By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN– The number of homeless in Nashville doesn’t seem to change even though since 2013 about four thousand people have found permanent housing thanks to Metro’s Homeless Commission and several nonprofits like Open Table that work to get people a roof over their heads.
The official number of Metro’s homeless is around 2100 but the actual number is much higher, perhaps 21,000, according to Samuel Lester, a homeless outreach worker.
“If 2100 was the real number we would have solved homelessness in Nashville already. More than done it,” he told the Tribune. (See Tribune Jan 11-17, 2018 pg. 11B) or go to: https://tntribune.com/community/local/nashville/homeless-wont-come-cold/
High rents and low wages keep swelling the ranks of the homeless despite efforts to house them, according the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) , Founded in 1974, the year after President Richard Nixon stopped building federally-funded housing projects, NLIHC has produced annual “Out of Reach” reports. They document the gap between renters’ wages and the cost of rental housing. In Nashville, that gap is huge and growing wider by the day.
In its latest report, NLIHC said a worker in Tennessee would have to make $15.34/hr. in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. That means someone working at the minimum wage of $7.25/hr. would have to work 85 hours a week in order to rent a 2-bedroom at the Fair Market Rate of $798/mo.
“I use $750 for rent alone and looked at what’s no longer available at that price,” said Lester. HUD’s Fair Market Rate is based on an average that includes longtime renters who pay less than current rental rates. HUD”s Fair Market Rates are thus unrealistically low. Even so, Lester subtracted $50 a month from HUD’s figure that includes utilities in its Fair Market Rent estimates.
Using his estimate of $750/mo. rent, Lester studied statistics compiled by the Greater Nashville Apartment Association and rents advertised on the website, Rent Jungle. He looked at what apartments were available and at what price to find out how fast affordable housing is disappearing in Nashville.
“In 2015 and 2016 we lost more than 2000 units of affordable housing and even that is not affordable to many people,” Lester said.
“If you’re earning minimum wage, you’re making roughly $1160 a month and you can only afford a $350 apartment. Even if you were sharing it with somebody else you still couldn’t afford that.
If you’re on disability you’re getting $755 a month and you would only be able to afford a $226 apartment. If you are an average person on social security the average is $1413 and the most you could afford would be $424 including utilities. Apartments like this just don’t exist,” Lester said.
In January 2013 the average rent for one and two bedroom apartments in Nashville was $906. In January 2017 it was $1401.
“It’s a huge increase. The fact is, there are many apartments that have been sold to development corporations that have been boosting the rents,” Lester said.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs found homelessness increased by 27 percent for every 1 percent increase in unemployment and 32 percent for every $100 increase in rent. The study’s findings indicate that in four years higher rents in Nashville have more than doubled the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The city council heard from residents last Tuesday, many of who came to speak about the Mayor’s transit plan.
“Before I’m ready to vote “Yes” for a $9 billion transit plan I want to see at least $775 million between now and 2025 go into the Barnes Fund to help create more affordable housing,” said Austin Sauerbrei, a tenants rights organizer with Homes For All Nashville.
Sauerbrei said half of all renters in Nashville are cost-burdened which means they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
New apartments are springing up like toadstools downtown and along Charlotte Avenue. None of them are affordable. Rents on new apartments are about double HUD’s $798 Fair Market Rent. That means the number of cost-burdened renters in Nashville will continue to increase.
“One of the significant factors that is creating the homeless problem is the fact that that here is no affordable housing for people to move into,” Lester said.
“This has had two effects: its driving people out into the street and into their cars, into these doubled-up situation. It’s driving people out of the city.”
Gentrification Shreds Social Fabric of Old Neighborhoods
City dwellers are finding themselves unable to live in the city that their families have lived in for generations and paid taxes. Where people have church communities and friends they can get support to help them rebound from homelessness.
Someone experiencing homelessness can survive if they have someone around who gives them a loan or invites them to stay with them or gets their car repaired.
“Things like that are life saving for people and people who are on the street are often cut off from those things. They are literally being driven out of their city,” Lester said.
“To me it’s extremely racist as well, although it’s affecting all people in this city, whites and blacks. It’s especially unjust to a black community that was first forced into an urban area that nobody else wanted to live in, the central part of the city, and now they are being driven out because they can no longer afford to live there.”
“They’ve been redlined, they’ve been “freewayed” over, they’ve been discriminated against for generations and now the final kick is out of the city.”
Fixing the Problem: Build More Affordable Housing
Nashville created a ten-year strategic plan in 2004 to end homelessness by 2015. It hasn’t worked. According to Metro’s Office of Housing, there is an immediate need for 18,000 affordable units that will grow to 31,000 by 2025.
Advocates like Sauerbrei and Lester say it would take $775 million to provide affordable housing to those who need it. It costs about $100,000 to build one unit of affordable housing but building funds can be leveraged about four times with a non-profit builder so the city’s outlay would be about $25,000 per unit.
A number of studies have shown a homeless person costs taxpayers about $35,000 a year (see Jan 11 issue). If you assume a savings of $10,000 for every homeless person who gets into permanent housing, you could pay for 31,000 units of affordable housing in 2-3 years.
“Three quarters of a million dollars is my estimate. That seems like a lot of money until you realize we spent around $700 million on the convention center—just one building,” Lester said.
In 2016 the city put $10 million into the Barnes Fund to tackle homelessness and the Mayor added another $25 million in bonds to this year’s budget. That’s a good start but it will only create 1400 affordable apartments. Meanwhile, gentrification continues unabated and the number of homeless is growing.
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