Patrick Costigan has nearly 35 years of experience in affordable housing and community development.
From 2011 to 2014, he has served as a senior adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where he was charged with launching the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, the centerpiece of HUD’s strategy to preserve at-risk public and assisted-housing developments.
Before that, he served 11 years as senior vice president at The Community Builders, a Boston-based nonprofit developer and owner of affordable housing.
Costigan is a principal in CF Housing Group and serves as a strategic adviser to the RAD Collaborative.
What was your role in launching the RAD program?
I was asked by then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to help to take a sound policy idea—converting unstable public housing funding streams to more stable long-term Sec. 8 based contracts, underpinning other forms of affordable housing—that was failing to gain traction on the Hill and with key constituencies, and to get Congress to approve it and stakeholders to believe in its potential.
RAD seems to be taking hold in practice and in Congress. How do you make something work that wasn’t working?
That’s what my wife and most of my friends wondered when I went to HUD—along with me—for a while. But mostly by paying attention: to what made sense about the policy concept to begin with; to what wasn’t working in HUD’s initial efforts, and why; to how the affordable housing system works, and the footings that you have to build on; to what the housing committees on the Hill are able and willing to do and are not likely to do. Then you find the right leaders on the outside and the most inclined, hard-working staff on inside—and beg and barter with them for help and needed compromises. Most importantly, Secretary Donovan was a persistent leader, and put a pretty strong and able shoulder into getting RAD going.
What condition is the nation’s public housing stock in?
In a word, unacceptable, which is why Secretary Donovan was so determined to find a better approach. We demolish about 10,000 public housing units each year that are in pretty bad shape—when we desperately need much more affordable housing in every community. And the public funding that we deliver can only keep a few hundred thousand units out of an inventory of about 1.1 million units in anywhere close to good repair. The residents bear the brunt. Most have no other real option beyond public housing that is poorly maintained. That’s unacceptable.
Why is RAD a good solution to preserving public housing?
Long-term operating subsidies and use restrictions tied to renewable Sec. 8 contracts under RAD enable public housing authorities to leverage private debt and equity capital just like all other forms of affordable housing. Agencies are no longer completely dependent upon an insufficient year-to-year appropriation of public funds to make needed repairs, which has been trending downward for decades.
Plus, they're freed from public housing regulations and rules, which are more about agency compliance and reporting than running high-quality affordable housing properties. RAD has been delivering on its promise, already generating over $2 billion in hard-cost improvements across just the initial 30,000 units converted to date. A lot of apartments are being fixed up—some even replaced with new construction—relatively quickly. Jobs are being generated. Residents seem mostly pleased with the results.
What is the biggest criticism you’ve heard about the program?
That RAD “privatizes” public housing, which could potentially endanger the public housing system as we’ve known it. But RAD just converts public housing funds to more stable Sec. 8 funding contracts that enable housing authorities to access private capital. Housing authorities must continue to own or substantially control the housing. The RAD contract and use agreement are effectively perpetual and more durable than the time-limited subsidies and affordability controls for public housing now.
Frankly, when the public housing system we know demolishes over 10,000 units a year and fails to maintain tens of thousands more units, it is the very real, current danger to public housing residents. With the capital it generates and the assurances it offers to residents, RAD seems to help housing authorities be better public stewards of public assets than they can be now.
You recently wrote an article for us called “RAD at 3,” reflecting on how the demonstration has been working so far. What change would you make to improve RAD?
RAD has demonstrated proof of concept that’s been verified by third parties. It’s time to take the demonstration out of RAD—and the uncertainty hovering over the program with 185,000 unit cap on public housing conversions—and make it a permanent option for housing authorities.
Plus, I’d carry forward some initial plans to better align HUD’s other public housing programs—like the Sec. 18 Demo-Dispo, Energy Performance Contracting, Mixed-Finance and even Choice Neighborhoods—to a Sec. 8-based rental assistance platform. There’s really no good reason to tie those programs to a fraying public housing funding system that is out of synch with how the rest of affordable housing works. But all that is more than one change, and up to Congress—not me, certainly—to make!
What are the prospects of RAD being expanded beyond its 185,000 unit cap?
I think pretty strong for all the reasons we’ve discussed. A new effort called the RAD Collaborative is drawing together housing authorities and their partners to work with HUD on successfully implementing and expanding RAD. The results are impressive, and the constituency for RAD is growing. I think policy makers of all stripes are likely to pay attention to this—especially when RAD uses the same amount of limited public funds to produce better results than the conventional public housing system. It’s a pretty compelling policy alternative.