New Developments: It’s Finally Infrastructure Week in Washington

5 min read

For years, backers of mass transit, roads, bridges, housing, utility grids and dozens of other interests have advocated for generational investments in our nation’s infrastructure. Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden all called for historic investments in infrastructure during their tenure. In August, the Senate passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and in November the measure was adopted by the House and sent to President Biden’s desk for enactment.

Affordable housing advocates have been more focused on the measure’s semi-conjoined twin, the Build Back Better Act (or BBB, also referred to as the budget reconciliation bill). At the time of writing this column, BBB seemed poised for passage and contained a multitude of our legislative priorities, which would transform our industry (see last month’s column for a taste of that potential change). I am sure we’ll be talking about BBB much more, but I wanted to celebrate some of the exciting developments in the infrastructure bill, which I believe will be transformative for our industry and the residents we serve.

I personally never used to get worked up about road and bridge or port and rail infrastructure. Before this year, I really only thought about transportation infrastructure when I was stuck in traffic on I-95 or being jolted by a pothole on the Capital Beltway, but COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in our nation’s infrastructure that contributed significantly to crippling supply chain woes. As the economy began to rebound, our transportation infrastructure has not been able to handle demand and we are feeling the pinch directly via delays and price inflation. Major investments in transportation infrastructure should mitigate the risk of this happening again in the future.

Likewise, major new investments in high-speed internet to communities without broadband access will be a game-changer for residents. In the new digital economy, access to broadband is an increasingly critical community resource. The billions of dollars dedicated to replacing lead pipes will also be transformational. The impact that lead in drinking water has on the developing brains of children is well documented and is a significant determinant of future success. I suspect that if you were to overlay on a map of where broadband and lead-remediation dollars will flow, there would be a direct correlation to geographies with aging affordable housing stock where some of the most meaningful work we do as community developers is located.

Investment in mass transit also represents a unique opportunity for affordable housing developers, though some coordination and advocacy will be necessary to fully capitalize on these investments. New transit centers, light-rail stations and new transit stops will be planned in cities around the country. With a little local advocacy, communities will set aside a portion of these transit funds (or local matching funds) to incorporate affordable housing around these new transit nodes. Ideally, we need to bake affordable housing into the process before the plans are finalized since we know from experience that new mass transit nodes often have a gentrifying effect on neighborhoods. Communities with foresight will have an early partnership and plan with affordable housing partners to acquire and preserve existing subsidized or naturally occurring affordable housing ahead of the market. These are not new ideas or strategies. The National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) has presented case studies of how Denver, Detroit and Indianapolis applied such strategies to expansions of their light rail, streetcar and rapid-bus transit systems in the last decade.

We can also expect to see major new inflows of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) into affordable housing. Groundwork laid during the Obama administration to make the Department of Housing and Urban Development-assisted and Low Income Housing Tax Credit properties eligible for these funds, as well as a body of knowledge and expertise developed in the intervening years from efficiency intermediaries, like NH&RA members, ICAST, New Ecology and Elevate Energy, as well as educational and policy work done by groups, like NH&RA, Energy Efficiency for All and Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, should allow our community to scale up the use of these dollars in energy and utility retrofits. This is a great time for asset, portfolio and property managers to review the curriculum from our Preservation Through Energy Efficiency Initiative as there will be a lot of new resources flowing into our ecosystem to pursue this work.

While most of the industry headlines on Congress have been focused on the BBB Act, I think there is a lot to also be excited about in the infrastructure package. After years of hearings, news exposés, calls-to-action and fly-ins on infrastructure, it got to be a bit of a running joke in DC that it was always infrastructure week. Well, last month, it finally happened and there is cause to celebrate!  

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.