A modern ghetto? A community's fight over affordable housing

Aug 15 2016
Posted by: The Contributor
A modern ghetto? A community's fight over affordable housing

By: Amelia Ferrell Knisely & Allie Gross

It’s a familiar story for the new Nashville: skyrocketing home prices, rapid gentrification and the growing demand for affordable housing. Residents, council members and housing activists agree that we need more housing for those who are struggling to afford living where they work. But a heated debate over a 96-unit workforce housing development in Antioch highlights the controversy over where Nashville’s affordable housing should go.


Metro Councilwoman Karen Johnson is fighting the development through legislation, arguing that yet another affordable housing development in her southeast Nashville district is concentrating poverty. Some residents have joined her in the fight against what they see as “modern day segregation.” Those supporting the development say Nashville has an urgent need for affordable housing developments in all its neighborhoods, including Antioch.


The housing development, dubbed The Ridge at Antioch, was approved in 2015 by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) for $11 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). It’s sandwiched between two existing affordable developments — Weatherly Ridge and Hamilton Creek Apartments — spurring outcry from Johnson and some residents who claim Antioch already has enough affordable housing.


Johnson introduced legislation that would downzone the property for only single-family homes, effectively blocking the project on Forest View Drive. The Metro Planning Commission in May unanimously disapproved her request, but Johnson continued to pursue the legislation before announcing July 5 that she would table the bill to give the council time to discuss the issue with Arkansas-based developer RichSmith Development.


Johnson says that she will continue to “exhaust all avenues” in fighting the development, even possibly taking the issue to court. She argues that adding another affordable housing development to an area of the city that already is home to several would create a concentration of poverty that should be avoided.


“We don’t want to create an entire block of low-income tax credit buildings,” Johnson said. “That’s counter to being able to provide fair housing opportunities. Counter to what we want to accomplish as a city and a violation to fair housing.”


Despite the tabling of the bill, RichSmith spokesperson Joe Hall said construction will begin this year and should be complete in 12 months. RichSmith hired Hall Strategies, a Nashville-based public relations and lobbying firm, in an effort to fight Johnson’s legislation.


“The property is legally zoned and approved, and Metro Government has determined that RichSmith has vested property rights under Tennessee state law,” Hall said.
Many Antioch residents have backed Johnson in her opposition.


“We are not anti-low-income housing. We’re just against them concentrating (it) in one part of Davidson County,” Antioch resident Laura Moss, who spoke against the development at a community forum, said. “These create ghettos.”


Other neighbors cite concerns of an increase in crime and traffic after another affordable housing development is constructed in their backyards. John Griggs, an Antioch resident of 26 years, claims that people in his neighborhood feel unsafe.

“There’s nothing positive in it for this community,” he said.


Johnson also said moving more families to Antioch would create challenges for the already overburdened school districts that are operating at 102-106 percent capacity.

Hall said the developers chose the 7.84-acre property, located near Murfreesboro Pike, following a market study that identified Nashville’s need for additional workforce housing.


THDA Executive Director Ralph Perrey expressed the agency’s opposition to Johnson’s bill last month in a letter to the councilwoman. Perrey asked Johnson not to allow the public debate on the issue “to reinforce the negative and false impression many people have” of low-income apartments.


“Rezoning the parcel out from under a developer to whom we have awarded over $11 million in tax credits would be difficult for us to reconcile,” Perrey wrote. “THDA would need to take this into account when scoring future applications for developments in Davidson County and in any other counties which treat tax advantaged developments in a similar fashion.”


Activists explained that this means that if Nashville doesn’t build the 96 units that THDA approved for LIHTC, it could jeopardize the city’s future applications for the tax credits from THDA because the city could be deemed unreliable.


Nashvillians, including Antioch residents, agree that the burgeoning “it” city needs more affordable places for its citizens to live. However, the “not in my backyard” mentality forces a controversial question for all neighborhoods: Where should it go?

“It’s based on a misconception about stereotypes,” is how Tiffany Phillips, a Weatherly Ridge resident, describes Johnson’s fight against the affordable housing project.

“When you hear government housing or tax credit, you think of the projects, a run-down neighborhood or a predominantly black neighborhood. But that’s not the case here in Weatherly Ridge,” she said. “I’ve seen white, Muslim, Indian, a little of everything. There’s more elderly people here than anything else.”


The city defines affordable housing as households making 60 percent of the area’s Median Household Income or less (MHI), and workforce housing is designated at 61-120 percent of MHI. According to the latest U.S. Census figures from 2014, the MHI for Davidson County for a family of four is $60,074.


More than half of Nashville renters are “cost burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to Open Table Nashville. Housing advocate Austin Sauerbrei emphasized that those qualifying for affordable housing don’t constitute a “special population.”


“They are the backbone of our city,” he said. “They’re the one’s taking care of our children, building our buildings, cooking (and growing) our food, maintaining our infrastructure and so on. They have always been productive members of our community and the development community should be held accountable to treat them accordingly.”


Antioch is home to a significant amount of affordable housing because its relatively low land prices attract developers. Affordable housing like the development proposed for Antioch — and the surrounding developments — doesn’t look any different from other apartment complexes. Phillips’ home, Weatherly Ridge, neighbors the proposed property, and is beautifully well-kept. There’s a pool, security guards and green spaces.


Phillips, a newly-employed college graduate, loves living in the unit she describes as “up-to-date.” “I don’t make a lot of money, even with my degree. To be able to live in a decent place and afford it, it’s pretty cool,” she said.


THDA also acknowledges that misconceptions exist about affordable housing and tax credit properties in the Nashville area.


“What they imagine is what you see on TV when you think about the projects,” said Rick Lewis, THDA communications coordinator. “These (properties) are built and managed privately. They’re for people who have income, but not a lot of income right now. They work in hotels, restaurants, shops, as teachers’ aides and nurses — all of the professions that are valuable to the community.”


Sam Lester, a housing advocate who works with Open Table Nashville, says there’s a myth that affordable housing coming to an area brings negative consequences — like driving down property values and increasing crime. Lester argues affordable housing actually stabilizes a neighborhood.


“Once they’re in affordable housing, they can actually stabilize their finances. It means people will not be increasingly in danger of falling into poverty. Their children won’t have to worry about scrambling from school to school as they lose their housing. They’ll be able to spend more money for paying for everything else.” Lester added that neighborhoods should be fighting over who gets affordable housing for their residents, rather than rejecting developments.


While “not in my backyard” thinking is often a hurdle for adding affordable housing to neighborhoods, in Antioch, the fight is more complicated. Many residents just feel that their neighborhood has enough affordable housing. They want the resources Antioch gets from the city to be spent on other needs — like on overburdened infrastructure and schools.


Affordable Housing Resources CEO Eddie Latimer said he sympathizes with both sides of the Antioch debate — that Nashville is desperate for more affordable housing and for future tax credits, but it should also be built throughout the city.

“School systems get overloaded with kids, infrastructure gets overloaded with families,” Latimer said. “It isolates that community because eventually that community is monolithic in income. So it’s not a good way to do it. The best way to do it is to figure out how to spread your affordable housing in with mid-class housing, upper-income housing.”


Moving forward: How to help families navigate an affordable housing crisis


Professor Jim Fraser of Vanderbilt University is an affordable housing expert who helped with the NashvilleNext plan. He said that equitable development — providing housing for all income levels throughout all neighborhoods of the city — must be central to the city’s strategy.


“If we group all lower income families or households in certain areas of the city, we know from history that typically these areas also have less amenities, they tend to be further away from the city center, and that creates a range of issues, including transportation,” Fraser said. “That means that while this project might be good, we need to see a commitment from our political leadership to make sure that when people develop properties that they need to include affordable housing, whether you’re in East Nashville, South Nashville, West Nashville or anywhere.”


Fraser commended Mayor Megan Barry for prioritizing the issue, and said that Nashville could benefit from increased inclusionary zoning to develop more mixed-income areas, increased incentives for developers to build affordable housing, and the establishment of a government-funded community land trust.


Last week, Barry announced a new pilot program that offers incentives to developers to build affordable and workforce housing. Developers can apply to receive a grant that would cover the difference between affordable rent prices and market-rate prices (capped at 50 percent of the increase in property value).


Housing advocates also point to Metro leaders to continue to diversify the placement of affordable housing in Nashville. Fabian Bedne, leader of Metro Council’s affordable housing committee, supports inclusionary zoning in an effort to keep Nashville residents near their workplaces. He’s supported Johnson’s bill publicly, and also said that more transparency from THDA is necessary as properties become vested for LIHTC.

“Tax incentives need to be put in Green Hills, East Nashville, not farther out. Incentivize where we need it,” Bedne said.


Sauerbrei said it’s important that in future affordable housing development, local residents who will be impacted should be included in the planning. In the case of Antioch, the residents’ complaints — and Johnson’s bill — arose after the development was already underway, and the property paid for.


“I do want to acknowledge the fact that the city and developers are notorious for going into communities and just plopping down developments without any consultation with the community,” Sauerbrei said. “I think that’s something that needs to change. We need to figure out how to do development in a way that includes residents of the community in the process.”

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