From the Street to a Place of Your Own

Traci Patton and Darryl Barbee at Mercury Court where rents are $500 or less. Rents in the 4-story building behind them start at $1000/month.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Traci Patton fights the good fight everyday from her small office in Mercury Court, an extremely low-income complex of 145 single resident occupancy (SRO) units on Murfreesboro Rd.

Patton is a service coordinator with Urban Housing Solutions (UHS), a non-profit that has 32 affordable properties in Nashville. Once people are off the street, Patton becomes a social worker.

Traci Patton and Darryl Barbee

“Our goal is to keep them housed and address the barriers to housing. That is rental assistance, getting food, help with housekeeping, mental health issues, or health issues,” Patton said.

“Everybody who lives in Urban Housing has to have the ability to live independently. We provide supportive housing. They may have a payee because they aren’t very good at managing their money,” she said.

Many tenants are disabled and get $750/mo. in federal assistance. They pay one third of that, or $250, to Patton in rent. Mercury Court has a few tenants who have live-in caregivers because they are frail or elderly but most live on their own and do for themselves.

How Do You Get In?

“You have to be street living,” says Patton. Mercury Court provides permanent housing to the homeless. A person can apply at the UHS office on Woodland St. or a family member or friend can apply for them.

A person can go through Metro Social Services. Another way is via several community partners like Nashville Cares, the Mental Health Co-op, Centerstone, Street Works, churches, and other organizations that work with the homeless.

To get on the waiting list at one of the UHS properties you can’t have a felony conviction in the last five years, three or more evictions, be in bankruptcy, and can’t be drinking or using drugs.  Once you’re on the list it could be a month or even a year before you get in. UHS has a 98% occupancy rate.

How Do You Pay the Rent?

Some of the SRO units at Mercury Court have a federal housing voucher attached to them. “That’s a benefit for someone who is coming in with no income because their rent is going to be $50 and we will work with them to help them increase their income,” said Patton.

In the foreground, low-income units rent for $500 or less. Market rate apartments in the 4-story building behind Mercury Court start at $1000/mo. This is ground zero in the war of gentrification against working class neighborhoods.

Others have a family member pay their rent. “Their loved ones will pay their rent because the other option is to come live with them. At least they know their loved one is in secured housing,” Paton said.

“The beautiful part of that is for a lot of our long-term residents this is their family.”

Patton tries to build a sense of community at UHS properties. She organizes health fairs, holiday dinners in the community room, and other activities at Mercury Court.

Patton said that you have to plan things for the formerly homeless. “People will organically isolate and you have to force them to form a community. The more disenfranchised the harder the community (part) gets.”

And people come and go. Eight residents who went through a substance abuse program got their credit together and moved out.  “My goal is to see the person who moved into an SRO five years ago walking into their own house,” Patton said.

Darryl Barbee

Darryl Barbee grew up with three siblings and a single Mom. They moved several times while Barbee was growing up. He graduated from White’s Creek High School in 1984. Now, 53, Barbee moved to Mercury Court about a year ago.

“Growing up without a father messes a young man up. I always vowed to myself not to ever drink, not to ever smoke and I thought my life would be better,” Barbee said.

After he graduated, Barbee got a good job in a Murfreesboro warehouse. Then bad things happened.

While still in his twenties, he lost his brother and Barbee said it really brought him down. “We had a small family but a close-knit family,” he said.  His mother got a three-bedroom in North Nashville and he moved back in with her for a while.

In 1997, Barbee’s cousin, only 18, was shot dead.

Barbee is 6’ 8” and loves basketball. He took two bad hits and developed a blood clot that put him in the hospital. He is on blood thinners now to keep the swelling in his leg down. He walks every day but can’t work.

After his mother died in 2014 Barbee lived with his older sister for a while until she got evicted. Barbee became homeless last year. He didn’t like his time at the Mission shelter on Lafayette St. at all.

“It wasn’t my world. I’m blessed to have made it here,” he said. “My mind is getting like it should be now. I’m reorganizing my life and getting back on my feet.”

Patton says Barbee is someone who perseveres and didn’t allow his circumstances dictate what he needed to do.  “When he came in he immediately became a good neighbor, a good part of the community. He pays his rent on time. Five years from now he won’t be in Urban Housing.“

Fighting on Two Fronts

There are many more homeless than available and affordable housing units. The Mayor’s Housing Office says the city needs 19,000 units now and will need 31,000 by 2025.

In November, UHS got $2 million from the Barnes Fund to buy an apartment complex in Madison that developers wanted. Patton fights every day to put a roof over peoples’ heads. But those battles are just part of an on-going war: protecting UHS’s affordable housing communities from going market rate.

“We have a responsibility to make our communities reflective of what real communities look like. You have people who are white, who are black. You have people who have mixed incomes living in communities and that’s what Urban Housing is committed to doing.”

An apartment building behind Mercury Court has market rate rents from $1,000/mo..-$1,700/mo.

“We constantly get offers for this property from developers but we’re not moving this community,” Patton said.

“I remember when South Nashville was very much middle class blacks and whites.

It was all working class folks. Now if I sold my house I couldn’t get back out there.

People are selling and it’s making the community unaffordable. We, on the other hand, are not part of that. We’re not selling our properties to make communities unaffordable. We we are trying to keep those people in those very communities that are being gentrified.”

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