New Developments, Elevator Conversation

4 min read

Since HUD Secretary Ben Carson has taken the oath of office, he has spent much of his time on a national listening tour, thus far visiting affordable housing projects and stakeholders in Michigan, Florida and Texas. I am happy to know he has seen both the good and the bad on this tour, which I hope will contextualize the harsh cuts proposed in the Trump Administration’s “skinny budget.”

On Secretary Carson’s first stop at the Courtside Family Apartments in Miami on April 12, he was promptly trapped in a malfunctioning elevator with former HUD Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing and current Executive Director of the Miami-Dade Housing Authority Michael Liu. This, of course, attracted some online snark. Two of the funnier (and less mean-spirited) tweets include:

Ben Carson stuck in an elevator with a former NBA player at an affordable housing project is the greatest SNL skit never written.

If it was a United elevator, Ben Carson would have been freed. Albeit slightly battered and bruised.

The elevator incident itself may not be illustrative of the impact of these budget cuts.  Nevertheless, the incident provides an interesting lens through which we can examine some of what is working as well as not working in our affordable housing delivery system.

This incident could just as easily have happened at any number of the nations’ 1.2 million aging public housing units across the country. Even the best run PHAs have to grapple with deferred maintenance. System failures are the natural result of chronic congressional funding pro-rations. It’ll only be made worse if the President’s budget gets adopted. Elevator malfunctions in public housing are not that uncommon and can result in tragedy. Perhaps most notably, New York City’s Department of Investigation issued a scathing report on the state of NYCHA’s elevators, which enumerated numerous failures including at least one tragic loss of life on Christmas Eve in 2015. The twenty minutes Carson and Liu spent trapped in close quarters might inspire conversation about how tenuous our public housing infrastructure is and how our Congress helped create this situation by inadequately resourcing these projects for more than a generation.

In 2010, HUD’s own “Public Housing Capital Needs Study” estimated public housing authorities’ capital backlog exceeded $25 billion ($23,365 per unit) with annual accruals of additional capital needs at $3.4 billion ($3,155 per unit). Even with flat funding this is a situation that is only going to get worse. To make any real dent in this backlog we need to stabilize and make more predictable the appropriations for public housing capital and operating funds. Along with expanding the LIHTC program, we also need to nurture programs, like the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative and the Rental Assistance Demonstration, which collectively help PHAs and development partners leverage private sector capital to reinvest and revitalize these communities.

Courtside Family Apartments may be the butt of late night talk show jokes now, but what is lost in the elevator conversation is that Courtside is actually a success story, and one that can be replicated around the country. Built in 2016, it is a handsome property that successfully leveraged multiple public-private partnerships and private sector capital to meet a very significant local housing need. Future phases will serve seniors and special needs residents, including formerly homeless veterans and youth aging out of foster care. This is the affordable housing that every community deserves, and to get it we need to be prepared to invest as a nation and at scale with programs, like the LIHTC, CNI, RAD and HUD’s other important community development programs. I know we are being told that in the current budget environment we must be prepared to do more with less, but sometimes less is just less.

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.