In 1981, there was an alarming shortage of affordable housing for poor and low-income families on Akron’s east side. Neighborhoods were gripped with uncertainty about the future, particularly the prospect of providing a comfortable, safe, living environment.

Grady Appleton, a trained social worker who worked closely with people in the neighborhood as a community organizer, was listening to those concerns.

“When I started out in the community, I was basically working with block clubs, engaging residents to identify the needs in the community and possible solutions. They recommended setting up a community development corporation to address housing issues,” Appleton said. “There was a lack of resources available.”

He was asked to spearhead the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. (EANDC), an offshoot of the East Akron Community House (EACH) — and that’s where he’s devoted his last 35 years.

Appleton will retire as president and chief executive officer at the end of next year.

He said he wanted to give the board ample time to find his successor. A committee will draw up a profile for the position, then a consultant will be hired to aid the search. Appleton will stay for a smooth transition in leadership.

Appleton took a different direction in life than he had planned. He started out with a degree in secondary education and a minor in sociology, but never worked as a teacher. When he graduated from the University of Akron in 1971, it was in the middle of the school year and no local teaching jobs were available. He got a call from Cazzell Smith, his friend from Akron South High School who was working at the East Akron Community House at the time. Smith mentioned a job opening there for an outreach worker. Appleton applied, got the job and never looked back.

“I love working with people and working in the community, helping people to identify social issues and strategies to solve them,” Appleton said. “Social work is a field where you do something differently every day, and that intrigued me.”

His mentor, Homer Pettengill, who was the EACH director at the time, found grant money to send Appleton and Smith to graduate school at Case Western Reserve to pursue a master’s degree in social science administration.

“He said he wanted us to have the proper credentials to oversee the agency one day,” Appleton said. “He didn’t know that both of us would stay.”

Appleton said the EANDC was set up by EACH and the Council of Block Club Presidents. EANDC borrowed $25 from the block clubs to file for incorporation, and today the organization has assets of about $27 million.

The organization has developed 18 affordable housing units — including single houses, townhouses and apartment buildings — and one commercial project.

Appleton said his greatest accomplishment was the Middlebury Market Place project on East Exchange Street, where the organization was the sole developer. He said it gave East Akron residents access to a nearby full-service grocery store for the first time in more than a decade.

“It took nine years to develop the $9 million project. It was based on finding a supermarket operator that would take a chance in this community,” Appleton said. “We were blessed to get Dave’s Supermarket.”

He said he is proud of all the projects, but the Village of New Seasons senior living complex was a challenge because of the unique apartments above storefront businesses. He worked with the House of the Lord and Testa Builders Inc. on the nearly two-year project.

Last year, the organization had 730 units in its portfolio, this month it has 677. The housing stock has dwindled because some renters have become homeowners.

He said one of his biggest obstacles in starting up was establishing trust from lending sources.

“I was able to get support from foundations and banking institutions and some local governments to put together housing programs and services that would serve residents in the community,” he said. “We started out completing small projects but making sure we did everything we set out to do, good accounting and good accountability, keeping the funders and supporters abreast of the projects, then we were able to take on larger projects. And the organization grew from that.”

Smith, who had become the executive director of EACH, asked Appleton — his assistant executive director at the time — to launch the housing development. Appleton sought additional training in housing development.

Smith said Appleton was a one-man operation for the first five years.

“When Grady would go to the banks to try to get them to partner, they would say, ‘Well, let’s see how much money we are willing to risk losing for the year.’ Now, they seek him out, because they know he’s going to do a good job and make them look good,” said Smith, who now works as a community organizer for EANDC.

Currently, EANDC has a staff of nearly 50, including 36 full-time employees. They are mostly property managers, accountants and maintenance technicians. There are HUD home-buying counseling services and an outreach community service program.

“Grady has worn many hats. He has brought this organization to where it is today,” said Annette Grimes Hammonds, chairwoman of the EANDC board and a 16-year board member. “He has had a strong presence in the community and has made affordable housing for people who might not have been able to get a house, including offering credit counseling classes to repair credit. ... People respect him. He has made such an impact and he is leaving behind a big legacy.”

She talked about some of the differences Appleton has made in the community, from the “Welcome to East Akron” sign just off of the Arlington-Kelly exit on Interstate 76 to buying vacant lots to create a walkway for Robinson schoolchildren and Art Minson’s Place. The stage , at Baird and Arlington streets is a gathering place for entertainment for young people so they have something positive to do. The organization also had its first Farmer’s Market this year, featuring fresh fruit and vegetables from area growers and residents’ gardens.

Appleton has gone full circle. EANDC moved out of the EACH building at 500 S. Arlington St. two years ago when its parent agency began a downward financial spiral and faced the possibility of foreclosure. EANDC purchased the building for $675,000 in September 2015, spruced it up and brought all of its services under one roof.

“We were able to take it over and start up services again that the building used to offer, like the Good Samaritan Hunger Center for hot meals, Project Learn for GED instruction and ASCA’s [Akron Summit Community Action] weatherization program,” he said. “We don’t provide the social services, but we coordinate them so our residents have access to them.”

Appleton, who has been married for 43 years and has two sons and two grandchildren, said he is ready to move on to his next challenge in life.

Smith said two people may be needed to replace Appleton, at least on an interim basis.

“It will be a challenge,” he said.

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or mmiller@thebeaconjournal.com.