Nashville Next: Where’s the Beef?

Looking West across the Cumberland River from East Nashville. Land values have increased dramatically in neighborhoods close to downtown.

Part 3 of a 4-Part Series on Housing and Development in North Nashville.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Nashville Next is a 25-year master plan to turn Music City into the proverbial “city upon a hill”, a shining example of tolerance and equal opportunity. Its major assumption is that Nashville’s unprecedented growth will bring prosperity and progress to everyone. 

The plan was three years in the making and cost $268,310 not counting hundreds of hours

Historic Preston Taylor Homes II features these 2-5 bedroom duplexes built on the same site as the original project in the other photo from 1953.

of paid staff time. City planners got input from 18,500 residents, held 400 community meetings, and hired several experts to do research. The plan was released with much fanfare in 2015. It is divided into five parts and includes 14 community plans. 

There was an inventory of roads and bridges, public art, housing, parks, streams, trees, jobs, business, public health, and schools–all things people expect when they live in a modern forward-looking metropolis. The plan described where things stood now and talked about how city programs, departments, and initiatives could make Nashville a friendly, safe, healthy, and very livable city in the future. 

Nashville Next is an impressive document, 748 pages, and it won a National Planning Excellence Award in 2016 for “a general plan for Metro Nashville/Davidson County that is relevant to community needs and addresses future growth”.

The success of the plan would be gauged with annual follow-up reports and there was one in 2016. Since then, nothing. Planning Spokesperson Sean Braisted said maybe they will

Historic Preston Taylor Homes, one of Nashville’s oldest public housing projects, was built in 1951. It was torn down in 2000 and MDHA built 182 two-story duplexes on the same site.

release one in the Summer of 2019. Don’t hold your breath. 

Four years after it made headlines, the two most important parts of Nashville Next are kaput. The mayor who stood watch over its infancy left office in disgrace, the chief of the planning department that put it together retired, and things sort of just went back to normal.

Although city officials still give Nashville Next lip service, the Equitable Development part and its detailed strategy to create affordable housing has been largely ignored. Metro officials have instead handed speculators the keys to the city and the vision of a shining city on the hill is fading fast.

Former mayor Megan Barry promoted a $9-billion Let’s Move Nashville mass transit plan. It was the transportation piece of Nashville Next. Voters rejected it by a 2-to-1 margin in May, 2018.

After the city council passed an inclusionary zoning housing bill in September 2016, the Republican-majority state legislature killed it. Another affordable housing initiative, the Housing Incentives Pilot Program (HIPP) had its $2 million budget cut to $550,000.

Not a single unit of affordable housing got built in Nashville in a year and a half after those bills were passed, according to the Tennessean. Building market-rate and subsidized housing side by side was a good idea but it never really got started. 

MDHA is the Exception

The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) is the largest provider of affordable housing in Nashville. It started building low-income rentals in 1939.

Affordable multi-family apartments with several bedrooms are as rare as hens’ teeth in Nashville now. But in 2000 MDHA began replacing the 1950-era Historic Preston Taylor Homes with 2-5 bedroom townhouses in one North Nashville neighborhood. (see photos) 

MDHA built 182 units next to Tennessee State University (TSU). Rents will not rise above 30% of residents’ incomes for the next 40 years thanks to a new Housing and Urban Development program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). MDHA Executive Director Jim Harbison told the Tribune last week that their entire portfolio has been converted to the RAD program with the exception of 184 duplexes in MDHA’s Neighborhood Housing program. Those duplexes are scattered throughout the city. MDHA has a total of 18,300 rent-controlled apartments and serves more than 13,500 families.

About two dozen townhouses in Historic Preston Taylor Homes are market-rate. The others are reserved for low-income families. None of the units are for sale and MDHA has no plans to sell any. In effect, Historic Preston Taylor Homes is a “No Speculators” zone, a sanctuary of affordable housing in North Nashville that is protected from gentrification.

Notwithstanding the safety net of affordable housing MDHA provides, homelessness and lack of affordable housing are still huge problems city officials are doing precious little to solve. The building boom continues apace but more than half of Nashville’s 659,042 residents cannot afford to rent or buy any of the new market-rate housing being built. 

“The problem is that rents have increased way faster than incomes,” said At-Large Councilman John Cooper. He said skyrocketing land prices have prevented affordable homes from being replaced. Like a force of nature, gentrification is rapidly reducing the supply of affordable homes in Nashville. But other cities are grappling with the same problem and finding solutions Music City can only dream about.

The Grass Really is Greener On the Other Side of the Hill

Austin,Texas has a department of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. It provides a range of services including renter assistance, homebuyer assistance, homeowner assistance, housing development assistance, neighborhood and commercial revitalization, small business assistance, and financial empowerment. 

Nashville’s Office of Economic & Community Development (OECD) has a completely different approach. It gives grants of $500/job to companies and tax incentives for up to ten years. Between 1999-2017 the OECD gave large companies like Dell and Asurion $76,189,500 to hire 11,197 employees. Metro‘s Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program saved companies $223.7 million. That is ten times more than Metro has invested to end homelessness.

From 2014-2018, small businesses got $526,854 to improve blighted commercial properties and nine small companies got a total of $124,750 to create 10 or more jobs. Those grants have leveraged $25 million in investment—but not to build affordable housing. 

A similar program of tax exemptions for multifamily affordable housing could have a big impact in Music City. Using that tool, Minneapolis produced 1181 affordable rental and homeownership units in 2013. Seattle produced 3134. Nashville produced 0. 

Seattle is building more affordable units than it’s losing–something that most cities, including Nashville, cannot say in today’s market. It passed a seven-year $145 million Affordable Housing property tax in 2009. It leveraged that money with other public and private funds at a ratio of 3:1. Seattle’s Office of Housing used the money to build or retain 1,643 affordable rental units, 110 units of supportive housing, subsidized rent for 1,286 households at risk of homelessness, and helped 106 families buy their own homes.

The 2009 tax levy expired in 2016 and was renewed in 2017. The amount was doubled so Seattle will spend $290 million on affordable housing in the next seven years. 

In Dec 2017, Seattle announced a $100 million investment in affordable housing projects and the Seattle City Council approved $29 million in bonding to build 896 new homes and keep 550 homes affordable for the next 50 years.

Nashville doesn’t have a Housing Department or an Office of Housing. The Mayor’s office said that Mayor David Briley is committed to creating and preserving affordable housing in Nashville through a number of different tools.

In October 2016 Metro launched a private-public housing partnership with the Elmington Capital Group to build 170 workforce units at 12th Ave S and Wedgewood Ave. Rents range from $750 to $1500/mo. Metro offered the land and a tax break. The deal was a step in the right direction but a small one.

Metro is not really serious about finding housing solutions for most of its residents. Its scattershot and piecemeal approach to affordable housing pales in comparison with the juggernaut of gentrification and market-rate housing that is being built all over town. Nashville compares very unfavorably with other American cities of similar size that are not letting speculators run amuck in their towns.

“The Mayor cannot order a moratorium on private development in the city,” said Briley spokesperson Thomas Mulgrew. Perhaps not, but Briley could be much more pro-active than he has been. A City Council resolution to provide the same amount of money for affordable housing that Metro is planning to give Amazon has stalled in the City Council. Sources tell the Tribune that City Hall is not in favor of it.

In 2014, the Housing Bureau in Portland, Oregon launched the N/NE Neighborhood Housing Strategy, a $20 million financing initiative focused in the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area in response to the community’s well documented need for affordable housing and other investments. Since then, that fund has been increased to $60 million. The Bureau has 1785 units in its Affordable Rental Housing Construction Pipeline to be built in the next two years.

In January 2019, Portland’s Housing Bureau announced a $12 million grant for new housing and mental health services in a targeted effort to combat chronic homelessness. The two projects were funded by a partnership between the city, county, and state—the first of its kind in Oregon. 

According to Karl Dinkelspiel, who manages Portland’s Housing Investment and Portfolio Preservation, “We recognize that policies from the federal to local level point to a long history of institutional racism that constrained opportunities for black communities, and now we see people displaced, churches gone, neighborhoods significantly changed – and we need to make amends. We are starting with the principle of right of return, and hopefully coupling economic development with supporting neighborhood community development corporations (CDCs) and community groups and investing in capacity building of local black-owned businesses.” 

Regarding black businesses, the Metro City Council passed an Equal Business Opportunity Law last month. But It does not include an investment fund to grow businesses or bonding guarantees to help black entrepreneurs obtain city contracts.

Nashville’s planning stands in stark contrast to Portland, Seattle, and a number of other cities. People are being displaced in Metro’s black neighborhoods big time. And the actual number of Nashville’s homeless population is much higher than the official number of 2300.

Portland, Chicago, and the state of Vermont have laws that ensure long-term affordability of housing built with tax dollars. Affordable housing stock does not disappear but grows over time. 

In Nashville, just the opposite is happening. According to the National Housing Preservation Database, more than 150,000 units of affordable housing have left the assisted housing stock in Nashville since 1997. And there is no formal affordable housing preservation plan in place to reverse that trend.

Too Little Too Late

In 2013, the Barnes Housing Trust Fund was created to increase affordable housing options for Nashvillians. In five years the fund has invested $27 million and leveraged another $127 million of federal and private funding to build 1300 units of affordable housing. Affordable housing advocates say we need 19,000 units now and an additional 12,000 by 2025. (See chart at left) 

On Feb 1, 2019 Mayor David Briley appointed Hannah Davis his new Affordable Housing. Program Manager. She will oversee the Barnes Fund. 

Nonprofit builders have partnered with Metro to build some affordable housing projects with Barnes Fund money. However, housing advocates say the Fund does not have a designated funding source like other city departments, and it is not nearly large enough to make a big difference.

In December 2017 Metro gave a non-profit, The Housing Fund (THF), $250,000 to start a Community Land Trust (CLT) to start building homes with a covenant that will keep them affordable permanently. THF owns the land and residents own the house. Fifteen properties are being transferred to THF this month. In Colorado, the City of Boulder’s has a similar CLT program called HomeWorks. It has a portfolio of more than 500 permanently affordable homes.

The Athens (GA) Land Trust has created 164 affordable homes with a zero percent foreclosure rate. The Chapel Hill, NC Community Home Trust has 200 affordable homes. 

Music City is woefully behind other cities that are increasing their stock of affordable housing. However, there are people who live and breathe affordable housing in this town. MDHA is the biggest agency and it works with Community Development Corporations and a handful of non-profits.

We will look at what they are doing in the fourth and final part of this series.

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This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and The Commonwealth Fund.

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