Addressing the Affordable Housing Crisis

We cannot end homelessness if we do not stop people from falling into it, and that requires affordable housing. Nashville is facing an affordable housing crisis: people whose families have been here for generations are being driven from the city, and not infrequently on to the street.

We recently helped a grandmother with 5 grandchildren move out of her apartment as we search for transitional housing. Teachers, firefighters, and police are forced to move outside the city to find affordable rents. Over half of Nashville renters are cost burdened, paying more than 30% of their income, often much more, for housing, leaving little left for food, heat, transportation, and other necessities. 1 in 5 Davidson county residents—129,000 people including some 35,000 children—live in poverty, and many have to supplement their incomes with food boxes.

Average rent in Nashville has risen to $1053 for a 1 bedroom apartment (Dec. 2015, rentjungle.com). A full-time, minimum wage job brings home $1160 before taxes, leaving $107 for a month to live on. Even if people share apartments, they suffer. This is a recipe for disaster. Taxpaying citizens are forced out of their housing as prices continue to rise. For example, between 2000 and 2012, the 12 South neighborhood saw a 269% increase in average housing costs and a 58% decrease in African American population. A study in the Journal of Urban Affairs found that for every $100 rise in rent, homelessness increases by 15%—and rents have risen by $220 since 2013. Entire families are pushed into homelessness, to say nothing of making it impossible to find housing for those we are working with. Besides raising the minimum wage, Open Table Nashville believes there are four ways to make progress:

  • The Barnes Housing Trust Fund, designed to finance affordable housing, needs much better funding. Nashville falls way behind other cities of its size like Seattle or even smaller cities like Knoxville. Vanderbilt’s Jim Fraser, who is an expert in housing policy, recommends an endowment of $120 million, less than it cost to build the Sounds new stadium. Some 20% of housing trust funds around the country including Knoxville, which has less than a third of our population, Indianapolis, Savannah, Charlotte, and Charleston receive more than $10 million per year, and Seattle, a city Nashville’s size, has dedicated more than $20 million to their fund for the next 7 years. Nashville can and must do better.
  • Inclusionary zoning, mandatory or incentivized, needs to be used to ensure developers build for all income levels, not just for middle to upper incomes. NashvilleNext has reasonably proposed a 14% requirement. Voluntary inclusionary zoning has been tried, with no results. Even if inclusionary zoning has to be incentivized, it can make a significant difference in what kinds of housing gets built and help break up concentrated poverty.
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF) needs to be directed at making Nashville something more than a city of shiny buildings for tourists and the wealthy. Wealthy and poor alike pay sales and property taxes (even if renting or at hotels, those rents go in part to pay taxes). These taxes fall far more heavily on the poor. Yet hundreds of millions of dollars of everybody’s tax dollars go to private developers’ projects, luxury hotels, high priced condominiums, baseball stadiums, and charming pedestrian bridges across the Gulch. A few of the smaller examples include the recent $12.5 million allocation to the 505 Church Street project planned to house upper income residents, $3.2 million approved for the Hyatt Hotel, $15 million for the Westin Hotel, and $18 million proposed to pay for a pedestrian bridge. The amount for two projects alone, the 505 Church and the Westin, is nearly 10 times the Barnes Fund endowment and 30 times the amount allocated for its growth. This is all the more ironic in that the competitive theory that drives much of this development would claim successful businesspeople should be able to fund these without government help. Meanwhile, families are falling into homelessness and being forced out of neighborhoods they have lived in for generations as gentrification sweeps the city and rents skyrocket. TIF funding was designed to help “blighted areas,” yet continues to be used to decorate the skyline rather than find homes for families, the elderly, and our most vulnerable neighbors. Under Mayor Purcell, much more funding was aimed at affordable housing. Nashville must aim this funding at impoverished areas and affordable housing rather than corporate welfare.
  • A Community Land Trust would be a better way to make sure the housing trust fund properties stay affordable.  Until the Metropolitan Housing and Development Agency proves itself more concerned with building affordable housing with local TIF dollars—housing aimed at those making 60% or less of area median income—instead of luxury condos and hotels, we believe the Barnes Housing Trust Fund should remain independent.

Open Table Nashville has been working with community partners, especially NOAH and A Voice, to fight for more affordable housing. A Voice has sound position papers on these issues which can be found here: http://www.nashvillevoice.net/position-papers.html. Information about NOAH is here: http://www.noahtn.org.


Building a Caring, Restorative Culture

Our society’s fear and ignorance often blind us to the way laws and beliefs structure society to undermine people struggling in poverty. Rents above wages, need for down payments, the exorbitant price of borrowing when you have little income or assets, a criminal justice system that assumes you are guilty and forces you to plea bargain or sit months in jail waiting for your day in court, long after you would have lost house, car, children, and sanity. The struggle with daily exhaustion, depression, and often chronic pain grind people further into poverty. We recognize people often need a hand up, but don’t realize how often the system works to push them down further into poverty. For our friends on the street, this means they are repeatedly arrested for petty crimes of daily living: resting in the wrong place, camping even on public property, taking shelter under a church awning, using the bathroom outdoors because there is no public toilet easily available.

We are fostering several initiatives to fight this: 1) housing, 2) sanctioned encampments, and 3) the CARE act, and 4) supporting InsureTennessee.

  • Many people on the street get back on their feet after a short episode of homelessness, but we see daily people who have fallen into chronic homelessness, never able to get back on their feet. Open Table Nashville joins with community partners to get people into “housing first.” Only with the stability housing provides can the chronically homeless begin to rebuild their lives. And it has been proven over and over to save communities money. It costs some $14,000 per year to support someone with a case worker in permanent housing, but more than $35,000 (often much more) for all the services someone living on the street uses. And how would we put a price on the suffering and misery people condemned to street life endure?

  • Legalize sleep through sanctioned encampments, non harassment, and housing. Can you even imagine the trauma you would feel if the police came to move you from our home every month or so? If you are on the street, one of the hardest things to get is a decent nights sleep. The mission is crowded and often unworkable, especially for people with jobs, couples and pets owners. Police sweeps of camps persecute the unhoused by driving them from one “illegal” encampment to the next, pushing them further into poverty and making it all the more difficult to escape from homelessness. Of course, new people move back into old camps and into new camps yet undiscovered until the cycle starts all over again. The city wastes millions of dollars sweeping people from one part of the rug to another. The US Justice department has declared arresting people for the crime of sleeping when they have no where else to go is unconstitutional, and the city risks its federal funds supporting getting people into housing if it continues. We need to come up with legitimate places, sanctioned encampments, as a city. It is not enough to say, not in my backyard. We know people are sleeping in all areas of the city: they already live nearly in our backyards. There need to be sanctioned areas where people can go without getting arrested. We are working with the Homeless Commission to find more humane solutions.
  • The CARE Act: The proposed Compassionate Assistance and Right to Exist act, or CARE act, aims to do 5 things: (1) protect the rights of faith groups and other organizations seeking to assist people experiencing poverty and homelessness; (2) protect everyone’s right to life and liberty, and prioritize the safety of everyone on our streets by focusing on people who commit crimes rather than those who are participating in acts of daily living like sitting, sleeping, or simply existing in public; (3) save taxpayers and the State of TN money by reducing needless jail and court costs; (4) remove obstacles to stability that un-housed people often endure such as the loss of property, IDs, and driver’s licenses, barriers to employment, and unpayable fines, court costs, and jail time; and (5) ensure that the State of TN addresses homelessness as an economic and social issue and not a criminal one. We will be sharing more information about how you can support the CARE act as it comes before the legislature in the spring.
  • InsureTennessee: besides imposing immense suffering on the poor, the lack of health and mental health insurance imposes greater costs on us all. For the poor, emergency rooms become the only form of care available, and then, only when care is often expensive or even too late. Routine but essential care like prenatal checkups, mental health treatment, diabetes monitoring, cancer screenings become out of reach until serious damage is done, both to the patient in need as well as to the larger society. Health care costs for us all are driven up by this. Hospitals are closing due to lack of funding, a critical situation for all, especially in rural areas. The savings are enormous. In mental health care alone, we can save some $40 million a year if we would expand insurance to the poorest. Of course, as we see daily, mental health problems spill over to everyone. But most of all, so many of our most vulnerable neighbors suffer with untreated illnesses and injuries because they cannot afford care. InsureTennessee is a win, win situation for us all. You can find out more about InsureTennessee at https://www.tnjustice.org/gap.