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VOL. 41 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 13, 2017

Another day older and deeper in debt

Rising rents, fewer side jobs dim dreams of young, struggling artists

By Colleen Creamer

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Celebrity chef, global wanderer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain’s recent proclamation that Nashville’s music scene is the “best in the world” could well have pushed a few more musicians to pursue their dreams in Music City.

But like diners who overlook prices at The Catbird Seat – one of Bourdain’s Nashville stops – there’s major sticker shock when they get here and see what they’ll be paying for rent and groceries.

In just a few years, Nashville has gone from cheap haven for up-and-coming musical talent to climbing up the charts of cities in which expenses are quickly outpacing income.

The neighborhoods that once fancied themselves as being gritty, affordable and cool – East Nashville, 12South, Donelson, etc. – have become gentrified, leaving struggling (and usually poor) talent wondering where they can afford to go.

Rachel Scaggs, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, is researching career pathways of Nashville songwriters from 2000 until present. Her work looks at collaboration, social networks and ways that talent can keep body and soul together while trying to write songs and play.

“The city has started in a good direction with the Ryman Lofts,” Scaggs says. “That’s a good model. If we are trying to pull people into our artistic economy to make Nashville this place that people want to visit, and then those people can’t afford to live and make music here, then that is a real problem.”

Scaggs is referring to the Ryman Lofts in Rolling Mill Hill, a five-minute stroll from Ascend Amphitheater. The 60-unit subsidized apartment complex for artists (of all types) who qualify and is the first of its kind in Nashville.

The complex operates under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Units are available to those who show they are engaged in the arts on a “regular or progressive” basis.

A nice start, but one that certainly can’t help singer/songwriter Khiana Meyer, 19, who has moved to Nashville twice. Meyer says she knew the cost of living had ballooned in Nashville when she planned her move to Nashville from Winston-Salem, North Carolina this past April.

“The cost is insanity to be quite honest,” Meyer says. “I am independent from my family, so right now the only thing attaching me to them financially is through my phone bill. Everything else has been a struggle.

“I spent about six months saving up just to make the initial move. It was hard to find a place I could afford, and I am still finding it to be kind of a struggle.”

For Meyer, the hardest part was finding affordable housing – even while working more than 60 hours a week.

“What shocked me the most was that the house I was renting in North Carolina was about $1,100,” she says. “The first apartment that I had in Nashville, I was paying $1,000 a month, and it was half the square footage of that house in North Carolina, had no yard and was about 20 minutes outside of downtown.”

Guitar player and songwriter Joel Shewmake says he did a lot of “couch surfing” before finally buying his house in South Nashville.

Shewmake, who moved to Nashville from Cookeville in 2001, has had songs cut by Brad Paisley, Montgomery Gentry and Gary Allen, and others.

And he remembers some lean days before that purchase.

“For a while, I lived in my friend’s walk-in closet, and I was working painting apartments at the time,” Shewmake says. “I use to live in the apartments near my house, and I split a two-bedroom with a friend for $525 a month.

“I was over there a couple of days ago, and now they are $1,100 a month for the same two-bedroom.”

Joe Rutter of Nashville Property Management Pros says he fields questions from songwriters and musicians all the time asking about Nashville’s rents and cost of living.

Rutter says those moving to town should be prepared to go through money pretty fast and recommends renting a room instead of using resources to split a house or apartment right off the bat.

“If they go to an apartment complex or an official property management company, we are going to pull their credit and pull their background, and we are going to verify their income,” Rutter adds.

“So, if they are moving without a job – unless they have a considerable amount of money in savings where they can nearly pay their lease in full without a job or a qualified cosigner – we couldn’t approve them anyway.”

Renters, brace for increase

“I would say, on average, once we put a tenant in the property, their rent is expected to increase anywhere from 5 to 7 percent per year given the climate here,” Rutter explains. “That is just keeping up with everyone else.

Khiana Meyer, 19, moved to Nashville to pursue her dreams as a singer songwriter. The high cost of living in Nashville for creatives has affected how some will pursue their dreams.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We do have some properties that are rented for less than market value simply because we’ve had good tenants in there for several years and we want to keep good tenants happy.”

Fresh from an audition on “The Voice,” singer and newbie songwriter Zack Hicks moved to Nashville in November.

“I just felt like it was a really good time for me to move here because people kind of know my name right now,” Hicks says. “It might be a good time to try and make some connections.

“But it is really expensive. Even to just rent a room, it’s like 700 or 800 bucks, but I got a deal from a friend who owns a house in East Nashville.”

Hicks is originally from Hope, Arkansas, but has spent time in Dallas and, more recently, in Little Rock, where he was able to save some money.

“I saved up around like $4,000, but I ended up spending most of it trying to get a new bed and for rent,” Hicks explains.

“So, my mom is going to help me a little bit more. She is totally onboard. So, basically I moved not exactly penniless, but kind of.”

Sweat before royalties

Rutter says he is seeing people moving with and without jobs.

“I just talked with a guy who moved here from California without a job, but he had money in savings,” Rutter points out. “He got a place in East Nashville. It’s just him, so he’s probably paying between $1,200 and $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom.”

Meyer came from a Winston-Salem where the sales tax (6.75 percent) is considerably lower than that of Nashville’s (9.25 percent).

“That is also something that really surprised me,” Meyer adds. “Groceries were high, and I also never had to pay for water in North Carolina, so that was interesting. Having a water bill was new. There were lots of curveballs.”

Some gigs go away

Skaggs says all newcomers will probably have to have a full-time job to make it work; many, she says, want jobs that have connections within the music industry.

However, those side gigs are becoming fewer and fewer because business models for recording have changed dramatically.

Programs like ProTools have become ubiquitous on the laptops of singer/songwriters and musicians. Those programs supply the resources that high-end – and highly staffed – studios used to supply.

“While we have all of this explosion and focus on Nashville, Nashville’s infrastructure for recording songs and recording demos and pitching those songs used to provide a lot more jobs than are available now,” she says. “Think about being a drummer. They have drum kits now that will do all of that for them.”

Meyer points out she is working an average of 60 hours a week waiting tables at The Listening Room, a venue for award-winning singer/songwriters on Second Avenue south of Broadway. She gets her writing in, but barely, and says she can go without a lot of sleep.

“The great thing about The Listening Room, and the reason why I am there, is that it doesn’t open until about 4:30 in the afternoon, so I have my mornings free to co-write,” Meyer says. “So Monday through Friday, I do my writing and any other music that I have to get done. In the evenings I go to work.”

Best areas for rentals?

Rutter says East Nashville is prohibitive for those without a robust income and that Donelson is “blowing up.’’ He cites areas near the core of Nashville previously thought to be too rough that are still affordable – but won’t be for much longer.

“Some places that are going to be very expensive are anything north of Trinity Lane, and not just on the East Nashville side,” Rutter says.

“Rents are really going to get expensive anywhere around Trinity Lane because it’s right off the interstate and it’s close to downtown.”

Mayor Megan Barry, who has said affordable housing is a priority for Nashville, is certainly trying to make it work. In her first budget, Barry bolstered the city’s Barnes Fund for Affordable Housing with an extra $10 million.

The Fund gives incentives to developers willing to build lower-cost housing. But some say without a dedicated and ongoing funding stream, there won’t be adequate money to keep the rents in Nashville reasonable as the city continues its trajectory skyward.

Vanderbilt professor James Fraser, a nationally recognized expert in urban policy, particularly in equitable housing, has worked with the Mayor’s Office and with NashvilleNext, a plan created by Nashvillians to guide how and where Nashville grows in the next 25 years.

He says Nashville residents have been over-burdened for some time.

“About half of Nashvillians right now pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent …The development community’s, and the Chamber’s answer, to housing is transportation. Their design option is to build up on the corridors,” Fraser says.

Fraser says cities that do that fail because of an inherent flaw in the idea.

“There are certain groups of people who believe transportation is the answer to our housing problem,” Fraser says.

“What they are not telling us is that studies from around the country show when you do transit-oriented development, those places see increases in land and housing values that price out the very people that these groups are saying will be served.”

For now, areas west of Nashville do not offer enough amenities and are too far from the action, Rutter says. Also, MTA’s BRT (bus rapid transit) Lite service for Charlotte Pike only goes west to the Walmart at 7044 Charlotte Pike and back. It does not go deep into Bellevue, not that it would do much good for artists looking to move there, he adds.

“In Bellevue there is nothing there to attract any of these younger people,” Rutter says. “They want to live in trendy areas. They are willing to sacrifice certain things to be able to live in a better location. They are willing to take an older home or a smaller home, maybe in a pretty rough neighborhood or on a rough street.”

Antioch, an area that historically has not been expensive, Rutter says, is going to increase soon even with more subsidized housing coming to the area. The Ridge at Antioch has been approved for federal low-income tax credits, but the project has seen resistance from some council members

“Any smaller suburb that is that close to downtown is going to increase, so they are going to get more demand down there, even though they are going to be relocating some public housing,” he notes. “If that happens, it may just slow down the rate of rent increases.”

A Catch 22 or two

Rutter says creative talent coming to Nashville should consider at least trying to get connections for employment before coming here.

“It’s hard to get a job in a different state or a different city when you are not there to interview,” he says. “If you plan on moving and don’t have a job, it’s hard to get a place to live without proof of income.”

Skaggs adds that rooms for rents might also be dwindling with so many homeowners using spare rooms as short-term rentals – Airbnb or VRBO. A Nashville judge ruled that the city’s ordinance regulating Airbnbs was too vague, for now keeping that revenue stream for homeowners wide open.

“If they can make more money with a short-term lease instead of having someone in there for a long period of time, then, of course, they are going to do that,” Skaggs points out.

Go away – no wait

The Vanderbilt doctoral student reminds those looking to break into the industry that one way might be to have artists staying put and trekking to and from Nashville.

“It’s OK to come down once a month or four times a year and start to make connections and organizing those visits around songwriter nights,” Skaggs says.

“You can make connections and make that happen without having to live here. I think ultimately most people do want to move here but, especially if you are someone who would have to then slog it out at Starbucks every day, it might be better to stay in the more stable position that you are in and come and visit.”

For Ken Cook, who made a stab at making music in Nashville, the pressure became too much. Cook moved to Nashville in 2009 from Jacksonville and then moved back to Jacksonville six months ago.

“It just got too hard to manage living with a bunch of people and still having the energy to create songs and working full time,” Cook explains. “I was working construction when the weather allowed. That takes it out of you. I could see the writing on the wall. It wasn’t going to get easier. It was going to get harder, and it was certainly getting more expensive.”

Fraser says the Barnes Fund is a good first step but without a sustainable funding source, and without the right infrastructure to scale up, it may not be enough. Currently, in Nashville, public housing has a waiting line that counts in the thousands.

Funding for basic infrastructure and subsidies for development, he says, must be distributed throughout all neighborhoods and should not be vulnerable to being sold.

Fraser points to The James Robertson Apartments, which were sold to make way for a hotel, and the Howe Gardens Apartments in East Nashville, which were sold to a developer who is doubling rents.

However, Fraser applauds Mayor Barry’s efforts.

“The mayor has consistently pledged to fund, build, preserve and retain affordable and moderate-income housing, and we see this promise in the actions she is taking,” Fraser adds.

“Now that we’ve raised people’s awareness to the issue, her office is moving toward the implementation phase.”

Most are coming “anyway”

Hicks says he has skills in place that are well-suited for Nashville.

“I used to be a bartender, so I am thinking that I am just going to look for a bartending job, for the time being anyway,” Hicks says.

Like many, Hicks won’t be deterred by money, or a lack of it. If he can get a foothold in the music industry, not exactly an easy thing for artists in Nashville, he plans to gut it out.

“As long as I am making money and I’m paying the bills I’m not really all that concerned with what I’m doing for income,” he adds.

“I have told everybody that I don’t want anything that is going to interfere with my music.”

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