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VOL. 44 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 31, 2020

Leadership flux hurts affordable housing efforts

By Hollie Deese

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Tracey Ford of EOA Architects, which designs micro apartments such as the Bento in Chestnut Hill.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Among Nashville’s many growing pains is stability at the top. There have been four mayors in four years, not exactly the most efficient way to do business or follow through on plans.

So while it was exciting in March when then-mayor David Briley announced a sweeping affordable housing initiative designed to significantly accelerate the city’s efforts to address housing needs, part of that plan has already been cut.

Briley’s Under One Roof 2029 initiative aimed to invest $750 million over the next 10 years in affordable housing in Nashville, with $500 million of that coming from the city. The initiative was expected to create at least 10,000 new units and includes a $150 million investment of city funds in the Barnes Fund – Nashville’s affordable housing trust fund – a 50% increase above previous funding levels.

That commitment was projected to help fund the creation of at least 5,000 affordable housing units throughout the city.

In December, Mayor John Cooper announced the Metro Housing Trust Fund Commission had approved a new round of grants from the Barnes Fund to support the development and rehabilitation of 549 affordable housing units in Nashville. Cooper awarded a partial round of $5 million in grants, but it was far less than the $9.5 million initially thought to be awarded for that time period.

A look at a Bento micro apartment’s kitchen and living room area, an affordable housing choice in Nashville in Chestnut Hill.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Mayor Cooper, who inherited a $41 million budget gap, was hopeful that with potential budget savings and efficiencies, Metro could back an additional round of awards this spring using an excess fund balance. His office said the move was to avoid widespread personnel changes and interruption of vital city services.

“Even with our current budget difficulties, we are pleased to announce that the Barnes Fund will make grant awards due to their critical importance to housing affordability in our city,” Cooper said.

“The Barnes Fund is a critical part of making sure affordable housing is at the center of everything we do in Nashville. Providing housing stability for our children, taking stress off our local workforce, and creating opportunities for seniors to remain in their communities are all goals that help achieve a stronger Nashville for all of us.”

Under the Barnes Housing Fund requirements, eligible projects must create or preserve affordable housing opportunities in Nashville-Davidson County. Projects must be affordable to households with incomes at or below 60% area median income for rental projects and at or below 80% of the area median income adjusted for family size for homebuyer projects.

Since 2013 the Barnes Fund has invested $37 million in affordable housing projects and has helped build 1,700 housing units. Organizations that will receive funds in this round are Our Place, Affordable Housing Resources, Habitat for Humanity Nashville, Woodbine, Westminster, Be a Helping Hand and Living Design Concepts.

Cooper also appointed Paulette Coleman, founding chair of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope’s affordable housing task force, to the MDHA Board of Commissioners, in an effort to reshape the board and focus its efforts on housing.

A small but cozy bedroom at Bento, designed by EOA Architects in Nashville and created for workforce housing.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Yet it can be extra frustrating when existing apartments that already meet the affordable housing needs of Nashville musicians, artists and creatives like the historic Louise Douglas Apartments on Elliston Place are in danger of being torn down to make way for a hotel – lodging that won’t service Nashville’s working or creative class.

“We understand that not everything can be done through government,” says Telisha Cobb, co-owner of the Exit/In, who says she supported Mayor Cooper along with her husband and business partner Chris, in the last election.

“However, we do believe that given our affordable home crisis, we should have a policy that doesn’t allow for creating more scarcity within the market. I mean, other cities are doing it. I don’t understand why Nashville hasn’t.”

Cobb says many of the people living in those apartments work within Nashville’s hospitality industry.

“They’re artists,” she adds. “They’re working class people that are engaged in our local community. Where will they go? Why would we take hundreds of homes and turn them into 165 hotel rooms? It makes no sense. It’s absolutely time for our Metro Council to step up and put a moratorium on hotels. We’re so out of balance. And I’m not an extremist in saying that we don’t need tourism. I’m saying we don’t need exploited tourism.”

With 89 rooms that vary in size, Bento in Wedgwood-Houston is almost like a hotel hybrid. The project began as an apartment mixed-use building, all rentals. Then it evolved into a hotel that could also be short-term rental – or longer – that accommodates small footprint living. With rooms for rent that are fully furnished – including kitchens with dishes – it’s like a WeWork for living.

So while people could stay at Bento for a long weekend in Nashville, they could also stay long-term as they get their footing underneath them in a new city, deciding where to live next and what they could actually afford.

Nashville is their first pilot test project for the model.

“There’s so many people who are just coming through the city who are needing to be here for a week, more than one night, and it’s meant to attract the creative types,” says Tracey Ford, principal architect and partner at EOA Architects and lead on the Bento project.

“It gets folks who are traveling through the city for work, and then also a lot of people knowing they’re coming to Nashville without knowing what neighborhood they want to live in yet.”

There’s dry cleaning service, mail and a cleaning program for long-term stays.

EOA handles commercial projects as well as mixed-use, multifamily and – scale-wise – the firm runs the gamut, from the Pinnacle building downtown to the nature center at Shelby Bottoms Nature Center. But they always try to keep the work community minded.

“It can’t be cookie cutter,” Ford acknowledges. “It needs to be thoughtful. It needs to work with the neighborhoods. I think a lot of folks see developers bringing in things and all these promises, and then the final product does not reflect that.

“But because we have been here for a very long time, we know these neighborhoods. We know the people, and it’s our community and we want to shape it in an amazing way, not just make it look like any other neighborhood. We want Nashville to be awesome.”

Cobb says she and her husband get calls all the time to come to other cities and do what they do there instead of here. But they don’t want to go. But they don’t want to keep fighting either and look to newcomers to help keep Nashville the kind of place that drew them here too.

“We choose Nashville because we have roots here,” she explains. “It’s not always the easiest place to do it, but we’re committed to doing it, and we love the people. And we know that if you provide authenticity, historically in Nashville, the people will support you.

“With all the changeover in residents, where small businesses are continuously having to do outreach, I would just ask new residents to really focus on getting to know your community, getting to know your local businesses and not just do what is easy or familiar.”

“We have to decide who we want to be so that we know what we need to do,” Cobb says. “And I do believe that a lot of people have lost trust in our local government because they say one thing and then do another.

“And it comes down to choices. If we say that affordable housing is a priority, why would we allow demolition of hundreds of homes? We’re at a congruence on what we say and what we do, and we need to bring those into alignment if we want people to really trust and invest for the long term here.”

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