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VOL. 41 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 27, 2017

What can be done to help those being pushed out

By Linda Bryant

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James Fraser, a Vanderbilt University professor of human and organizational development and urban planning, is the lead researcher for a 51-page study of Nashville’s affordable housing policies.

The hard-hitting report, published in 2015, had a strong – and ongoing – impact on Nashville housing advocates and government officials because of its in-depth analysis and straightforward recommendations.

“We definitely have an affordable housing crisis. It’s not going to be addressed by the for-profit development community without government regulations and the housing nonprofits,” says Fraser, who sat down with The Ledger to talk about his study and recommendations for Nashville’s affordable housing dilemma.

Are we making any progress with affordable housing and minimizing displacement of individuals and families from high-growth neighborhoods?

“Yes, but there’s a lot more to do. We’ve seen groups of people from around Nashville come together and continue to push for real change. Prior to, during and right after Mayor Megan Barry’s election, there was an awareness-raising campaign that was led by the Mayor’s Office and several advocacy groups.

“These groups put the issue on the table along with a mandate that came out of NashvilleNext (a community plan created by Nashvillians to guide growth over the next 25 years.)

“When citizens were asked about their top concerns, it turned out affordable housing was No.1.’’

The outcry surrounding displacement and affordable housing is increasing. There have even been some organized demonstrations highlighting the issue. As an advocate for neighborhood stability and affordable housing, what do you think needs to happen next to address this issue?

“Right now, we need all the players to come to the table to take action to support affordable housing. Not just funding and building it, but preserving it and retaining it.

“Mayor Barry and her office have attempted to address all four of these components. She has made a commitment to funding through the Barnes Housing Trust Fund. The level of funding right now is around $17 million, and she’s made a commitment to invest another $10 million while she’s in office, which I applaud. But a figure like $10 million is really just a drop in the bucket.

“There’s been a lot of pressure put on the Mayor’s Office to move quickly and decisively — and sometimes a little unrealistically. The political process doesn’t occur overnight. The mayor doesn’t have the individual authority to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the issue. That’s why we have Metro Council.

“Mayor Barry has followed through so far with the funding. I believe a general obligation bond should be the next step. I’m relatively certain that Mayor Barry’s office understands this and is looking into how that might work. I think she’s on target.’’

Can you name some cities that are ahead of the game?

“Seattle, Austin, Portland and Charlotte have passed bond issues directed at producing affordable housing. The citizens of Seattle agreed to tax themselves to create a pool of money for affordable housing, and they’ve seen good results from it.

“Some cities are having success with community land trusts and with managing portfolios of properties they can keep affordable in the long term. Land trusts are effective. During the housing and foreclosure crisis, far fewer community land trusts went into foreclosure. You also have inclusionary zoning legislation that is mandatory in some cities.

“In some cities the development community understands it’s in the best interests of the city to be able to have, for example, affordable, accessible housing for all its workers.

“There’s a point at which it’s going to become very difficult for a millennial, up-and-coming artists and musicians, teachers or municipal service personnel to be able to afford to live in Nashville.

“That creates a burden on many families. Half of the households in Nashville are considered housing cost burdened which means over 30 percent of their income goes for housing.’’

When a resident ends up leaving an apartment or home, particularly when they are renters, what do they end up doing?

“Displacement can cause many problems. A lot of people who are low- to moderate-income end up paying over 50 percent of their monthly income for housing. There are many consequences.

“Unfortunately, it increases homelessness. In fact, just over the past couple of years, the homeless population in Nashville has increased dramatically. Those folks who don’t have support or a family network can find themselves in a very difficult position.

“People end up having to rent substandard housing. The psychological costs are hard to measure. We see more and more stories of landlords sending eviction notices because they are selling or upgrading their buildings and doubling their rent.

“In Tennessee, rent control is illegal. If your lease is up and the landlord doesn’t want to renew your lease, there’s no legal obligation. Those populations are probably at the most disadvantaged. The nonprofits are working hard, [but] they can’t operate at the scale of the problem.’’

You are vocal about your desire to see developers step up efforts to build affordable housing, which I’m sure has ruffled some feathers here and there. Can you talk more about what you’d like to see from developers in helping solve displacement/affordable housing?

“Getting the development community to build affordable housing is a political issue. Some of it is ideological. It’s easy to understand why the majority of the development community has a belief in free-market-only capitalism.

“But it’s not that simple. There’s no such thing as a truly free market without a counterbalance. The impact developers have on our cities as a whole is an issue that’s appropriate for government to regulate.

“The United States Supreme Court said as much last year when they reaffirmed the Fair Housing Act. They said if development going on in cities across the country is creating areas of concentrated poverty, it is legal to seek remedy for that – and that includes lawsuits. It’s completely appropriate for the government to regulate development.

“The Nashville development community has complained a lot (about regulation), but they are lagging behind when it comes to finding solutions. They are trying to put the issue off. That doesn’t mean developers are bad people, it just means, as a whole, they don’t have a plan in achieving housing for all Nashvillians.

“Many don’t see a benefit in it, and they have been active about it. They have associations, including the Chamber of Commerce, who have lobbied the state government to make it illegal for us to have mandatory inclusionary zoning. Meanwhile, our city government is trying to make legislation that helps create equitable development for all Nashvillians.’’

You paint a fairly sobering of picture of the development community. Why?

“I formed my opinion after interviewing dozens of developers and associations and after looking at their actions at the state level. So far, most in the development community appear to be OK with the fact that we have so many displaced people who have to move further out from the city or even to other counties.

“Many people say the answer is about transportation (having a more efficient and robust public transit system). They are proposing to build housing along corridors, and they claim once we have transportation in place affordable housing will follow.

“But studies don’t support this conclusion. Once you have good transportation to additional places around cities, the land and housing values increase. All you have to do is read studies done in major U.S. cities, and you’ll find that without affordable housing policies in place you’re not going to achieve what you need to.’’

How can Nashville make a big difference, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem, when it comes to minimizing displacement and increasing choices in affordable housing?

“The biggest difference will be made through three mechanisms:

-- Funding affordable housing at the level that’s necessary, which means a general municipal bond

-- Developing a robust community land trust

-- Continuing to propose legislation that will require we have land put aside for affordable housing.

“If the development community doesn’t want to participate, it’s even more important to have land banking (buying land as an investment, holding on to it for the future with no specific plans for development) and a pool of money provided by the city to purchase properties and hold onto them until they can be developed.

“It’s imperative for the city to collaborate on a regular basis with all the stakeholders already working on these issues. We now have staff at the Mayor’s Office dedicated to affordable housing. The rest of us need to support them. There needs to be a broad- based campaign that gets the message out in the community about how significant it is to act now.

“While we’ve raised awareness of the issue; we need to engage in campaigns that will gain public support for the types of measures I believe the Mayor’s Office wants to see.

“We really need to make sure that citizens across the city are being heard, and there’s action being taken across the city they can feel. It’s not fair to just rely on the Mayor’s Office. I would love to understand how to engage the development community in a meaningful way.

“But it’s difficult. I have actually interviewed some of the largest developers in Nashville who’ve told me they don’t believe we have a problem. Unfortunately, some are deniers.’’

Is anyone tracking hard numbers so that we can get an idea of how many people are affected?

“We need a comprehensive plan for affordable housing that’s measurable. We need to put in a system that not only has a plan for affordable housing but that has numbers and metrics that can be published in an annual report. We need to know how affordable housing is being built, where it’s being built and how many resources we’re putting towards it.

“If we don’t measure the impact of our efforts, we won’t know if we are really addressing the problem.

How do you think this could come about?

“There’s an ad hoc task force that’s met over the past few years. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be ad-hoc. There are cities that actually have cabinet level positions for housing. New York City and San Francisco are a couple of examples.

“We’ve made progress with the two staff members we have now, but we need to put the resources towards not only building and funding and preserving (affordable housing), but also for building a staff large enough to accomplish the task. I believe we need an office of housing with enough staff to get the job done.

“I commend Mayor Barry for having Adriane Harris (senior advisor for affordable housing for the mayor) and one other staffer working on this issue. But we have to match the resources to the problem and that means a significant increase in staffing. We have the talent here in Nashville.

“If I could wave a wand, I’d like to see some leadership from the development community that gets it to come together and be part of a task force along with people from the Mayor’s Office and people who have been working on this issue for quite some time.

“It would include people from the academic and nonprofit sectors. We need to find a way to persuade those in the development community who really do care to participate.

“Developers are able to develop the way they do by getting permits and zoning changes, things that the government does for them. In return it is completely reasonable for us to expect the development community to participate in solving a real social problem.’’

Can Mayor Barry do more?

“I don’t think it’s fair to point fingers at the Mayor’s Office and say they aren’t working fast enough. Municipal officials get put under a lot of pressure by the development community. We do think we need to stop talking about incentivizing the development community. That sounds like we have to persuade them. It’s not about persuading them; it’s about regulating them.

“I want the general public to understand how much money (out of state) investment groups are making on developments. Many have nothing to do with Nashville. They don’t live here so they don’t have the same commitment to helping resolve this issue.

“Generally speaking, most people want to see investment and improvement in our city. But we have to be careful about making sure that investment and improvement has a positive impact on those of us who live here.

Much of the development, whether it’s residential or commercial, is geared toward affluent populations. We have to question the direction we are going.

“What kind of city do we want? Do we want a city that truly embraces the diversity of residents we have, acknowledging that everyone is not going to be affluent?

“This is an issue I think everyone should be concerned about, even if it’s not happening to you directly.

“Unfortunately, unless you are affected by displacement and gentrification, it can just seem like a natural or inevitable thing that happens in cities. But we have choices we can make. We are not going to get anywhere if we just build a hundred affordable units at a time here and there.’’

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