there’s all this pressure for privatization. It’s a scheme that only covers maybe 20% of the budget shortfall in exchange for a 35-year lease and a new development. If you’re going to build a new building, it makes more sense to me to build the building, take the people out of the worst buildings, put them in the new building, and then fix the old building and bring homeless people in there or whatever the case is. Create a dynamic pipeline. But right now, the problem is being looked at in a linear manner.

RLD: When I was looking at these repair charts, the number of repairs are going up and up, and people are waiting longer each year.

TJ: I have a ticket open that will be going on being open for three years in March or April. About five or six people have come to my house over this three-year period to verify that I need this work done. They’re not fixing anything.

As a tenant, you wonder where the breakdown in communication is happening. There’s no transparency with the repairs. I should be able to go to the MyNYCHA website and see what’s happening in real time. If I can’t do that, then I can’t trust that the work that you did was done. This has been one of the major issues between NYCHA and their tenants.

There is a mental load. I feel it from my neighbors as well. It keeps them from wanting to get involved and try to fix things, because they feel like no one’s listening to them.

RLD: It seems like people are trying to do this work on behalf of the community, but it doesn’t seem like NYCHA is supporting these efforts.

TJ: Yes. For example, there have been several people who have tried to tackle the recycling issue. NYCHA claims that it recycles, but it doesn’t. When there are people that want to come in and actually do the work, for some reason, it’s not allowed. The recycling trainings were insufficient, and the equipment required to have a successful recycling program was not in place. It’s almost like the tenants are being held to a higher standard that you can’t meet. And people are using it to degrade you.

RLD: The idea of NYCHA now residents having to be the ones who are arguing for recycling or having food co-ops, on top of addressing basic needs, seems like just another level of mental stress.

TJ: I agree. I think that many people of color who moved into NYCHA came here during certain periods. When the opportunity became available to move into NYCHA, many communities moved in together. I consider my buildings like a small town and small community. There’s this cultural continuum that is very strong. People are replicating the systems that they brought to the city as a way to organize themselves and to have support systems. Through this lens, you see public housing not just purely from a socioeconomic standpoint, but also as a place of internationalism, because now we have Africans, South Asians— it mimics the larger society.

But there are survival systems from the historic movement of people that persist. And those survival systems, unfortunately, instead of being celebrated, understood, shared and respected, have become a code. Public housing has been developing out of sight and people have known for a long time ,“I’m on my own.” So they organize accordingly.

RLD: How did you become a community organizer? What are some of the recommendations you have for us when engaging with tenant organizers?

TJ: I started to react around 2010 when I realized that repairs were needed in my apartment that weren’t just basic maintenance. These are things that I had been dealing with for decades. I had the wall taken apart between my kitchen and my bathroom, and then I had to wait nine months for them to close it up. But then it wasn’t over— it was just slowly coming back as if they did all of that for nothing. Then I started noticing and taking pictures of the outside of buildings. And I thought, I wonder if there’s a correlation between the two.

I know a lot of the older seniors that are politically active and one of them suggested that I run for Tenant Association (TA) president. Little by little I started getting involved. I wrote a grant to provide free CPR and first aid training to people that ran home daycares and also to youth who were interested in some sort of entrepreneurial employment experience. After I did that, I decided to get involved in the TA Association.

I later decided that I was going to get involved with WE ACT. At the time, WE ACT was doing the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan envisioning. I wanted to learn more about what was happening around me to see if there were other people going through what I’m going through.

After the Climate Action plan was finished, I got involved in building an emergency preparedness kiosk on the Manhattanville campus. We wanted to reimagine the space so that it would function as an area for social cohesion, for education, and for community engagement. I later decided to become an employee of WE ACT because I love the organization. Whatever I do, whatever I accomplish, is going to benefit my community. That was a huge factor in deciding to apply for a position, but the biggest thing was the opportunity to learn, grow, get experience, and become more powerful to affect change.

I feel gratitude to be able to do this work, and I want to make sure that this kind of work is available. We need sounding boards for the community. They might not be called WE ACT, but this is a model that needs to be perpetuated and that I’m dedicated to that right now.

Tina Johnson is a life-long resident of New York City from West Harlem, since birth a resident of NYCHA General Grant Houses, and a devoted member of We Act for Environmental Justice (West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.) She is a founding member of the We Act for Environmental Justice membership steering committee and was elected by the membership as President for the first two year term and re-elected to the committee for a second term as a general executive board member. In July 2019 Ms. Johnson was appointed for a three year term to the Mayor’s NYC Environmental Justice Advisory Board. Ms. Johnson is also a current fellow in the Pursuit.org 7.2 Software, Coding, and Development Fellowship.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or position of the Urban Design Forum or its Forefront Fellows. Any content or opinion contained within the interview is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Header image credit: Cornerstones of NYC via Flickr