A new row of condos on 27th Ave. N and Clifton Ave and there’s more coming to the neighborhood.

Part 1: What’s Killing Nashville’s Black Neighborhoods?

The house at 715 26th Ave. was demolished January 12, 2019. Four others are already gone to make way for new development that neighbors don’t want.

NASHVILLE, TN – Single-family homes used to line the 700 block of 26th Ave N. But several lots are now empty, the modest houses gone, and the families who lived in them have moved away.

Tonya Wade-Moody still lives in one of the remaining homes. And she is plenty angry.

“Where are the affordable homes? All of these people are being kicked out, put out of their homes. You’re bringing in these high-priced condos/ apartments. The average person can’t afford that,” said Tonya Wade-Moody. She spoke to the City Council Dec 4, 2018.

She gave much the same speech to the Planning Commission Dec 13,2018. She handed them a petition signed by 75 people in the neighborhood who didn’t want the multi-story apartment complex on the end of their block and didn’t want tall and skinnies looming over them either.

“We don’t want it in our area and I wish you would listen to us. We don’t want that and we don’t need it,” she told the 10-member Planning Commission.

The commission approved the re-zoning plan. Dozens of projects like it are green-lit every month. The Nashville Next plan is supposed to regulate growth but unchecked development is eating up North Nashville like a cancer.

Not a single person on the 41-member City Council voted to preserve the old neighborhood so people could keep living where they raised their children, grow old, and leave their house to the next generation.

Aside from bad policy and the officials who implement it, there are economic pressures causing the black diaspora. Homeowners are being offered top dollar for their homes by speculators who tear them down and replace them with tall and skinnies or change the zoning to build multi-family units on the same and adjoining lots.

“There’s nothing strange about that,” said Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite. Home prices in Nashville have been steadily rising for a decade. According to Zillow, a real estate database company, the mean home price in Nashville is $262,400; the mean rent is $1,558. Zillow ranks Nashville the 8th hottest housing market in the U.S.

“People are willing to pay more so they don’t have to drive into town. If a buyer is willing to pay a certain price and a seller is unwilling to sell for one penny less, that sets the value for the entire neighborhood,” Wilhoite said.

But there is something strange going on. Banks used to routinely gouge or outright deny home loans to blacks in red-lined neighborhoods because it was considered a poor financial risk. The practice was widespread and blatantly discriminatory. Just the opposite is happening now. Banks are quite willing to make construction loans to people who want to build in older black neighborhoods and to make home loans to people who want to buy what they build.

Urban pioneers who are richer, whiter, and younger are settling into new homes in East and North Nashville that are no longer affordable to the people who once lived there.

Wilhoite is quite right to point out that home sales don’t happen without a willing buyer and a willing seller. African Americans who own their homes in North Nashville may be cash poor but they are land rich. Single family homes on small lots in Moody’s neighborhood are not worth as much as the land they sit on. And so many black seniors are cashing in.

For example, the lot at 709 26th Ave N. sold for $30,000 in 2014. The same lot sold for $80,000 in 2018. The lot at 716 27th Ave. N. sold for $19,500 in 2010. In 2018 it sold for $150,000. The developer, E3 Construction, bought both lots.

“Dirt is not cheap,” said Michael Leidel of Metrostudy.com, a real estate data collection and research firm. And neither are the homes being built all over town.

Leidel is tracking new construction projects in Nashville with at least four units and a home-owners association. In North Nashville, there are 17 current projects. Without amenities the builders list prices range from $250,000 to $800,000.

Along its major corridors North Nashville is being surrounded by hostile developments.

Building higher density housing offers a better return on investment and the Nashville Next community plan allow for multi-family housing along major corridors. There’s only one problem: working families can’t afford them.

The mean household income in Nashville is $43,847. You’d have to make about $80,000 a year to buy any of those new market-rate homes. The residents of North Nashville are being surrounded by hostile construction projects. (see map). In the gussied-up jargon of Nashville Next that is called “best land use”.

Affordable housing is not in Wilhoite’s job description. “We don’t have the concession on reducing the value of property just because you want to build affordable housing,” she said.

“They didn’t get organized in time,” said Bob Butler, a longtime civil rights activist, who lives in a single residence occupancy (SRO) group home on Wade-Moody’s block.

Bob Butler, 76, lives on the 700 block of 26th Ave. N. His room is stuffed with books about criminal justice, gang culture, organized labor, and the civil rights movement. He gathered them during a lifetime organizing people to resist.

“If you’re talking about organizing, you’re not talking to no rookie,” said Butler. He said people don’t always know how the system works and it’s an organizer’s job to find out.

“You can’t be a leader if you don’t know anything,” he said.

People can protect their neighborhood from unwanted development by creating an historic or conservation overlay. There is an application process through the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission. But people have to agree they want one and then get together to make it happen.

“Sometimes it can be overnight,” and Butler snaps his fingers. “Most of the time you have to build it for a long time.”

Easy money is behind the gentrification that is displacing longtime residents in North Nashville. The city’s failure to keep developers in check and insist they build more affordable homes is sabotaging equitable development in North Nashville. The area’s Community Plan goes on and on for 85 pages about how great things could be. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

On Wade-Moody’s block, eight lots sit empty where families once lived. One of them found a place off Gallatin Rd. and another is renting in Bordeaux. If Wade-Moody and her neighbors get organized they might still stop a 30+ apartment complex right behind them on 27th Ave N.

John S. looks at a pile of rubble on his block that used to be someone’s home. “It was here the day before yesterday. They just finished tearing it down and want to build that bullshit right here on 26th.,” he says, and points to the multi-story apartment complex at the end of the street.

Just a few blocks away, vacancy signs hang in the new apartment complexes along Charlotte Ave. “Nobody’s living in them,“ he scoffs. “It makes no sense,” he says, and heads home.

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.


Part 2: Elderly Homeowners Are the New Expendables As New Development Invades North Nashville

At its February 5 meeting, the City Council deferred a bill that could put $40 million into the Barnes Fund to build more affordable housing.

NASHVILLE, TN – The Nashville building boom started with a big government construction project. The Music City Convention Center broke ground in March 2010 and opened in May 2013. Since then, development has transformed properties downtown, south of Broadway, and in the Gulch.

In East Nashville and on the west side in the Nations, gentrification has hit Nashville’s working-class neighborhoods hard. Charlotte Avenue from the Capitol to Sylvan Park and now the area around Clifton Ave from Swetts restaurant to 25th Ave. N. is starting to look like West Los Angeles.

“We don’t want that and we don’t need it,” said Tonya Wade-Moody. She has lived on the 700 block of 26th Ave. N. for 20 years. She raised her children there. She doesn’t like what’s happening to her neighborhood.

Single-family homes line one side of the 700 block of 26th Ave. N.

David Swetts thinks the re-making of the area will be a good thing. So does Reverend Enoch Fuzz of the Corinthian Baptist Church on 33rd Ave N. He told the City Council the projects on 26th Ave N and 27th Ave N. will reduce crime in the neighborhood.

Perhaps, but this transformation has a social price. Older black homeowners are expendable in the new wave of development that is hitting North Nashville like a tsunami. It is wiping out dozens of single-family homes in the black district around Fisk University, Nashville General Hospital, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State University. They are all black institutions with storied histories that go back more than a century. The community that gave rise to them is being fractured and dispersed.

The other side of the block has been cleared for new development.

How Zoning Gets Changed

If you want to build somewhere you have to get a permit from the Planning Department. The community plan designates zoning. If it calls for single family homes and the builder wants to build a single-family home, then getting a permit is easy.

If you want to build something else you must get a variance and make a good case to change the zoning to allow it. Developers work with planning staffers who review projects and then recommend approval to the Planning Commission. Sometimes they approve with conditions which the developer must live with. It may not be exactly what he wants.

If a builder wants to do something that the Community Plan does not allow, he can ask the commission to change the plan. And planning staffers often help builders do that. At the December 13 Planning Commission meeting, 8 of the 45 projects were proposals to change the plan to suit the builder.

This is what it looks like when new construction replaces older single-family homes.

When a developer wants a zoning change, the Nashville Next plan calls for community engagement and that usually means at least one meeting to sell the project to the neighbors. After Wade-Moody showed District 21 Councilman Ed Kendall her petition opposing the projects in her neighborhood, he organized a meeting at Mt. Zebo Baptist Church and told Wade-Moody to bring people who opposed the development.

“I will submit that several people who attended that meeting were in support of it, ones who spoke anyway,” Kendall told the council.

But the meeting called at Mt. Zebo to get community input was a farce, according to Renee Dennis. She lives across the street from Wade-Moody and felt insulted when Kendall suggested that nobody should want to live in a poor neighborhood.

“That comment was insulting to people who own homes in this area,” Dennis said. She has two elderly neighbors who also own their homes. “They may not make $50,000 a year but their homes are now worth $70-$100,000 more because of the development that has already taken place,” she said.

Dennis understands that rising land prices is a double-edged sword. Still, somehow, she wants to preserve the neighborhood’s single-family homes. “The more development they want to add will basically displace them eventually,” she said.

“I know people don’t like change,” Kendall said. He told the neighbors that the project’s approval was a foregone conclusion. “So, when you get up to speak have something positive to say,” he said.

That really got her back up. Dennis and her neighbors universally opposed the project and only had negative things to say about it so they didn’t say much at all. “We weren’t saying ‘don’t build here’. We’re saying build the same kind of homes so the elderly people who already live here can afford it,” she told the Tribune. Unless residents organize to stop City Hall from lying in bed with speculators, that isn’t going to happen.

How City Council Approves Zoning Changes

When council members bring a developer’s proposal to the Planning Commission, they are essentially endorsing it and asking for its approval. If nobody is there to object, the commissioners approve it on their consent agenda. Then the project goes before the City Council for the first of three readings and a public hearing. But the hearing is pretty much all for show.

The first hour or two of a typical city council meeting is taken up with bills to change the zoning on various properties around town. There are always a lot of them and the process is a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm because it’s is all about manufacturing consent.

A new row of condos on 27th Ave. N and Clifton Ave and there’s more coming to the neighborhood.

The councilperson who is sponsoring a bill asks Vice-Mayor Jim Shulman to open a public hearing on their re-zoning bill. Shulman asks if anybody in the audience wants to speak in favor. Then he asks if anybody wants to speak against a particular proposal. “Seeing none, I declare the public hearing closed,” says Shulman and slams his gavel down. As Shulman moves through dozens of bills on the agenda, members start to doze. If they are lucky and things go quickly, they will get home before 10 pm.

Council members support each other’s re-zoning bills as a matter of “Councilmanic Courtesy”. Members trust that their colleague has brought all the stakeholders into a conversation which resulted in some consensus. Thus, the outcome is pre-ordained although public hearings are held to give people three minutes at the microphone. That at least looks like democratic process even if it isn’t.

Regarding Kendall’s two bills for multi-family construction along Clifton Ave, he said the mixed development would bring 163 jobs, a grocery store, and that 20 percent, or about 12 units, would sell between $100,000-$250,000. “That’s unusual,” said Kendall and urged the bill’s passage.

Tonya Wade-Moody took her allotted time and spoke from the heart. So did L.D. McLemore who told the council, “It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.” Their impassioned pleas didn’t make the slightest difference to the outcome.  The council voted unanimously to approve Kendall’s two bills.

Historical Sidebar: The Collapse of the Housing Market in 2008 and How Wall St. Keeps Stealing the American Dream of Owning your Own Home

Nashville’s unprecedented growth cannot be explained without understanding the crash of the housing market which preceded it. Lehman Brothers, the nation’s fourth-largest investment bank, filed for bankruptcy Sept. 15, 2008. It was the largest business failure in U.S. history. Lehman’s collapse in New York sent shock waves as far as Nashville and beyond. Eight trillion dollars of housing wealth disappeared overnight sending the country into a deep recession.

A 2010 Center for Responsible Lending study found minority communities had significantly higher foreclosure rates than their white neighbors. Research showed minority borrowers were more likely to receive subprime loans during the boom with higher monthly payments and quicker defaults once the housing bubble burst.

“Millions lost their homes and jobs. Even a decade later, by some measures, most notably prime-age employment rates, the labor market has still not recovered,” wrote noted economist Dean Baker recently in a research paper for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

In the run-up to the crash, investors bought entire blocks of new homes and then sold them to first-time homebuyers. Too many people were moving into those homes with so-called  ”NINJA” loans (no income, no job or assets). In 2006, the National Realtors Association released a report showing that almost half of first-time homebuyers in 2005 had down payments of zero or less.

Overbuilding inevitably led to falling home prices and that meant getting into a new house was like buying a new car that loses 10 percent of its value the minute you drive it off the lot. The value of a new home dropped as soon as a buyer signed a “liar loan”.

“These price declines meant that millions of people were underwater in their mortgages even before Lehman Brothers collapsed,” Baker wrote. Then in 2008, the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed.

Vacancy rates peaked in 2010 and that same year foreclosures peaked at 2.9 million. According to the Center on Budget and Policies Priorities, 8.7 million people lost their jobs between 2008-2010 and many could no longer pay their mortgages. According to ATTOM, a real estate database, there were about 30,000 bankruptcy filings in Nashville between 2008-2010.

Housing experts say minority communities generally have higher unemployment rates and black and Latino borrowers have fewer financial resources to fall back on than whites. In short, when people of color lost their homes, they were essentially broke.

Thanks to a federal bailout banks weathered the financial crisis. When the housing bubble burst, they dumped or wrote off their toxic assets. At bank sales or auctions, speculators and big Wall St. investors scooped up foreclosed homes for pennies on the dollar. And then they waited for the housing market to rebound. What was a tragedy for many became an opportunity for some.

“Private equity firms bought foreclosed single-family homes in bulk after the crisis and formed real estate investment trusts like Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 Rent to rent them out,” wrote Jeff Andrews recently for the real estate site Curbed.com. Michael Leidel, a real estate analyst with Metrostudy.com, says that happened and is still happening in Nashville.

According to TSU professor Dr. Ken Chilton, four Wall St. firms have bought 5500 single-family homes in Davidson and surrounding counties and turned entire neighborhoods into rental property. When that happens, people who own or are paying off a mortgage no longer live in a community of homeowners because too many have been sold to an investment firm that charges high rent but isn’t around to fix the plumbing.

A first-time homebuyer who needs a mortgage can’t compete with a Wall St. firm that pays cash. This trend started when the housing bubble burst in 2008. It accelerated in 2010 when banks started to lend out the cash they had been sitting on. They were restrained from their worst impulses by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall St. Reform and Consumer Protection Act but that didn’t stop speculators from buying up real estate in neighborhoods like North Nashville. That same year two events occurred in Nashville that triggered a massive building boom in Music City. One was the ground-breaking of the new convention center and the other was a massive flood.

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.

Part 3: 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.

 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 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 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

The City of 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 $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 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 Mayor David Briley’s 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 bigtime. 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.

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.


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.

Part 4: Building Safety Net Housing in Shark-Infested Waters

“This home was sold to a working family that was mortgage ready and that qualified for a special loan program for low to moderate income buyers,” said Kay Bowers, Executive Director of New Level, a non-profit developer.

“I deal with probably 90% of the non-profits. They’re all good to work for. I’ve never had problems with any of them,” said Jeff Stromatt.

Stromatt and his crew are putting the finishing touches on a three bedroom two-bath house they started building around Christmas. It has already been sold and the first-time homeowner is anxious to move in. Stromatt has been building below-market-rate single-family homes for 20 years.

“I’ve probably done 300,” he says. They raised the roof a bit and put all the HVAC in between the floors instead of the crawl space beneath the house on 11 Avenue N. They used a concrete siding called HardiePlank instead of vinyl. It won’t warp because it’s waterproof. Little touches make the build cost about $110/sq. ft. but the home will get an energy star rating and have lower utility bills.

New Level, the developer, is a Community Development Corporation (CDC) created by the Mount Zion Baptist Church. Kay Bowers is the Executive Director. She says housing costs have two main factors: the price of land and the building costs. If New Level gets a lot from the city that helps keep the price down but they still have to pay to clear the title. Construction costs have steadily risen in Nashville and labor is sometimes scarce.

The house on 11th Ave N. is appraised for $300,000. It will sell for $150,000. Stromatt could be making a lot more. “I enjoy doing this the most to help people get their feet on the ground,” he said.

Stromatt said the way New Level works is the same as the other half dozen non-profit builders in town. “Somebody with 80% of the medium area income will take out a mortgage for $150,000 and there is a second mortgage with Metro for the other $150,000 that is forgiven over 20 years.

“After that the owner can do whatever they want with it,” Stromatt said.

“During the recession and shortly thereafter investors with deep pockets came in and bought up properties in vulnerable neighborhoods. They just bought them up because they had cash in hand. They are ahead in the game but we are non-profits and we have to raise it,” said Bowers.

She said they save on costs with multi-family projects because there are economies of scale when you build 10 or more condos together. “We do that very very well and we would obviously sell it or rent it below market rate because that‘s our mission,” said Bowers.

Market-rate builders have their costs and their investors’ expectations for about an 18-20% return. Getting the best price they can for a property determines the selling price.

“You have to have public subsidy to bring down the sticker price to create a mortgage that’s affordable,” Bowers said. She said non-profits can’t compete with for-profit builders because the playing field isn’t level and she is always playing catch-up. Meanwhile, older neighborhoods are being shredded, families torn apart, and that has become the new normal in North Nashville.

“Nashville doesn’t have basic best-practice tools in the toolbox to help preserve affordability where people want to live, where their roots are, and where they want to remain. Until the decision-makers feel that it’s in their interest to get behind better efforts to do good planning with the proper resources we will continue to struggle and our communities will suffer,” Bowers said.

Habitat on the Edge of Town

Danny Herron knows how the real estate game is played. He says he never got hugs when he was a banker but now he gets plenty of them. Nashville’s Habitat for Humanity is building an entire subdivision in the White’s Creek area out by the UPS facility off Briley Parkway. It’s called Park Preserve an it’s for low to moderate income residents who work in Nashville.

“Every family here goes through an application process with a background check and credit check,” Herron said. First-time home-buyers have to put in 80 hours of classroom time to learn about budgeting money.

Habitat has already built 225 houses in Park Preserve and will build 75 more. Herron said their mortgages are very different from a conventional mortgage because they are zero percent interest loans.

“These homes won’t be torn down. There’s no place for working people to live in East Nashville anymore.” said Danny Herron, CEO of Nashville Habitat for Humanity.

“Our families have to qualify to buy the house and afford it with no interest but spend 100 hours out here building a neighbor’s house. So there’s sweat equity involved and that’s one of the reasons we have a very low foreclosure rate of less than 3%. That’s good. We’re proud of those good numbers,” he said.

Herron really likes the Habitat model that allows families to build equity for the first time in their lives. Payments are really low—about $800 a month. That’s an affordable home you are buying over 30 years and wind up owning.

“it’s a very successful program but it’s not a handout, it’s a hand up,” Herron said. Everybody gets involved on weekends to give their neighbor an opportunity to improve their life and own their own home.

Herron won’t say this to just anybody but sometimes he thinks we need another big recession. When the housing bubble burst in 2006, Habitat was in a good position to snap up foreclosures for 20 cents on the dollar just like other investors did. Habitat bought an entire subdivision in Antioch. It was only half-built when the developer went bankrupt, so Habitat finished it and added 130 homes to their inventory of 800 houses.

Affordable Rents in Town

Mark Wright runs Be a Helping Hand Foundation. He builds rental housing for seniors and disabled residents under a federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program.

Mark Wright runs Be A Helping Hand Foundation. He’s got long waiting list of large families who need affordable homes with 4-5 bedrooms. These houses were built in 2015 in North Nashville with a grant from the Barnes Fund.

“We focus on large families with women-led households,” Wright said.  Wright’s properties have 4-5 bedrooms that rent for about $700 a month. “Our turnover is almost zero,” Wright said. Their two newest of 36 properties were built in 2015 and the foundation is currently developing 6 new parcels.

Wright gets land with help from the Barnes Fund and goes fishing for grants to build on the lots. “We could do more with more money,” he said.

“We can’t compete with the developers coming in. They are buying up property at market rates and closing within a couple of weeks. We can’t do that. Our funds are tied to a grant. There’s a process. If we had an open fund that would give us access to funding to be able to close quicker, then we would be on a level playing field with the developers,” he said.

Wright said Metro, MDHA, and the Barnes Fund are doing a good job and Helping Hand has done a lot with their help. “We just need a lot more of it. A lot of people are waiting for us to do more,” he said.

What could he do with $100 million?  “I could build quite a lot if that type of money was available,” he said.

Rusty Lawrence, CEO of Urban Housing Solutions, is building 140 affordable apartments on Clarksville Highway and 26th Ave N.

Rusty Lawrence runs Urban Housing Solutions. He’s got a finger in just about every available pie that funds affordable rental housing in Nashville. The property he is developing on Clarksville Highway is for low income renters. Twenty-three units are built, 63 more are being built, and there will be another 55 units for seniors. They will all have Section 8 vouchers which they will get from MDHA to subsidize the rent. Like MDHA rentals, none of Urban Housing Solutions’ tenants are cost-burdened, meaning they don’t pay more than 30% of their income for rent. The units cost about $150,000 a piece to build and Lawrence says the total build cost will be between $15-$20 million.

With a $40 million housing fund, which the city council was considering last month but then tabled, Lawrence could double the number of units he’s building now.


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.

Here is a list of Non-Profit Builders Interviewed for this article:

Be a Helping Hand Foundation 827 W. McKennie Ave 615-227-6000

Affordable Housing Resources 50 Vantage Way 615-251-0025

Woodbine Community Organization 643 Spence Lane 615-833-9580

15th Avenue Baptist Church 1203 9th Avenue N. 615-256-4326

New Level 1112 Jefferson St. 615-627-0347

Urban Housing Solutions 822 Woodland St. 615-726-2696

Habitat for Humanity 414 Harding Place 615-942-1218

The following facilities have HUD-subsidized apartments 
for elderly and disabled residents of Davidson County





60 Lester Ave. NASHVILLE, TN 37210-4209

Phone: 615-244-6911


84 Lester Ave Nashville, TN 37210-4211

Phone: 615-244-6911


431 OCALA DR NASHVILLE, TN 37211-6300

Phone: 615-832-2951


2112 Buena Vista Pike Nashville, TN 37218-2840

Phone: (615) 726-1740


1015 Scovel St Nashville, TN 37208-2580

Phone: (615) 880-1110


94 Berkley Dr Madison, TN 37115-5230

Phone: 615-868-7751



Phone: (615)868-8653


621 N DUPONT AVE MADISON, TN 37115-3261

Phone: (615)865-2221


3027 Fernbrook Ln Nashville, TN 37214-1671

614) 451-2151



(615) 731-5252


209 Claudia Drive OLD HICKORY, TN 37138-3317

Phone: (615) 217-3055



Phone: (615) 847-3474


521 Spruce Street Nashville, TN 37203