According to official estimates, the booming city of Nashville will need to create or preserve 31,000 units of affordable rental housing in the next seven years if its current residents are going to continue to be able to live there. And a new coalition of housing advocates, unions, business groups, and political organizations say the city isn’t moving fast enough.
Earlier this week, around three dozen groups announced that they were joining forces to draw more focused attention to the city’s housing needs, and to push for a handful of specific solutions. The new Welcome Home coalition will focus on four primary goals: dramatically increasing the city’s dedicated funding for affordable housing construction and preservation, establishing a citywide community land trust, creating a municipal land bank, and getting the city to issue a quarterly scorecard tallying the number of affordable units lost, gained, and saved. Organizers say the campaign is an effort to hold the administration of Mayor Megan Barry accountable to commitments she made as a candidate and since taking office.
“We’ve been getting promise after promise from the city, and we’ve received very little results in terms of actually moving the needle on affordable housing,” says Austin Sauerbrei, an organizer with the tenant advocacy group Homes For All who is helping to coordinate the campaign. “So let’s get as many groups in the room as we can that have been pushing in the same direction … Let’s get a policy platform together and push for some very specific policies.”
The coalition, which began forming about five months ago, has drawn a fairly broad array of interest groups into the fold, including churches and faith-based nonprofits, unions and labor organizations, and even one for-profit business.
“This is something that, if you live in Nashville, it’s just a part of our daily lives,” says Katharine Heriges, president of the Davidson County Young Democrats, which has joined the Welcome Home campaign. “We talk about it all the time.”
Nashville’s explosive growth and resulting shortage of affordable housing is well documented. According to some news reports, the average monthly rent increased by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2016—from $897 to $1,372—while average income only increased by 8 percent. Around a quarter of homeowners and almost half of the city’s renters are cost-burdened, according to a housing report from the Mayor’s Office. Property values and land costs are spiking, and a widely cited figure puts the Nashville metro area’s growth at around 100 people per day.
The city has sought to address the housing shortage in various ways. Since taking office, Barry has promised $25 million in bond proceeds and committed an additional $10 million a year to The Barnes Fund, the city’s housing trust fund, which makes grants to nonprofit affordable housing developers. The administration announced last year that it would, in fact, pursue a community land trust, which would be able to hold land indefinitely and maintain affordable housing or other community uses. It also enacted a modest inclusionary zoning program meant to incentivize developers to build affordable units alongside market-rate housing.
But recent reports indicate that neither the inclusionary zoning policy nor a companion fund meant to encourage private developers to build workforce housing has produced a single unit of new affordable housing since last June, when the policies went into effect. The inclusionary zoning policy has faced legal challenges as well. The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank based in Nashville, sued the city over its inclusionary zoning program, arguing that it is in fact a mandatory rather than voluntary policy, and therefore violates state law. Braden Boucek, a lawyer for the Beacon Center, says the litigation is still pending.
Boucek adds that his group believes inclusionary zoning just marginally drives up the cost of housing for everyone without providing enough new units to make a difference. The Beacon Center thinks the private sector could solve affordable housing shortages across the country if cities would just adopt more permissive land-use codes.
“When you talk about something like affordable housing, to make any kind of a meaningful impact, you have to affect supply and demand,” Boucek says.
The Welcome Home coalition, on the other hand, says the city needs to step up its efforts and put real resources into construction. The coalition is calling for the city council to pass a funding resolution dedicating at least $775 million in general obligation bond proceeds to affordable and low-income housing construction. That amount is about 15 percent of the $5.2 billion that the administration is hoping to dedicate to a transit plan that will go before voters in May. Sauerbrei says the money would be used to provide a line of credit to affordable housing developers for land acquisition, construction, and rehab of existing low-income housing. The municipal land bank, a tool that cities began adopting in the earlier part of the decade, would help the city direct the land it already owns toward uses that serve affordability goals. And a quarterly scorecard would lock in a measure of accountability for progress toward those goals.
Heriges, of the Young Democrats, says her group has a responsibility not only to the national party, which has not necessarily made urban housing issues a priority, but also to young people in Nashville. Many people coming out of college can’t afford to live in the city anymore without support from their families, and many don’t come from families that can offer that kind of support. Groups like hers can help build pressure behind these types of issues, she says.
“I don’t think that partisan organizations should take the lead,” Heriges says. “I think they should be a part of the conversation, and I think they should listen to the experts and lend a helping hand.”
The Tennessee Latin American Chamber of Commerce has also signed onto the campaign. Marcela Gomez, president and chairwoman of the board, says that even with the vast growth the city is experiencing, there are a lot of job openings in fields like construction and landscaping that employ people in immigrant communities. And those jobs stay open because immigrants can’t afford to live in the city, she says.
“I’m all for progress and I’m all for growth, but you have to consider all the aspects,” says Gomez. “You have to consider the people who make the city work.”
For Kennetha Patterson, an organizer who works with Sauerbrei at Homes For All, the issue is personal. Patterson says she was forced out of the apartment she’d been living in with her family after the building was sold to out-of-town developers. She says she got hooked up with Homes for All at a city council hearing when she showed up to talk about her experience of being unable to continue living in the city where she grew up. She hopes that a growing coalition focused on affordable housing can prevent more people from having to leave.
“While I was going through what I went through, there wasn’t a voice,” Patterson says. “There wasn’t any unity.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.