From India to Community Board 11: John Johnson reflects on his cross continental journey

CB 11 member John Johnson
Courtesy of John Johnson

At age 4 John Johnson immigrated to America from India and since then has been a lifelong Bronxite. In 2020 he was appointed to Community Board 11.

Johnson spent the early part of his life in the south Bronx, where the 48-year-old recalled how fires and violence were normal. With abandoned buildings, empty lots and unsafe surroundings, it was not the safest area, he said.

But, they played handball and stickball and had fun outside.

His parents, John George and Theresa John, worked all day and made sure he took the same path home from school.

“Being Indian and living in that area you are raised in a culture that’s a lot different to what you are seeing,” he explained. “Poverty became the norm. As a child you don’t know if you’re poor, it’s just the way of life.”

Everything changed when he relocated to the Community Board 12 area and began attending Cardinal Spellman High School. It was like entering a new world, he explained.

Kids had nice cars and he saw how much of a difference there was between the private catholic school and the south Bronx. Instead of hanging in the street, Johnson was now going to parties at people’s homes.

“It’s a whole different lifestyle,” he stated.

Johnson attended City College for urban development and in 1996, started his career in public service as a fraud investigator for the New York City Department of Homeless Services. He quickly rose to the title of director before moving in 1999 to the City Department of Juvenile Justice as director of operations.

In 2001, Johnson left city service to join a nonprofit, soon becoming the deputy executive director of an $80 million organization, which served clients in all five boroughs. In 2017, he returned to city government as the assistant commissioner for operations under the Department of Homeless Services.

He was responsible for over 600 buildings in that position. Within a year, he was promoted to chief of development, overseeing the construction of new shelters, handling temporary hotel capacity and managing a contracting department with over $1.7 billion in contracting capacity.

Over the years Johnson has seen how shelters work in the city and their impact on communities. He told the Bronx Times that shelters cannot just be a place to sleep, but the city must make sure people get the job training and supportive services to get people back on their feet.

“You don’t just house people,” he commented. “You’re keeping people poor and that’s what people don’t realize. We’re just building more shelters and keeping people down.”

After leaving city service in 2019, Johnson served as chief development officer for a Bronx nonprofit until 2020, when he became full time principal owner of TREDA, Inc., a consulting firm that caters to nonprofits, housing developers and landlords who develop temporary/transitional and permanent housing with and without supportive services.

During his years of service, he also met his wife Janet, who works for DHS and they relocated to Pelham Gardens in CB 11 in 1998 where he lives with his two sons and mother.

In his first year on the community board, he stressed the need for more jobs and affordable and supportive housing. COVID-19 has impacted NYC, but really hurt the Bronx.

“The lifeline of our neighborhood is the small businesses,” he said. “If we let them fail everything will take a downturn. We need things that generate income.”

Johnson, who sits on the land use committee, wants to change the perception of shelters. He is worried that post pandemic evictions will skyrocket and more people will be on the streets.

He even went as far as to say landlords could stop paying mortgages and return to having kids burn down buildings like they did in the 70s.

“You can manage shelters and do the right thing if you have accountability,” he remarked.

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