Politics

Challenges await Baker’s community development chief

Chrystal Kornegay honed her skills working on housing issues at Urban Edge, the nonprofit she has led since 2011.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Chrystal Kornegay honed her skills working on housing issues at Urban Edge, the nonprofit she has led since 2011.

Some of the state’s most difficult problems have landed at Chrystal Kornegay’s desk.

Governor Charlie Baker’s choice to serve as undersecretary of housing and community development faces big challenges, from a lack of affordable housing stock to nearly 5,000 homeless families living in shelters or motels. Kornegay was successful in leading an organization geared toward helping people find affordable housing in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, but she is now responsible for housing policy across the state, and the needs are great.

Baker knows as much, and housing advocates are encouraged that he talked about homelessness on the campaign trail and in his inaugural address, calling the fact that more than 1,500 homeless families live in motels one of the state’s “toughest challenges.”

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Kornegay said that while different communities have different characteristics, the issues are the same.

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“All across the state, we’re having the same problem,” she said. “Wherever you are, there are people not making enough money to afford to live in the housing in that place. Jobs are moving around differently. How are we working together to connect people to jobs that can pay a wage to live in the communities that they want to live in?”

Kornegay intends to use the skills she learned at Urban Edge, the nonprofit she’s led since 2011, in her new role, in which she reports to Jay Ash, secretary of housing and economic development. The scale is different, but the skills are the same, she said. Urban Edge is in the midst of a multiyear project to redevelop Jackson Square. Throughout that project’s development, the organization hosted more than 100 meetings to inform residents about changes to the plan and engaged more than 3,000 people from the community, Kornegay said.

“Charlie and Jay both have said to me that they wanted someone in this role who really understood community development,” she said. “For me, that’s really about making sure there’s lots of participation, understanding that communities develop differently but there are some fundamental things that everyone wants to have in a good community, and making sure there are people at the table. And also understanding like, not everyone is going to be happy.”

Baker plans to roll out a proposal to address homelessness, and Kornegay said it’s too early to talk specifics about what that will look like. The state has 4,800 families in its emergency shelter system, which includes motels and shelters. That figure that does not include homeless individuals staying in shelters, according to state data.

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“On a larger scale, the biggest thing to do is produce more affordable housing,” she said. “Figuring out how to get the system to actually do that, and working with cities and towns to make that happen, is a big issue.”

As Kornegay and the rest of Baker’s management staff settle into their new roles, housing experts have their own ideas of what the state should prioritize.

The state needs to recognize that for children, family homelessness has effects that go beyond just the temporary pains of living in hotels, said Benjamin Forman, research director at MassINC, a public policy think tank.

“When you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night, it affects your development,” Forman said.

The challenges of ensuring that housing is affordable for people who want to live in a community are different in Eastern and Western Massachusetts, though there are similarities, experts said. Near Boston, the job market is strong, but housing is unaffordable for many workers. Near Springfield, the housing market isn’t as strong, but there are fewer jobs, especially those that pay enough to keep people in housing.

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Housing experts said the state could change regulations that make developing affordable housing difficult, such as zoning laws that restrict the height of buildings.

‘Wherever you are, there are people not making enough money to afford to live in the housing in that place.’ - Chrystal Kornegay

The state could also build a strategy around the state affordable housing law known as Chapter 40B, said David A. Smith, chairman of Recap Real Estate Advisors.

Kornegay said she is aware of Chapter 40B and that the administration is working on ways to increase the inventory of affordable housing.

Kornegay’s management experience extends beyond planning the redevelopment of Jackson Square, which will increase the amount of affordable housing in the neighborhood. She also is credited with saving Urban Edge from financial insolvency. The organization was overleveraged when she took over, she said.

“She basically saved Urban Edge from collapsing,” said Forman, a former Urban Edge board member. “It was in a very difficult place when she took over.”

Forman joined the board after the hard work of righting the organization’s finances was done, but said it was Kornegay’s confidence that instilled trust in lenders, which encouraged them to stick with the organization.

Peter Gagliardi, president and chief executive of HAP Housing in Springfield, recalled a presentation Kornegay gave about the financial difficulties she had to overcome at Urban Edge.

“Those can wreak havoc,” he said. “She tackled it head-on, came up with good solutions, and implemented the change that was necessary.”

Kornegay, a Democrat, will put those practical problem-solving skills to use in a Republican-led administration, but said she doesn’t think of the administration as having a party label.

“I work for Charlie, I work for Jay,” she said. “Those guys are really interested and serious about making Massachusetts a great place for everybody, and share my values in that, and so, here I am.”

Jill Terreri Ramos can be reached at jillterreri@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @jillterreri.