Lifelong Silicon Valley philanthropist and legendary housing developer Charles W. Davidson died this week at age 90, but his legacy of giving lives.
Friends and colleagues say Davidson, the city’s affordable housing champion, extended his unyielding generosity until his last moments. In addition to building low-income housing projects across the city, Davidson is perhaps most well-known for giving San Jose State University $15 million — the largest private donation in SJSU’s history.
Sean Kali-rai, who worked on many housing projects with Davidson, called him a great friend, mentor and business partner. He said Davidson was constantly giving to local charities.
“He would rather give as ‘anonymous,’” Kali-rai said. “He believed in giving without recognition.”
Tony Arreola, another one of Davidson’s former business partners and friends, said the philanthropist donated every year to local organizations through the Davidson Family Foundation — a nonprofit that sponsored housing, educational, food service and health care opportunities to low-income families in need across major metropolitan areas. He said Davidson gave to the Boys and Girls Club and other organizations in his final days.
“He will continue to give beyond that because his legacy will continue through the Davidson Family Foundation and it will continue to give in perpetuity,” Arreola said.
In a public letter, San Jose State University President Dr. Mary A. Papazian praised Davidson for his contributions over the years.
“Though his imprint on the physical landscape of San Jose and the broader Silicon Valley region over the past six decades is astounding, it is his generosity, civic leadership and philanthropic deeds for which previous and future generations will remember him,” Papazian wrote. “Chuck was so much more than a builder of physical spaces. He was also a builder of our community.”
Davidson sat down for an exclusive interview with San José Spotlight in 2019. When asked about his accomplishments and massive financial contributions to the community, Davidson responded modestly:
“I’m not a saint by any stretch of the imagination,” he said, adding that a handful of “good luck” and “good people” guided him along the way.
Davidson came to San Jose as a 21-year-old with little money in 1952. After a stint in the United States Air Force, Davidson attended day classes at SJSU and worked in the railroad yards at night. He earned a civil engineering degree in 1957 and was also founding chair of Tower Foundation, SJSU’s auxiliary philanthropic organization. SJSU granted him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2014.
Papazian said Davidson’s desire to help the city’s vulnerable residents was clear from the start.
“Focusing on low-income families and the elderly, he worked tirelessly to construct affordable housing and considered the development of subsidized housing units amongst his proudest achievements,” Papazian said.
He became a major success in the Silicon Valley real estate arena and spearheaded numerous affordable housing projects through his development firm, L&D Construction. Davidson also worked closely with nonprofit developers to get more affordable housing up and running.
Davidson told San José Spotlight in 2019 that affordable housing is “where the love is.”
He knew subsidized housing in San Jose was generally unsupported in the 70s, so he developed San Jose’s Arbor Apartments and kept the affordable price tag a secret. He never once converted a low-income unit to market-rate housing.
San José Spotlight delved further into Davidson’s interview in an episode of its podcast, The Podlight.
“He touched so many people,” said Mark Lazzarini, Davidson’s former business partner at DAL Properties. “Whether they knew Chuck or not, they benefited from his business activities as well as his philanthropy.”
Lazzarini said he will always remember morning meetings in Davidson’s office filled with wisdom and laughs.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about Chuck’s life and experiences, but also to be able to solve the world’s problems and think about ways we could help our community and our city,” Lazzarini said. “That was a great start of every day and those are part of the memories that I will cherish forever.”
In addition to creating more housing, Davidson was immensely proud of helping draft the San Jose City Charter in the 1960s. The charter went on to greatly influence San Jose’s government.
Kali-rai said Davidson helped shape his life for the better.
“He didn’t need to work with me or anyone else that didn’t have his wealth or stature but he enjoyed teaching and molding business and community leaders of the future,” Kali-rai said. “Through the course of any conversation I would have with him he would make me laugh, give me a hard time, give me fatherly advice and life lessons on how to be a good human being. He was also an amazing story teller.”
Kali-rai called Davidson the “ideal Great American” who was hard working, smart, honest, God-fearing and decent. He said Davidson taught him the important life lesson of giving more than you receive.
“He always feared passing away without imparting all his knowledge and wisdom to others so they could use it and prosper,” Kali-rai said. “In life many people pass in and out of one’s sphere, but he was one of those rare individuals that would make an impact on your life and you were all the better for crossing his path.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.