The Nashville Scene recently published the map above, along with a short article about the persistence, and spread, of poverty in Nashville. The map comes from the 114-page “executive summary” of Metro’s Social Services Department’s annual report, and has a lot of very revealing information about “the it city.” Forget the hipster/country music glamour stereotypes–“it’s” about poverty. While about a quarter of our city’s residents have incomes of $100,000 a year or more, another quarter of us are living at or below the poverty line, with incomes of less than $25,000 a year, including yours truly. The maps show how poverty has spread in Nashville, moving into the suburbs. They are also a good springboard for a discussion of housing policy and zoning.
Gentrification is a major issue in Nashville, often coupled with increased population density, as developers purchase small, older houses on large lots and replace them with structures, frequently duplexes or apartment buildings, that more nearly fill the lot. Although I think greater urban density is a good idea, I don’t think this is the way to go about it, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are ecological, others are social, others are psychological.
Ecologically, putting a big house on a small lot often involves removing large trees from the lot, and precludes any large trees growing there in the future. This doesn’t just threaten Nashville’s reputation as an “urban forest” city. Having fewer trees makes a neighborhood hotter in the summer, which means residents’ electric bills rise as they have to use more energy to cool their homes. In addition to cooling from shade and transpiration, trees’ leaves absorb carbon dioxide and act as air cleaners. Large trees are also homes for birds, many of whom eat insects, so fewer trees may mean more insects, which can be a nuisance, or, in the case of mosquitoes, an outright danger. Finally, smaller yards mean more storm water runoff, which means sewers need to be expanded, and there is greater danger of flooding.
Those are some of the ecological drawbacks of increased urban density as it is currently being practised in Nashville. Socially, the drawbacks are also numerous. Because we have an economic system that favors high bidders, developers find lots in low-income neighborhoods that they can purchase relatively cheaply, and then market the new dwellings to higher-income individuals. This doesn’t create a genuinely diverse neighborhood. It creates a schizophrenic neighborhood, where new arrivals have no relationship, and no need to relate, to their neighbors, who are pressured by rising taxes and rising rents to leave, paving the way for more gentrification. Low-income departing residents do not all go to the same location, disrupting their social networks and frequently resulting in increasing transportation costs for them as they leave higher-density, service-rich areas for suburbs where, possibly, they have no friends or shopping opportunities in easy walking distance. The map above dramatically demonstrates the suburbanization of poverty.
The subject of walking around Nashville is a topic in itself. The city’s lack of sidewalks is not just a scandal, it is a clear and present danger. I once lived in the Hillsboro Village area, and worked in Green Hills. At one point, my car was in the shop, and the bus schedule was not convenient for me, so I took a half hour and walked the mile and a half or so to work. Walking up Hillsboro Road just south of I-440 was downright scary–no sidewalk, fast traffic, and a ditch on the side of the road. I never got hit, but all it would have taken was one sloppy driver, and I would not be here to tell the tale. I have to wonder–is the lack of sidewalks mere neglect, or is it intended to discourage the carless hoi-polloi from walking into our city’s “better neighborhoods”?
This does segue into what I have called the psychological drawbacks to gentrification involving new homes that take up most of the lot they sit on. Once upon a time, before air conditioning and television, let alone the internet, people sat out on their porches in the evening to catch the cool air, while the kids met and played together in the street or on the sidewalks, or in somebody’s big side yard or empty lot that provided room for a pickup game of softball or tag football. You could say that coping with the heat created community. People worked in their back yard gardens,pushed quiet rotary lawn mowers, or hung laundry, and talked to each other over the back fence, or had backyard cookouts together.
The new building I have seen in Nashville generally negates these possibilities. The assumption is that all activity takes place indoors, that all communication will be via phone or internet, that all encounters with neighbors will be prearranged, that all exercise will be at the gym. Open space for gardens is not important, because food comes from grocery stores and restaurants. We don’t have time to grow flowers. We’re too busy answering our email.
There are also long-term economic drawbacks to Nashville’s spate of mostly gentrified new housing. The economic boom that is enabling a quarter of us to earn more than $100,000 a year is not going to last forever. Even if some people keep on making good money, our economic system will find a way to distribute its returns to fewer and fewer people. As conditions in this country and around the planet continue to deteriorate, more and more of the two million new arrivals our city planners anticipate will be fairly destitute, fleeing homes that have gone literally under water on our coasts, or literally out of water in the west and southwest. Those who have bet on a bull market in housing may find themselves with more homes than customers, and Nashville may find itself in the position of having empty luxury housing and insufficient low-income housing. Indeed, we are already edging into that territory.
What could we, as a city, do to make sure that there is an adequate supply of affordable housing? And what’s an ecologically intelligent way to move towards greater urban density?
We need to start by acknowledging that the real root of our problem, our short-term-profit-oriented, selfish economic system, is not something we here in Nashville can change all by ourselves. What we need to do is adopt mitigation strategies, ways to deflect the grasp of greed.
One approach to this is to give neighborhoods sayso over their character and density by giving residents the power to make zoning decisions. Currently, these decisions are made by the Metro Planning Commission. Here’s the common perception of that body:
The Metro Planning staff has never met a development they didn’t like, and typically the Metro Planning Commission rubber stamps any project the planning staff recommends.
That is because the Metro Planning Commission is primarily composed of developers, real estate agents, and investors who accept the idea that “development” is, in general, a Good Idea. We saw this played out in the notorious Maytown Center debate, when the Planning Commission seemed all too willing to approve a proposal that would have trashed one of the wildest parts of Davidson County, not to mention a rural/small-scale agriculture neighborhood, to build a multi-building, multi-story development whose tenants were unknown, and that involved massive infrastructure costs for the city, which would have had to provide at least two more bridges over the Cumberland River, plus all the road changes and enlargements that would involve, just so a developer could make some money. It almost passed. In fact, technically, it’s still merely “deferred.” It is not dead, but sleepeth–and long may it sleep.
Anyway, this move and others like it should have morally discredited the Planning Commission, but, instead, they’re soldiering on as if nothing had happened, as we have seen in a recent decision that opened up White’s Creek to unsustainable, urban-sprawl development. The White’s Creek valley is some of the most fertile farmland in middle Tennessee. Common sense would dictate that one does not build houses and roads on one’s prime growing land, but common sense has been displaced by greed. It’s time to change that. Metro Planning Commission should be reorganized as a more representative body, with developers and others who make their living from development excluded from making decisions on behalf of the people. Its function, once most zoning decisions are made at the neighborhood level, would be to co-ordinate planning among neighborhoods.
So, while Metro rubber stamps proposals for upper-income development, the needs of the average Davidson County resident are being ignored. According to the Nashville Tennessean,
The median income for a family of four is $46,000 in the county.
While the cost of rent has increased between 21 percent (four-bedroom home) to 39 percent (efficiency) from 2000 to 2013, wages have only increased by 6 percent during that same time period.
At the same time, Metro has identified a growing number of people who are “cost burdened,” or whose rent or mortgage payments exceed 30 percent of their gross income. More than one-third of homeowners and more than half of renters are cost burdened.
Since the around start of this century, Nashville has spent 3-400 million dollars on a new football stadium, $600 million on the Music City Center, $120 million on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, $47 million on a new baseball stadium, and over $40 million on Ascend Amphitheater. That’s a total of someplace north of a billion dollars on infrastructure that mostly benefits people at the high end of the income scale in this town. ($50/seat for Titans games, $70 for Nashville Sounds tickets, $50-70 or up for Ascend Amphitheater, Schermerhorn tickets from $150 up). Meanwhile, it took 17 years for Rev. Bill Barnes to get the city to agree to start a housing trust fund to help create more affordable housing in Nashville, a project that was started, Mayor Dean acted proud to announce, with $3 million dollars. Excuse me, but that’s chump change. A billion dollars for playgrounds for the wealthy, and three tenths of one percent of that for low-income housing? Thanks, Mayor Dean!
This pittance will cover making about 300 homes a year affordable to people with low incomes. At that rate, it will take over three hundred years to create enough affordable housing for the estimated 100,000 Davidson county households that are “cost burdened.” Get on that list and get ready to wait a while, folks! Clearly, this fund needs a higher priority in the city’s budget, and new revenue streams as well. A one percent tax on LP Field’s revenues, dedicated to affordable housing, might raise a couple of million a year. Another possibility is a small tax on real estate transactions, which account for about eight billion dollars in sales in a given year. (8,000 home sales per quarter, average home price a quarter million dollars yields that number). Between these two ideas, we could add tens of millions of dollars a year to the Barnes fund. Such increased support would make it easier to convince foundations and private donors that the Barnes Fund is worth contributing to, and might grow it even faster.
Currently, the Barnes Fund is used, as far as I can tell, largely to subsidize the construction of low-income housing. If that is true, then it is basically paying developers the money they lose by not building high-income housing. I would like to see the Barnes Fund’s uses expanded, along with its income. Weatherization could be done by crews from the neighborhood where the work is being done, with a provision that they take on young apprentices who can thus learn how to do real work in a hands-on environment. The biggest change I would like to see would be using it to buy property that might otherwise be gentrified, and preserve it by establishing a Nashville Community Land Trust, which would not only give people ownership over their homes, but add another layer of protection from gentrification. If we wanted to get really proactive, we could use the power of eminent domain to purchase rental properties, and then sell them, via the land trust route, to their occupants.
Along these lines, we could transform MDHA properties into co-ops, owned and controlled by the people who live in them.
That’s a long answer to the short question of how to create an adequate supply of affordable housing in Nashville. I’ll try to be a little more succinct on the subject of raising Nashville’s urban density level.
We need to look at any proposed new construction as not just affecting the lot where a new home or other building will be built. We need to look at what it does to the neighborhood. If a lot of trees and open space are to be sacrificed, some other area should be preserved, or reverted to a more natural state, so that “the balance of nature” is maintained in the neighborhood. Nashville Urban Food Forests has done some work in this area, and the city should encourage and spread their work.
So, those are a few ideas for improving the supply of affordable housing in Davidson County. I am no expert on this subject, which has its advantages and disadvantages. As a newcomer, I see the situation with fresh eyes, but I may also be overlooking possibilities that somebody with more experience might see. I invite your input.
music: Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, “Working on a Building“