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‘I can already see that happening,’ says Chickie Grayson of the prospect of widespread housing that blends market-rate and affordable units. ‘But it’s going to take a long time.’ (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Urban Land Institute recognizes Grayson

Chickie Grayson said she was defined as an “urban guerrilla” by Marion Pines, former executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, because she’s a member of a generation that wanted to live in the city and help create high-quality safe communities.

That drive to create better neighborhoods, partly inspired by the work of developer James Rouse, eventually led her to a job with Enterprise Homes as a project manager of affordable housing. She’s now the company’s president and CEO and will be the first woman honored with the Urban Land Institute District Council of Baltimore’s Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday.

“I feel like there are so many people that have done so much on affordable housing, and I’m just one of many people that has really helped to move the quality and the quantity of affordable housing forward during the last 20 to 30 years,” Grayson said.

Since she started with Enterprise Homes in 1987, she said, the construction of affordable homes has significantly changed. There’s now a much greater emphasis placed on the quality and variety of housing. There’s also more focus on aesthetics, such as providing green space and making sure properties reflect the surrounding community.

“If you go back and you look at properties that were built, well certainly in the ‘40s, they weren’t really built to last. And then there were a lot of properties built, probably in the ‘70s, that are kind of monolithic structures and built with a different concept of what affordable meant,” Grayson said.

There’s also been major shifts in how affordable housing is financed. Until the mid-1980s almost all funding was from direct federal funding or through a voucher system. Now, the majority of funding comes from the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which provides private financing for developments.

“You have the capital to be able to build a good quality building, and not have a lot of debt service, so that you can have lower rents for people, but there’s no ongoing subsidy,” Grayson said.

There are still challenges facing the developers of affordable housing in the Baltimore area. Builders still receive push back from communities wary of bringing in lower-income residents, particularly in more suburban settings. There’s also persistent challenges with financing, especially when trying to build housing with a mix of affordable and market rate homes, she said.

“It’s all about the financing and how you make your numbers work. If you don’t have high rents in an area then you can’t essentially combine them,” Grayson said.

Despite all the changes and challenges in the industry during her career, Grayson is upbeat about affordable housing’s future, and she believes that projects which mix affordable and market rate units will become increasingly common.

“I can already see that happening. But it’s going to take a long time. It’s going to take decades to help make that happen,” Grayson said.