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Local public housing activist receives national lifetime achievement award

Joy Johnson founded the Public Housing Association of Residents in 1998 to make sure the voices of public housing residents were heard when decisions were being made about their housing. She is also employed by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and still serves on the PHAR board. Still, on Wednesday, when the National Low Income Housing Coalition awarded her the 2021 Cushing Niles Dolbeare Lifetime Service Award, Johnson refused to take all the credit.

“I’m just the face of it,” Johnson said. “I’m just accepting this award on behalf of all of the people who have been involved in this because one person cannot do this work. There is no way one person can do it.”

The award is given yearly by the organization to someone who has demonstrated an unyielding commitment to achieving decent, accessible, affordable homes for low-income people over a long period of time.

Johnson insists that she would not be where she is today without the help and guidance of people who advocated for public housing residents in Charlottesville and around the country, and that she owes her success to their mentorship and collaborative work.

“This award is like a million dollars to me. It is an incredible honor,” Johnson said. “I’m accepting that award on behalf of all of the people who have been a part of this struggle, to be able to get to where we are.”

Johnson founded PHAR and still serves as its board chair. She is currently employed as a Section Three coordinator by the CRHA. She is the vice president of the board of the Legal Aid Justice Center. She currently serves on the local steering committee of the Equity Center at the University of Virginia Housing Committee, the CRHA chain redevelopment committee, the UVa Billing and Collections Advisory Council, PHAR’s Residents for Respectful Research Advisory Committee and the Charlottesville Housing Advisory Committee. Johnson served on the NLIHC board for nine and a half years.

Johnson recently has been credited with being instrumental in advocating for the renovation of Crescent Halls, a public housing facility primarily for seniors and people with disabilities.

The honor is especially meaningful to Johnson because she counted Dolbeare, its namesake, as a close personal friend and mentor. Dolbeare was considered one of the leading experts on federal housing policy and the housing circumstances of low-income people, and was widely known as the godmother of the affordable housing advocacy movement.

“She was just humble, she didn’t want any credit. She just wanted to make absolutely sure that we learned how to be able to influence people. She laid a foundation for us to fight for and influence affordable housing,” Johnson said. “A lot of the stuff that she was able to pass on to me I’ve passed on to PHAR and I’ve tried to pass it on to the city.”

Johnson became involved in public housing leadership and activism in 1983, when she moved into Charlottesville public housing. Her children were involved in the Head Start program in their residence and she soon became involved, as well.

She was later asked to read a statement at a housing authority meeting, and soon developed a passion for public housing advocacy when she realized how many residents’ needs weren’t being met. She decided to start attending meetings with groups that were advocating for equitable and affordable housing.

“Whenever I would speak at the meetings, people would ask if I was speaking for the residents or for myself. Hell, yeah, I was speaking for myself, but I am also a resident in public housing, so what affects me affects other people,” Johnson said.

After years of serving on various public housing boards, Johnson founded PHAR in 1998 as a citywide residents association for public housing and Section Eight residents because she and other public housing leaders saw a need for a citywide organization.

Under Johnson’s leadership, PHAR filed a class-action lawsuit against CRHA in 2012 for excessive utility fees, formed partnerships with local and national housing advocacy networks and created the PHAR internship program, a six-month program that aims to provide public housing residents with leadership and advocacy skills to secure well-paying jobs, work as housing advocates and serve on city boards and commissions.

Prior to working with CRHA, Johnson served for 21 years as an outreach coordinator for the Westhaven nursing clinic, helping neighbors to access preventive health care from parish nurses and organizing the annual Westhaven Community Day.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and when I started out, I was that child. There are so many families and friends that make up my village. The name of my village is affordable housing, which boosts public housing for extremely low-income people,” Johnson said in her acceptance speech. “I want to thank everyone who supported … and spent time with me for me to learn and gain the knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of housing and human rights.”

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, were also recognized with housing leadership awards for their work for public housing in Congress during Wednesday’s ceremony. The National Housing Law Project’s Housing Justice Network was also honored.


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