Chrystal Kornegay

6 min read

Community activist lured into government

When Republican candidate Charles D. Baker lost the 2010 race for governor of Massachusetts to Democrat Deval Patrick, largely on the basis of blue collar and liberal enclaves throughout the state, he went into the political wilderness for a lot of personal reflection and soul-searching. What did he have to change and what and to whom did he have to pay attention if he was ever to attempt a political resurrection?

That resurrection occurred just four years later, in the next gubernatorial election cycle, and from numerous accounts the now self-styled Charlie Baker came back a different candidate and a different man. Much to the chagrin of some of his hard-core conservative backers, he decided to reach out to some of those he had largely bypassed the last go-round.

One of his most significant outreaches was to Chrystal Kornegay, president and chief executive of Urban Edge, which worked with residents in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury on housing and development. Urban Edge, a national leader in community development, is dedicated, according to its mission statement, “to strengthening communities and families. Together, we build affordable housing and vibrant, prosperous neighborhoods.” Chrystal had worked her way up from project manager and director of real estate, to deputy director, to the top spot. Prior to Urban Edge, she was a project manager for The Community Builders, Inc.

A lifelong Democrat, Chrystal admitted to being a “little surprised” by Baker’s interest. She was a dynamic community activist and in the last campaign, Baker had shown little interest in organizations dedicated to revitalizing low-income urban neighborhoods. But she showed him around, and shared her philosophy. Baker was impressed by what he heard and saw, and returned several times, often unannounced, to talk with Chrystal about the problems she daily addressed.

“I like a person who listens and reflects,” she told the Boston Globe.

When Baker defeated former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, he appointed Chrystal to his transition team as co-chair of the advisory committee on community issues. When Baker took office, he appointed her chief and undersecretary of the State Department of Housing and Community Development. In that role, she is in charge of overseeing a department that provides leadership, professional assistance and financial resources to promote safe, decent affordable housing opportunities, economic vitality and sound municipal management across the commonwealth.

When this reporter asked her what it was like to be a high government official now or “the Man,” she replied, “Oh, sweetie, I was always ‘the Man’!”

Throughout her more than two decades in community development, Chrystal’s passion for creating projects and programs that result in stronger neighborhoods and communities for modest income working families has been strongly in evidence. During her leadership of Urban Edge, she combined what has been characterized as a laser focus on excellence, combined with keen business management skills that resulted in a 20 percent growth in revenue, a ten percent growth in the affordable housing portfolio and a ten percent growth in the number of households served.

Her own background led her to appreciate the critical importance of stable housing. “One of my first jobs was at a local community-based development corporation, dealing with workforce programs. I got to see up-close that even with the desire to get ahead, some people couldn’t finish the program because of their housing situation. I also saw that what people thought they could be was what they saw around them, whether that was a drug dealer or a civil servant. If there were no architects around them, say, that never occurred to them. Those things got me thinking about the idea that where you live determines who you think you are and what you think your life choices are.”

As she told the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations on the 30th anniversary of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, “My situational housing issues helped me understand just how critical housing stability is. Housing instability impacts life beyond finances. Worrying about it can consume you and leave little room to think beyond where you’re going to sleep that night.”

Jeffrey W. Sacks, a partner in the Boston office of Nixon Peabody, wrote, “She is fairly obsessed with figuring out what stabilizes a neighborhood.”

“People who know me well know that I come from a perspective that everyone wants to do good things,” she comments. “It’s about how you get those good things done. You have to become someone others can trust and know that you care about them. But I’m much more interested in outcome than process, as long as we keep moving forward.”

Chrystal’s deep belief that service and partnership are keys to increased social equity led to her service on numerous boards and advisory committees, including the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) and the National Housing Trust. She is known for her directness, combined with a well-developed good sense of humor. When she was being interviewed to join Urban Edge, she was asked how it was going to be different if she came on board. “People are going to laugh more,” she responded.

Samantha Kaufman, deputy director of communications for the Office Housing and Economic Development, says, “All of us would say Chrystal brings a lot of energy and inspires us to think critically about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how we can work best for the people of Massachusetts. She has truly invigorated Mass Housing.”

Chrystal is passionate about cities and enjoys travelling to discover more of them for herself. When she’s not in the office, out in the community or on the road, she enjoys spending time with family and friends.

A native of Brooklyn, NY (“Brooklyn girls are the best in the world!”), Chrystal is a 2012 graduate of the Achieving Excellence Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She holds a MA in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA in urban planning from Hunter College. In 2014, she was awarded a fellowship from the Barr Foundation, dedicated to providing quality education, mitigating climate change, and enhancing cultural vitality, “in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to greater Boston.”

As an activist and urban advocate, Chrystal has shown her ability to deal with a broad range of people and see her vision through, both inside and outside the halls of government. “The difference is how much more difficult a setting government is to get good things done. And in a democracy, it should be.

“In this job, you have to be thinking about all the communities – not just Roxbury or Egleston. And the tools and policy and the way good things may be achieved vary from community to community. The trick is, how do you thread the needle to maximize what people on the ground can actually get done?”

As a final thought, she adds, “We work hard. We just make it look easy!”