Mark Humphrey / AP

Nashville’s boom prices out low-income, middle class residents

While the city’s bid to boost economic growth has brought jobs, some find themselves unable to afford skyrocketing rents

NASHVILLE — Raydhira Abreu, a middle-class Nashvillian who works as a leasing agent for an affordable housing developer in the city, says that without being able to live in one of her company’s units, she would be forced to leave the city.

“Even with the money I’m making now, I don’t think I could afford to live here,” she said. “We have zero apartments, and every day there’s more and more demand.”

Nashville is rising in national profile and quite literally: 30-story condominium towers are popping up downtown, modest homes are being torn down and replaced with 3,000-square-foot modern houses in East Nashville, and new restaurants, bars and clubs are opening seemingly every week.

While the city is booming, incomes haven’t kept pace with costs. A city study found that the median family income in the Nashville area rose 6 percent from 2000 to 2013 but rents rose 21 percent for four-bedroom apartments and 39 percent for one-bedrooms.

About 19 percent of city residents live below the poverty line — a rate slightly higher than for the rest of the nation — but that doesn’t take into account the higher cost of living in the city. Activists and experts say the boom is pricing out low- and middle-income Nashvillians and that the city needs to seriously ramp up its affordable housing programs if it hopes to avoid displacement.

The city is one of the fastest-growing rental markets in the nation, according to housing website Zillow, and occupancy rates were 98 percent in 2014. And unlike some other fast-growing cities like New York and Washington, Nashville doesn’t require developers to set aside units for affordable housing in new buildings that receive tax or other subsidies.

Nashville’s economic rise can be traced at least in part to cooperation between the city and the Chamber of Commerce to draw a slew of companies of all kinds downtown. Their plan, called Partnership 2020, has the goal of attracting about 120,000 new people to the region, creating 50,000 jobs and getting at least 150 companies to relocate from other parts of the country and state by 2016. Nashville’s current population is about 635,000.

So far, it seems to be working. The city has gone from having a median household income 5 percent below the U.S. average to 7 percent above it since 2011, according to the Chamber. And major companies have been moving to Nashville in droves.

Nashville’s bids to boost economic growth have been largely successful but have come at a price. One of the biggest efforts was the 350,000-square-foot Music City Center, a convention center downtown that cost Nashville $623 million. The city has given out hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks, including to the  ABC TV series “Nashville” and most recently a $50 million break to tire manufacturer Bridgestone to woo the company downtown from its suburban headquarters.

Nashville Food Project volunteers serve food to veterans at Operation Stand Down.
Peter Moskowitz for Al Jazeera America

But in some places — a dilapidated apartment building for seniors downtown, an overcrowded Section 8 apartment in the east or at Operation Stand Down, a veterans’ assistance nonprofit in the southern section of the city, things seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

A group of older veterans, some wearing tattered clothes, gathered in Operation Stand Down’s vestibule in mid-March, one strumming a guitar. This is where volunteers from the Nashville Food Project have taken today’s bounty of leftovers from the city’s only Whole Foods to some of those struggling to make it in Nashville’s boom.

The veterans line up at a plastic table outside and get some of the day’s offerings — quiche, salad, fruit.

“The city has changed so much,” said David Bean, a 42-year old veteran who returned to Nashville after eight years in the Marine Corps in 2011 to find the city filled with apartments he couldn’t afford. “It’s unbelievable. It’s like Atlanta.”

Bean, who works for the minimum wage in Operation Stand Down’s thrift store, is currently housed in one of the nonprofit’s supportive housing facilities, but after two years — the nonprofit’s maximum time for supportive housing — he’ll have to find a place of his own.

“I’m choosing to stay here the full two years and save as much as I can,” he said. “I like Nashville. I want to stay here. But I might not be able to afford anything.”

While most are supportive of the new jobs coming to this once sleepy Southern city, activists say that the city needs to prioritize its spending to ensure lower- and middle-income people can afford to live there and take advantage of the new jobs.

“They spent $600 million on the convention center. Do you know how many houses could be built for that?” said Howard Allen Jr., a housing advocate who is homeless. “We’ve got businesses homing here. They’re not paying taxes …They’re building all kinds of condos. But it’s getting worse every day for the homeless.”

Mayor Karl Dean’s office did not return calls for comment for this story.

According to the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, 29 percent of Nashville-area residents are cost-burdened — which the agency defines as households that spend over 35 percent of their income on housing — compared with about 23 percent in the state as a whole.

Homelessness is a growing issue in the city. There were more than 2,300 homeless people in Nashville in 2013 — an increase of about 500 from 2004, according to city data, though housing advocates say that number is likely an underestimate.

The rising cost of living is squeezing middle-income families as well; enough Nashville children in public schools qualify for free lunches — 72 percent — that last year that the county decided to make school lunch free for all.

“After the recession, there was a sense that middle class people are hurting in a way they hadn’t before,” said Tallu Schuyler Quinn, the executive director of the nonprofit Nashville Food Project. “When someone is paying so much for rent or a mortgage or a hotel, so much is going toward that, there is so little left for food.”

And a study commissioned by the city and carried out by Vanderbilt University’s community research and action program last year found that Nashville’s tools for increasing the affordability of the city are lacking. Nashville’s public housing system has a 3,000-person waiting list, and its Section 8 voucher system for affordable housing has a 10,000-person waiting list that is not accepting new applications.

Section 8 backlogs are common in many American cities, but most don’t face housing costs rising as quickly as Nashville’s.

James Fraser, a professor in the department of human and organizational development at Peabody College and one of the authors of the Vanderbilt affordability study, said the number of cost-burdened people would continue to rise as Nashville keeps growing. The city is expected to gain 185,000 people over the next 25 years, he said. That means Nashville will need to build about 113,000 more homes, and there’s no mechanism to guarantee that those homes will be affordable.

Affordable housing was identified by 56 percent of Nashvillians as a top concern for the future of the city, according to a 2012 survey by the city.

Fraser has outlined strategies to address those concerns, including a property tax to fund affordable housing creation, an agency dedicated to affordable housing needs and better funding of the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which was started in 2013 with $3 million and, according to Fraser and representatives from a coalition of dozens of churches and nonprofits called Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, should be increased by tens of millions of dollars.

Linda Harrison, a 68-year-old who has lived in Nashville for nearly her entire life, is about to move away. For the last four years, she and two of her sisters have been living in a Section 8–subsidized apartment downtown. In December she was informed by its owner, 10th Avenue Partners, that the apartments would be leaving the Section 8 program.

“The owners will be evaluating options of the property over the next 90 days to establish the optimal use for this iconic piece of Nashville history,” 10th Avenue Partners said in a statement in January.

Harrison has applied to live in three other Section 8 developments across the state, including one in Nashville, but hasn’t heard back yet. One of her sisters has found a place on the other side of town; the other is still looking. So Harrison is moving in with extended family in Smyrna, about 25 miles south.

“I’ve lived here almost all my life, so I was very disappointed,” she said. “But I don’t want to live in Nashville anymore if I’m going to be separated from my family.”

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