Like every other city on the rise, Nashville’s stock of affordable housing is woefully inadequate: One study estimated the city needs to build almost 30,000 more units over the next five years to get back on track.
It’s a daunting number. And whoever leads the city will have to grapple with it.
Nashville’s candidates for mayor all agree that the city is facing a shortage of affordable housing. But their opinions diverge on how to fix it. Some want to fund more city projects, while others want to incentivize private developers.
So WPLN asked the four leading candidates a uniform question: What should Metro's role be in affordable housing?
Candidate Carol Swain has a strikingly specific solution. She says her researchers have identified 1,700 parcels of city-owned that could be given, free of charge, to affordable housing developers, though that number still falls short of reaching the 30,000 goal.
Taking a more conventional approach, Rep. John Ray Clemmons says he’d dramatically increase the Barnes Fund, which right now aims to give developers of affordable housing $10 million a year. In lean budget years, it often falls short.
"The minimum we need in the Barnes Fund is $50 million a year, and that amount cannot be fluctuating," he says.
Mayor David Briley pointed to an initiative launched earlier this year, called Under One Roof, that plans to give the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency $350 million over a decade. The infusion of cash, he says, will speed up the agency’s push to overhaul Nashville’s aging public housing.
But candidate John Cooper, a developer by profession, is openly critical of Briley’s plan.
"The $350 million does not represent truly an expansion of affordable housing," Cooper says. "People don’t realize that that really all of our affordable housing money is now being redirected back to MDHA."
He says the agency lacks transparency and doesn’t have the best track record, and that Nashville needs to be smarter about how and where it spends money on affordable housing.
Read the transcript of their answers below, edited for clarity:
"Well, I think every city should look after the interests of the residents. And what I would like to see, what I see the role is, is to have options, competing options and many of them.
"The crisis is such that I think that in a situation where we have parcels of city-owned land and we have willing developers and contractors who say, 'If we had the land, we can build the housing,' that we have to be creative and to work with the developers. And also to remove some of the roadblocks. This has to do with the permits. In some cases, the zoning is being used not in a way that's beneficial for the citizens. We have to look and make sure that whatever we doing benefits all the residents of Nashville, not just the wealthy few."
John Ray Clemmons
"Metro has a significant role to play in affordable housing, and we first have to recognize that there is an affordable housing crisis in this city. I take great issue with those, like the current mayor, who say there is not a crisis in this city. Displacement is real in Nashville and we have to do something about it. That starts with fully funding the Barnes Fund for affordable housing and creating a dedicated revenue stream on which people who are developing affordable housing units can rely for key financing and equity components. And we can better facilitate financing for affordable housing in the city.
"This isn't just about low-income families. This is about middle-income families like your policemen, your firemen, all your first responders, nurses, teachers. These are people who are being directly impacted by the affordable housing crisis in this city. I speak with people working on this issue all the time and every one of them says the minimum we need in the Barnes Fund is $50 million a year, and that amount cannot be fluctuating or dependent upon the political whims of the Metro Council and the Mayor's office. That needs to be a dedicated reliable revenue stream to build affordable housing to increase the net supply of housing options in this city."
"Our city has for almost 80 years, or around 80 years, had a role in in affordable housing. We have developments that the housing authority has had for that long period of time and we know now that the way we operated and created them has been an obstacle to many families in terms of being prosperous and successful. So we have an obligation to do a great deal there, and that's what Under One Roof is all about.
"But we also have an obligation to think more broadly to make sure that we are getting housing built in our town, that we are getting the private sector engaged to help with workforce housing, and to make sure that we work with our nonprofit, not-for-profit sector to help them build more housing in Nashville."
"First, it needs to be central to everything that we do. That sounds small, but that's actually huge. In the Purcell administration, every single TIF loan that went on to have housing in it also required affordable housing. Now most of our incentives have no affordable housing aspect to this. And equally, the most recently announced plan Under One Roof, people don't realize that really all of our affordable housing money is now being redirected back to MDHA [Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency].
"Now, ultimately no city can solve this problem. It's economic, and there's a national and a state component, which is important to it working better. With the state, getting more state tax credits is probably going to be as important as anything else that happens. But having a business-like yield off of the investment that is measurable in affordable housing — and not just workforce housing or higher end housing pretending to be affordable — actual affordable housing, where the need is, that's where the focus needs to be."