Tom Davis began in affordable housing by swinging a hammer.
While a student at Brown University, he volunteered with a community organization building housing in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Providence, R.I. On Friday afternoons, he would go out and help at their construction sites. “It got me interested in the issues and the questions of low-income communities and urban development,” he says.
A few years later, when Davis graduated from law school, he looked for and joined a firm that had an affordable housing practice. It was the start of a respected career in the industry that has included positions at two leading Boston-based nonprofit organizations, The Community Builders and Preservation of Affordable Housing.
For the past two years, Davis has been director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Office of Recapitalization, where one of his key roles is spearheading the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, the centerpiece of HUD’s strategy to preserve at-risk public and assisted-housing developments.
For their efforts, the affordable housing veteran and the RAD team are finalists for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, a prestigious award that recognizes excellence in government service.
RAD comes at a time when approximately 10,000 distressed public housing units are lost each year due to age and deterioration.
Approved by Congress in 2012, the program allows public housing authorities (PHAs) to convert public housing to long-term Sec. 8 contracts, a move that positions them to leverage millions of dollars in private debt and equity to address capital needs and preserve the affordable units.
So far, approximately 70,000 units have converted from public housing to RAD, leveraging more than $4.2 billion in construction activity without any additional federal funding.
If these PHAs sought to try to do this amount of construction based on the typical capital fund appropriations that they receive each year, it would have taken them 46 years to do the same amount of work, Davis says.
The scope of Davis’ work is vast as RAD helps improve the living conditions of public housing residents across the country.
“The biggest thing is what it does for the residents,” he says, noting that RAD is often discussed in the number of units and dollars that are involved, but the real impact is how the program is helping people such as families in southern Texas that are getting air conditioning for the first time or individuals who are seeing their health improve after waters leaks are repaired and mold is eliminated in their homes. “This is an opportunity for housing authorities to fix those problems.”
The Office of Recapitalization numbers approximately 65 employees, but the RAD team is even larger because the program crosses into other divisions at HUD such as the offices of Public and Indian Housing, Community Planning and Development, Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, General Counsel, and others.
There is a limit on the number of units that can take part in the program, and that cap was recently expanded from 185,000 to 225,000 units. The increase will allow more projects to take part, but it won’t meet the demand as the waiting list had 47,912 units beyond the 225,000-unit RAD authorization as of Aug. 1. Program supporters are pushing to lift the cap entirely.
In the meantime, Davis and the RAD team have worked to improve the process for participants, resulting in a 40% reduction in the time it takes to close a deal, according to officials.
The improvement is the result of an initiative that the team undertook to map their process from beginning to end and find places to streamline, reduce duplication of work by multiple offices, and clarify roles and responsibilities.
It doesn’t hurt that Davis' experience includes seven years of managing development projects. “One of the things that is helpful is having a sense of what the spillover effects of our decisions might be and having some of the experience of what these transactions are like on the ground,” he says.
When Davis isn’t leading the Office of Recapitalization, he still wields a hammer. In his spare time, he likes to work on his own home and do small-scale carpentry jobs.