Charles Davidson arrived in San Jose a broke 21-year-old in 1952 seeking a way out of poverty and he’s spent the last 67 years forging his own lucrative path in the world. But he’s also quietly become one of Silicon Valley’s most unsung philanthropists.
Davidson sat down with San José Spotlight for a rare interview to talk about his successes and passions, a list that is varied and long.
But before diving into all of the businesses he’s built, the millions of dollars he’s given away, his political achievements that have shaped San Jose and the portfolio of affordable homes he oversees, there is one thing he wants people to know about him.
“I’m not a saint by any stretch of the imagination, so don’t get the wrong idea about me,” Davidson said. “I’m a normal human being. I’ve had lots of good luck along the way and lots of good people around me.”
Davidson was born in 1930 in eastern Oklahoma and still carries with him a mild, disarming drawl, even though he’s lived on the West Coast for most of his life. He’s nearly 89, but still works nearly every day at his office at 255 W. Julian St., a building he developed in 1984.
His desk is piled with papers, but no computer. His shelves are overflowing with books, each of which he’s read, many more than once, his business partners assure. And from behind the papers, buried inboxes and the voluminous book he’s reading at the moment about World War II, sits Charles Davidson, a self-described feminist, an avid traveler and a reluctant San Jose legend.
“I just know that he’s made a lot of contributions to a lot of places without a lot of fanfare,” said Chuck Reed, a former San Jose mayor and attorney with Hopkins & Carley. “I have certainly had those conversations with people who say Charlie (Davidson) is going to donate some money, but doesn’t want anyone to know about it.”
Davidson graduated with a civil engineering degree from San Jose State University in 1957 after serving in the United States Air Force. He also holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from SJSU. Today he owns five businesses, each in development, construction or property management — all of which are still active.
But his passion has long been in housing.
Davidson cut his teeth in the industry first by building for-sale homes, but moved into affordable and subsidized housing in the 1960’s through the 1980’s, when subsidized housing was treated like a bad word.
He developed San Jose’s Arbor Apartments in the late 70’s without telling anyone they were going to be affordable because, as he points out with a smile, there were no laws requiring he say how much he’d rent them for.
“If you said subsidized housing, you had a fight on your hands,” he said.
Davidson developed about 5,000 subsidized residential units in and around Silicon Valley by the mid-1980’s according to company data. Today he still manages about 3,500 homes through his company, DKD Property Management, which he created to oversee his portfolio of properties.
That portfolio is not like those of most for-profit property owners. Affordable homes in California generally come with a 50-year affordability requirement before they can be converted to market rate — and the homes are often converted. Davidson has never converted an affordable unit to market rate prices, he said.
“That’s where the satisfaction is and that’s where the love is,” he said of the affordable homes. “All this subsidized housing I still own, we’ve got a safe, secure, affordable place for people to live.”
His company, L&D Construction, once built affordable housing in Davidson’s own projects, but today works exclusively with nonprofit developers to help get their projects off the ground.
Through that company, Davidson has been generous with the local nonprofit affordable housing industry, and there’s more affordable housing in the region because of him, said Geoffrey Morgan, president and CEO of San Jose-based nonprofit First Community Housing.
“I know when the market was going bad, and we had to get permits right away and the funding was scarce, you could go to L&D and they would take care of it, and that could be a few hundred thousand dollars,” Morgan said. “That’s what made it stable so we could go after the loan closing.”
And while many know Davidson for his contributions to local low-income housing, Reed said that what stands out most to him is Davidson’s impact on San Jose State University.
Davidson was a founding member and chair of the Tower Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the school that manages a healthy endowment.
In 2007, he also gave $15 million to SJSU, marking the university’s largest donation. In return, the university’s College of Engineering was named after him in perpetuity.
“San Jose State is the number one producer of engineers for Silicon Valley, the largest producer of teachers for Silicon Valley, the largest producer of business and accounting types working in Silicon Valley,” Reed said. “The impact on San Jose State, if you look back over 30 to 40 years of Charlie Davidson’s tenure, it has come a long way.”
But beyond all of that, one of Davidson’s proudest achievement to date is his work on the San Jose City Charter, which has shaped the way the 10th largest city in the country is run from 1965 to today. Reflecting on that process, in which 15 local landowners gathered to write the blueprint for how the city would operate, he still beams.
“We had a famous guy on the committee by the name of Al Ruffo, and … he’d been mayor, he was a famous attorney in town and Al Ruffo was just about everything,” Davidson said. “He had his ideas on what the charter should be and I had my ideas … and it became a case of force of personality, for lack of a better word.”
In the end, Davidson forged several allies on the committee, pushing to offer pay for city councilmembers for the first time, and draft a document that didn’t dig too deeply into the fine details. “That charter came out the way I wanted it,” he said.
Fast forward to 2019, and the Davidson Family Foundation helps fund a myriad of causes, from animal welfare to child care for low-income families. It is set up to be run ongoing by Davidson’s three children and, eventually, his six grandchildren. He’s also become a reliable life and business coach, several local entrepreneurs told San José Spotlight.
“People always praise him for all the stuff that he does in the community, which is amazing,” said Tony Arreola, one of Davidson’s business partners at development company DAL Properties. “What I also value tremendously in him is his willingness to mentor you and his willingness to share down his wealth of information that helps you do whatever you want to pursue.”
But the true value of Davidson’s contributions in San Jose and Silicon Valley may never be fully tallied in the public eye — and that’s the way he’s traditionally preferred it.
“There is so much he has done,” said Morgan, of First Community Housing. “But because of his humility about things, there are very few people who know all he has done and given to San Jose and the broader community.”
Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.