“It’s not just banging nails. It’s engineering. It’s architecture. We need young people to realize they can make a good living.”
Boston is in a building boom. Did you know most of the workers on the city’s construction sites today are neither Boston residents nor people of color (who make up at least 53% of the city’s population)?
JPNDC is honored to partner in our new Small Contractors Initiative with Arnold Johnson, a successful construction business owner who has dedicated much of his career to changing that reality. In this post, we’re speaking with Arnold about his experience and his vision for getting more Boston residents of color into the well-paying construction business and taking back control of their neighborhoods.
Tell me about yourself and how you got your business started.
Well, I grew up in Roxbury and attended English High School. From there I went to UMass Amherst. When I came back from college in the late 70s, there wasn’t really much employment. I started working for Cities Service Oil Company. Later my friends and I started a small business that did repairs, landscaping and other things. But when the city started building new houses, we noticed that the houses they were building were so small and that they needed to extend their footprint. So we responded to a Request for Proposals from the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association and built 14 brand new units of homeownership housing.
After that, we had to hone our craft. At that time the partners were myself, George Chin and Edward Ferry. So we went to Wentworth IT and took night classes to learn about construction management. We wanted to have a contingent of people of color building houses because, in this part of the country, you didn’t see that. We started the company with all people of color.
Now Crosswinds has been in business for more than 30 years. One of our early jobs came from JPNDC, working on one of the Back of the Hill projects right off of Heath Street. We’ve probably worked for every CDC in Boston! About 10 years ago, we went to the next level beyond general contracting, and became developers. We did Washington Commons, MLK, Brenton Street, and Elmore Street.
How did you become so interested in housing and construction?
When I was growing up in Boston I never saw new houses being built. All that was available was existing housing inventory. The square footage was too small and that causes tension. We had a need for good housing that could actually support families. And what you need in any community is choices. But in the neighborhoods of color, our choices were already made for us without our input.
As a business, we wanted to have a voice so that the people buying the houses would have a choice. And we wanted to make sure that the quality was the same as the market rate.
What do you think Boston’s biggest housing challenge is?
Part of Boston’s housing problem now is that “affordable housing” is just a name. In 1999, a two-family home was around $189,000. Now, in 2018, they’re somewhere around $800,000. The “affordable housing” units available for sale now can go for almost $300,000. However, if you go somewhere like Georgia or in the mid-Atlantic you can get a really nice house for around that price. So what that does for Boston is move the truly “affordable housing” to the far outskirts of the city like Brockton.
So Boston’s inner city is now attractive for gentrifiers. Now, in Roxbury, you have white people walking their dogs in the morning and that’s not something you’ve ever seen around here. Before, you couldn’t even get pizza delivered here.
But I think you can prepare a neighborhood for progress without pushing the residents out by having them be ready to receive opportunities. So that when the moment arrives, they’re ready for it.
How do you get people ready for new opportunities?
The only way we can do that is to have education and programs like JPNDC preparing people to take advantage of the next economic wave. JPNDC working with small businesses and trying to establish mentorships: that goes a long way. When people are committed to improving their businesses and supporting other businesses with mentorship, that’ll make a socio-economic impact. That’s the way history works.
I see our own company as proof. When Crosswinds first started we had over 20 people working for us even though, at the time, unemployment for people of color was probably twice as high as the regular unemployment rate. In the last 20 to 25 years, our workers have been able to send their kids off to college and gain marketable skills.
What is needed for Boston’s construction industry to have that kind of impact on a larger scale?
The problem now is that there is a lot of work out there but there aren’t a lot of skilled workers. There are plenty of people who need jobs but they’re not trained to do what is available.
And now general contracting and building is so widespread. It’s not just banging nails. It’s engineering. It’s architecture. It’s 3D modeling. It encompasses a lot of disciplines. We need young people to get involved in it and realize they can make a good living.
Unfortunately, Boston hasn’t shown a big enough commitment to doing that. If you go to Canton and look at Blue Hills Regional Technical School, the parking lot is full. It’s full of plumbers, electricians and other business owners and they’re there to hone their skills. At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School here in Boston, in contrast, to me it seems like they’re actually steering the kids away from blue-collar work and business ownership. It’s an excellent resource but after a six-week program the kids are learning just enough to be confused: “What do I do now?” The other day when we went over there to a carpentry class, there was only one person who wanted to be a carpenter!
Improving the vocational school would be great for the whole community. And there also needs to be long-term support beyond training programs. We need programs that make you feel like you’re a part of it forever. When you’re starting a business you have questions all the time and someone should be there to answer them for you. Mentorship in its true form is for a lifetime. You can be in business for twenty years but if you have your mentor, you can still turn to them and ask, “what do I do next?”
The other problem is that we have contracting companies taking millions and millions out of the neighborhood without employing or empowering people in the neighborhood. I think it should be required that they mentor or do something to sustain the neighborhood.
When you don’t have proper housing or proper jobs, you can’t have a proper neighborhood. The only way to alleviate that is for people in the neighborhood to be interested in that neighborhood and their own people. They should want the people in that neighborhood to be successful. Repeated failure leaves the door open for these companies to swoop in and restructure your neighborhood as they see fit.
You’re very involved as a mentor in JPNDC’s new initiative for small contractors of color. What is that like?
It’s the most rewarding thing for me to see people taking advantage of programs offered to better the community, like what JPNDC does. As an owner of a minority business, I’ve gone through almost everything. Being a mentor, and passing that information on to my mentees, I know I’m helping them face challenges and be as successful as possible.
There should be a waiting list for technical assistance programs, and programs like what JPNDC offers. They should be bursting at the seams with people wanting to find ways to support their neighborhood and, by extension, themselves.
What are the challenges that Crosswinds has faced?
What’s been hardest business-wise has been gaining access to working capital and a network that’s outside of the neighborhood. A lot of times the only option for both of those problems are community development corporations like JPNDC. That puts you in a box because a majority company can leave the city and make a living. We want our business and our mentees to be a good business, not just a “good minority business.” We want to be a good business that just happens to be operated by minorities.
Perception is another challenge. When we go into meetings about a particular project, a lot of the time our own industry doesn’t see us as the developer, or even a contractor. They think we’re subcontractors! It seems like they need you there to just put some color in it. We’re not perceived to be in that arena. And over time, you find yourself internalizing all of that because sometimes we feel like we’re not supposed to be there either.
How has your business benefited you and your community?
For my family, the business is providing a living. I see an exponential effect on the people that work for us and their families because all of them have bought houses, sent their kids to school and just socio-economically been able to join the mainstream. It’s provided an opportunity for sustainability. When you train someone, you can’t take that way. They can go anywhere and get a job and be in demand. We’ve done a small part to empower the people in the community so that they can have choices.
We have so many young people who are depressed and have anxiety because they think they’re less than. When I see my children doing well – and I think of my workers as my children, too – I feel good. And when their children are doing well, I feel better.
People of color are always being told what is good for them. You have 25 square feet for this. You can only go so far in school. But when you have advocates and mentors, you increase your sphere of influence. Like they say, “a rising tide raises all folks.” So this business is important because it’s important to see our people be successful. When you pass it forward and that person does the same thing, it empowers the whole neighborhood. And the biggest thing we need to pass forward right now is hope.