Committing to Community Development

3 min read

For the eight years since the onset of the financial crisis, the economic recovery in the United States has been uneven. Month-to-month we have enjoyed a slow, but steady increase, in the creation of new jobs into the economy, though critics correctly point out that many of these new jobs are not equal replacements for high-paying manufacturing jobs that have migrated overseas. Many real estate markets (and not just on the coasts) are booming, cap rates continue to shrink and the value of rental housing assets (market rate and subsidized) are at all-time highs.

Anyone who visits Columbus, Denver, Minneapolis or Nashville will immediately notice the amount of construction underway and the number of new apartments coming online. But all this new construction does not move the needle far enough for those of us in the community development field. The need for affordable and workforce housing continues to grow across the nation and many neighborhoods where the need is greatest remain disinvested.

Through industry efforts, like the Make Room campaign, as well as the people power movements, like “Black Lives Matter,”and the popular success of Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, more Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges low-income Americans face in our impoverished urban neighborhoods or neglected rural communities. These challenges may seem intractable but they are not; they simply require resources and the will to make change.

I am not saying this work is easy, but there are exciting efforts underway across the nation to undo generations of neglect in poor neighborhoods through comprehensive redevelopment. One such model worth studying is the coordinated efforts underway in Baltimore. Leaders across the public, private and non-profit sectors are implementing an ambitious plan to revitalize Charm City’s “Main Street” neighborhoods using literally every tool in the community development toolbox.

Using data metrics developed by The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), the Baltimore Department of Housing (which also serves as the city’s public housing authority) is using an analytics-driven approach to target resources to communities and projects.

New affordable rental housing, like Homes For America’s City Arts project, is an important component to the revitalization of the Remington neighborhood.

Through the city’s Vacant to Value Initiative, nearby vacant row houses are also being acquired and refurbished by TRF to be rented or sold to low and middle-income families.

Many community developers have observed that housing alone is insufficient to effect the comprehensive change these neighborhoods deserve – which is what makes Seawall Development’s New Markets Tax Credit mixed-use and commercial projects so critical to the effort’s long-term success. Projects, like R House, Millers Court and the Union Mill, combine a mix of housing options with commercial and office space for non-profits and a unique food and beverage emporium that will be a launch pad for ten local chefs to showcase culinary concepts.

Together, these efforts are leveraging millions of dollars of private sector capital to turn around a neighborhood, while preserving affordable opportunities so that current residents will enjoy the benefits of the public-private investment. If this model can work in Baltimore, it can also work it other old-line industrial cities with underutilized infrastructure. We as a nation simply need to make a commitment.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.