Meet the Community Activist Who’s Standing Up to Gentrification
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Marcinia Johnson has witnessed people losing their homes and isn’t taking it lying down.
By Toyloy Brown III
Marcinia Johnson moved with her family to Charlotte, North Carolina, when she was 7. Her mom had fallen in love with the city of just under 1 million people, and it took no time for the younger Johnson to take to its gentle pace, temperate weather and vibrant energy. But a decade later, she’s identified a growing problem in her community, and she’s fighting to fix it.
“We don’t have enough affordable housing here,” says Johnson, a rising senior at Bennett College, a historically Black institution for women in Greensboro, North Carolina. Johnson is also among the 2021 class of OZY Genius Award winners, chosen to receive a grant to advance her project to combat gentrification in Charlotte.
Johnson, a political science major at Bennett College, knows that she’s got her work cut out for her. “It’s just going to be an ongoing fight,” she says. But she’s prepared to dig in and protect the interests of those who are most in need of protection from the real threats posed by gentrification: Charlotte’s senior citizens who are at risk of being displaced.
“[The elderly have] been living here for many years,” says Johnson. “They were the ones who asked to see the changes in rent over time, and they’ve been going through the foreclosures, relocating [from] their own homes or apartments or [when] housing has been torn down.”
One part of Johnson’s plan is to create transportation vouchers for residents forced to leave their communities so they can stay connected to family and friends, as well as travel to their jobs. Another part is working with her church, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, to solidify partnerships with housing organizations in her community to help them identify ways to better accommodate senior citizens.
Johnson has dedicated herself to helping the vulnerable — she plans to become a defense attorney for people with mental disabilities — but this issue has roots that reach back years. Soon after moving to Charlotte, she noticed the costs of living creeping up in her city. Renting a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house cost about $800 per month when she was younger. Today, rents have nearly doubled, with similar-sized homes costing roughly $1,400, she says.
The impact of gentrification really hit home the day it landed right on her doorstep. Her family was living in a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying and, unbeknownst to them, foreclosures were taking place all around them. “I remembered my house that I used to stay in one of those neighborhoods for foreclosure but I didn’t know. . . . My family didn’t know anything about it,” Johnson recalls. “Until one day, the people came and they just knocked on our door, and we were like, ‘We paid the rent.’ And they were like ‘your home is for foreclosure.’ What are we supposed to do? With you telling us that we got to leave our home because you’re selling to other people? It’s just not fair.”
That sense of injustice from watching what her family — as well as many other families in her area — endured accompanied her to college, where Johnson’s interest in helping her community was given another boost. Last year, the entire student body at Bennett was visited virtually by Kathleen Cadungog, who discussed the 2015 launch of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. As part of the discussion, students were asked about issues affecting their communities that they felt are important to change. Johnson spoke up, describing how too many Charlotte residents were getting priced out of their homes; in response, Bennett connected her with Gwendolyn Bookman, an attorney and a member of the department of social and behavioral sciences who helped Johnson formulate her anti-gentrification idea.
Even with the support of her school, Johnson knows that this undertaking will take time and she will need the help of others in her Charlotte community. Among her hometown mentors is Michelene Matthews, a member of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church who has known Johnson since her sophomore year in high school.
“I’m so proud of her,” says Matthews. “She is a hard worker, she’s dedicated, she’s committed to whatever she decides to get involved in.”
Johnson is determined to give back to her community for a very simple reason. “Because they helped me to where I am today.”
- Toyloy Brown III, OZY Author Contact Toyloy Brown III