Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency has a long history in the city. It built the first public housing in the late 1930’s, then pivoted to more commercial endeavors like the convention center and a parking garage.
In recent years, it’s embarked on huge, multi-billion dollar plans to build mixed-income neighborhoods on old public housing complexes, using hundreds of millions of public dollars in the process. They are known as the Envision projects.
This major overhaul is something listener Thomas Webber wanted to ask Nashville’s four main candidates for mayor. He submitted this question to WPLN:
Would you support MDHA’s Envision plan for converting all public housing sites into mixed-income communities?
So, we asked.
Incumbent mayor David Briley is the only candidate to express total confidence in MDHA and its mission. He recently announced that the city will give the agency $350 million over the next decade to help.
“I’m sure they’ll learn as they go about how best to get community input and how best to build communities as they add density and economic diversity to each one of these developments,” he says.
But the Envision projects were supposed to be completed with hardly any Metro money — mostly private investment and federal tax credits. It’s a fact Councilman John Cooper points out often.
“Just a few months ago MDHA said, ‘Hey, it’s fine. It’s fine.’ It’s doing this without extra government subsidies,” Cooper says. “And now it needs all of our affordable housing money in the next 10 years, $350 million?”
Candidate Carol Swain cites the agency’s stained track record of re-developing public housing only to wind up losing residents.
“I think a lot of those programs end up displacing people that don’t find other housing,” Swain says.
And because it relies on both public and private money, MDHA is often criticized for its lack of transparency, an issue that worries Representative John Ray Clemmons.
“We have seen reports that the Envision Cayce project is well behind schedule and overbudget,” Clemmons says. “And that questionable decisions continue to be made that are costing our city a lot of money.”
However candidates feel about MDHA, the fact remains it’s changing the face of Nashville’s public housing and will be for many years to come.
Read the transcript of their answers below, edited for clarity:
Mayor David Briley
I'm sure, though, they'll learn as they go about how best to get community input and how best to build communities as they add density and economic diversity to each one of these developments. But I think if you look at [James] Cayce, you see both you know some real improvements in terms of safety, public safety there, better housing stock, frankly, and I think you're starting to see some income diversity. Which is really, I think, one of the critical questions of this whole process. [Will] you end up with income diversity at the end of the day? And I think we're starting to see it there. So I'm sure they'll learn more as they go along. We sent Matt Wilshire from the mayor's office. [He’s] been the economic development leader in the city for some time, to MDHA to work on this process. Because it's critical to the city's success.
John Ray Clemmons
Well the redevelopment and improvement of existing low-income housing throughout Nashville is certainly a great plan and great effort. However, we must be careful as we continue to gentrify parts of our town to ensure that families are not displaced who rely on this housing. Right now MDHA continues to be one of the least transparent departments within Metro government and has very little accountability to taxpayers. We have seen reports that the Envision Cayce project is well behind schedule and over budget, and that questionable decisions continue to be made that are costing our city a lot of money. The mayor’s proposal, his Under One Roof proposal, it appears to be an effort to subsidize MDHA for being over budget behind schedule. And you know, we must be mindful as we plan and work to improve the lives of all Nashville families that we're not continuing to see displacement of those who need the most assistance from Metro government.
No. Because I think that a lot of those programs end up displacing people that don't find other housing. I think that we have to be creative when it comes to helping people that are in public housing and in Section 8. The centerpiece of my administration, though, will be blue collar housing that's focused on the working population earning $50,000 or below. Making sure they are able to have homes. And what I would do is utilize some of the estimated 20,000 parcels of land owned by the city, making some of that land available to contractors, developers, Habitat for Humanity. Organizations that actually build homes, so that we could have apartment complexes where the rents were not so excessive. Where the rents were between $600 and $1,000. Or homes that could be sold for under $200,000. And with modular technology we can get the costs of a home down to below 150,000 thousand. Of course we would have to put in deed restrictions to prevent people from flipping the homes. But we can provide affordable housing to people who are working in Nashville so that they can live here and continue to live here.
MDHA needs to be held accountable. They have not been very transparent. They have not been held accountable and they should not have the kind of influence and power they do in the city. There needs to be multiple ways for the city to meet its affordable housing. Whether we're talking about workforce housing or housing you know for the truly poor the Section 8 are the ones that are in projects. We cannot put all the focus on MDHA because there are too many special interests involved.
Of course making the MDHA sites really great and vibrant places is going to be one of the wonderful things the city needs to get accomplished in the next 10 years. There are, however, some cautions. One is MDHA, they must not lose its mission. Now, to some degree, MDHA may already, by being a hybrid of development and housing, lost some energy a round housing in the last generation. And it's not a super transparent agency.
Our current idea with the mayor's plan (Under One Roof)…really puts all of our affordable housing money back into the hands of MDHA, all $350 million dollars. I don't know of a local housing group that supports it. Because just a few months ago, MDHA said 'hey it's fine. It's fine.' It's doing this without extra government subsidies. And now it needs all of our affordable housing money in the next 10 years. It's one of the reasons I should be mayor — because you have to have a background in development, in large scale finance and development activities, to know if we're getting value. Right. You have to know what things cost.
And the track record about losing the mission and being distracted with development rather than housing is cause for concern going forward. So having an outsider who's knowledgeable about development be part of this process. Look after this process steward this process is a good thing for National. And I am that person.