Talking Heads, Chickie Grayson, Enterprise Homes, Inc.: Offering a Slice of the American Dream

9 min read

Few people have achieved the level of success expanding access to affordable housing and homeownership opportunities in the mid-Atlantic region as Chickie Grayson, President and CEO of Enterprise Homes, Inc.

For the past 27 years, the last 18 as chief executive officer, Chickie has combined common sense with intellect, determination and compassion in running a firm whose primary mission is developing high-quality, affordable housing that creates mixed-income communities.

A native of Baltimore, Md., Grayson earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Maryland where she researched bureaucrats’ attitudes toward the people they serve. In 1975, the School of Health Services at the Johns Hopkins University hired her to run a research project on doctor-patient relationships. She served a 12-year tenure at Hopkins, teaching doctors how to communicate with patients.

“At the same time, I started to really get into being involved in the city and the growth in the city and doing rehab in communities,” Grayson told the Baltimore Sun back in 2002.

That led her to apply for a project manager position at Enterprise Homes, the development arm of Enterprise Community Partners (formerly known as Enterprise Foundation), which renowned developer and urban visionary Jim Rouse and his wife Patty co-founded in 1982 with an ambitious vision of ending poverty in the U.S.

To date, Enterprise Homes has developed over 6,000 for-sale and rental homes, of which 1,800 units are affordable for seniors. Last year, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Baltimore District Council of The Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Grayson to discuss her long and distinguished career and her future plans.

Tax Credit Advisor: How did your career as a researcher and teacher at Johns Hopkins prepare you for the world of affordable housing development?

Chickie Grayson: There have been a number of events in my life that led me to affordable housing development. First, my father owned a clothing/household goods store in East Baltimore. I worked there as a teenager and had the opportunity to see another slice of life from where I grew up. I learned first-hand that my middle class upbringing was not enjoyed by many other people and through this experience developed an interest in trying to help others. Second, by studying communication skills and teaching them, you learn that everything is about communication. Development is a very people-oriented business and therefore communication and relationships are king. Third, I was a young adult and growing up in the late sixties when William Donald Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore City. His enthusiasm, love for Baltimore and tenacious desire to make big positive changes were infectious and I got caught up in the revitalization of Baltimore, along with many others.

TCA: NH&RA has created a forum for young professionals as a way to cultivate future industry leaders. What advice would you give young people who are thinking about becoming developers?

Grayson: Here are a few questions I would ask. Do you like to learn? Do you like to know that your day is planned but many things will happen to derail that plan? Do you have ADHD or any attention disorders? It helps to have one since you have to keep so many balls in the air and keep them all moving forward at the same time. Are you tenacious? Do you like to solve problems – big and small? If they can answer yes, then they are well-suited to be a developer.

TCA: What distinguishes Enterprise Homes from other developers?

Grayson: We focus on a variety of products to help create value for people. When Jim and Patty Rouse founded Enterprise 30 years ago, they looked at different ways affordable housing could be delivered in communities throughout the mid-Atlantic region. At first, we only focused on homeownership with the belief that we are trying to revitalize communities in Baltimore and provide opportunities for people to live a slice of the American dream by owning a home and building equity. As the company has evolved, we continue to build for-sale housing but have integrated apartment communities into our work. We provide a variety of homes for individuals and families, recognizing their different needs.

TCA: How does your homeownership program work? Do you offer lease to own opportunities for your renters?

Grayson: We have a few different approaches. We do direct homeownership where we build homes and sell them direct to consumers just like any homebuilder. We also do lease to purchase. In one instance, we set aside 30 homes in a HOPE VI project in Washington, DC, for former public housing residents. They received job training and later a job. They needed at least two years of work history to qualify for a mortgage, so it took anywhere from three to six years before they qualified. More recently, we completed a development comprised of 48 townhomes financed by low-income housing tax credits that will be leased for the first 15 years and then offered for sale to the residents after the compliance period ends.

TCA: One of the ways that Enterprise Homes promotes itself is by linking quality affordable housing to good jobs, good schools, transit and health care. How are you able to accomplish this?

Grayson: It’s all about selecting sites that make those linkages possible. We make sure the sites we seek are close to jobs, transportation and healthcare. When you focus almost exclusively on urban development it’s not difficult to make those linkages.

TCA: In 2007, your organization introduced its award- winning “Enterprise Green Communities Criteria.” How did that come about?

Grayson: This initiative was started by Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., which is the parent of the Enterprise family of companies. Enterprise believes opportunity begins when people have a safe, healthy and affordable place to call home. Through our affiliation with Enterprise, we became one of the first developers in the country to embrace the green building movement. We start at the very beginning of the design process and work with architects, engineers and general contractors to incorporate as many green features as possible. Codes have been changing and local governments have developed even more stringent building codes that surpass Enterprise Green Communities or LEED Silver, which I see as a positive development for affordable housing.

TCA: What recent project are you most proud of?

Grayson: I can’t tell you who my favorite child is. We are building many exciting and diverse communities. There is Mulberry at Park, a 68-unit property that we had a groundbreaking for on July 28 with Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard Young and Ken Holt, the Housing Secretary for Maryland. It’s an affordable/work-force housing development in downtown Baltimore. For all of the years that we have lived and worked in this area, we had never done anything in the central downtown area, so I am very excited about that. Another one that we started this year is in partnership with Bon Secours Hospital and is now known as Bon Secours Gibbons Apartments. The property is on a 32-acre site adjacent to St. Agnes Hospital and the ballfield that Babe Ruth played on when he attended St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys beginning at the age of seven. I also want to mention MetroTowns at Parkside in Washington, DC. We started this project with the late Abe Pollin, who owned the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals sports teams. He wanted to develop affordable homeownership opportunities for the District of Columbia’s hard-working residents. We developed 125 townhomes, 83 of them for-sale while the remainder are rented by former public housing residents. My only regret is that he wasn’t able to see its completion.

TCA: You mentioned earlier that there is an increased emphasis on the intersection between housing and health care. Tell us more about that.

Grayson: Access to affordable healthcare is important to people of all ages, but especially for infants, younger children and seniors. I know in some states Medicaid waivers are being used to incorporate health-related services in senior housing. We don’t have that access in Maryland, but it’s something we want to look into so that older residents can more easily age in place.

TCA: What trends do you see in the market?

Grayson: One important issue is the evolution of the organizations that develop affordable housing. The tax credit program has been very stable over the past 30 years. I don’t know if it’s the oldest program around for affordable housing, but it’s what we’ve got today and it is working really well in the sense that it allows us to provide quality housing. The stigma of affordable housing should recede as the quality of housing that is being produced continues to improve. Because there is a private investment, and the developer provides a guaranty to the investors, the foreclosure rates on tax credit properties is extremely low, less than one percent. This is really important for the stability of the field. But there aren’t enough tax credits to go around.

TCA: Given your knowledge and experience, how would you solve the affordable housing crisis in America?

Grayson: I would significantly increase the amount of low-income housing tax credits available, so that we can do more work. I would also increase the income thresholds from 60 percent to 80 percent of area median income, maybe even 100 percent. I believe that the way to solve many of our problems in this country is to have mixed-income housing in all communities. If we can do that, we will be able to change our problems of today into opportunities for all. With good housing that has a diverse population, we can significantly reduce discrimination and racism in this country and provide better educational opportunities for all, and better jobs…you name it. We really need to have communities that have people from all walks of life. Right now, we have too many segregated communities.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.