Michele Johnson, East Side housing activist, fought to keep the slumlords out

Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB — An East Side activist who was known for standing toe-to-toe with slumlords, as well as local politicians is being remembered.

Michele Johnson was a dedicated wife and mother of four, who loved Buffalo with a passion and despised those who would exploit this city to line their pockets. Some of the first Call 4 Action stories on home flipping — the fraudulent kind — and out of town slumlords, were inspired by Michele Johnson.

“Michele was very much a trailblazer with respect to a lot of things that we were doing back in Housing Court,” said State Supreme Court Justice Henry Nowak, recalling his days as Buffalo Housing Court judge, as well as the ideas Michele Johnson brought to the table. “We converted it into more of a problem-solving court.”

That is when the city’s annual tax foreclosure auction drew investors, and would-be investors, from across the country and around the world — leading to scams and out of town slumlords — and protesters fighting back.

“Showing people that we are serious, and that we are not going to allow things to happen in our city, and stand back and watch you do it every year,” Johnson once said regarding the protests.

Scammers often came to town, buying up dozens of properties and flipping them for huge profits, sometimes fraudulently. That would leave tenants in unlivable conditions, and unsuspecting buyers holding the bag. Johnson would demand justice from public officials.

“It’s fraudulent misrepresentation,” she said. “Saying you are buying in a high rent area, buying a beautiful property that is in terrific shape, needs no work, and then find out you have a shell.”

Michele’s dedication to the cause also inspired a local filmmaker to produce a documentary about property flipping, which has been shown in other cities, and inspired a mayor to take control, clearing away dilapidated property from a newly renovated school.

“It is depressing,” she said. “I mean all this money we put into the school, and this is one the kids look at every day and walk past every day, it had to come down.”

While Michele would turn to other causes, such as the Central Terminal, Judge Nowak said she is leaving a lasting legacy in housing.

“She educated everybody else that was involved in the process, and city building inspectors owe her a great deal of gratitude because of how much she helped them try to figure out exactly what was going on,” he said.

To save some of the craftsmanship in Buffalo’s older housing stock, Michele Johnson promoted the re-use of housing components, like windows and doors, during demolition. Michele passed away on Christmas Day, at home. She was 54.

Al Vaughters is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 1994. See more of his work here. To submit a Call 4 Action, click here.

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