Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mayoral Candidates stake out positions on affordable housing

Last night candidates for mayor took part in a forum sponsored by NOAH, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope. This is a  progressive coalition of interfaith and labor groups. About 500 people attended the event but unfortunately I was not able to attend. One of the topics of this forum was  affordable housing. In addition to this event, the mayoral candidates shared their views on affordable housing at a televized event on June 25th and each talked about affordable housing when interviewd by the Tennessean editorial board. Below in a nutshell is the opinion of the candidates on affordable housing:

David Briley
David Briley says affordable housing  is a "human right."  I am bothered by categorizing the things to which society may determine people are entitled as "rights."  Liberals do not know the difference or do not recognize a difference between liberties and entitlements. Categorically, freedom of speech and a right to paid maternity leave are different things. Right off the bat, Briley is losing me by calling affordable housing a "human right."

Briley has outlined an affordable housing initiative called Under One Roof 2029, which would spend $750 million over 10 years, primarily towards the redevelopment of aging public housing into mixed-income communities. This plan has come under a lot of criticism. Critics says it takes pieces of what is on the drawing board anyway and puts it in a new package. Also it calls for increasing funding to the Barnes Fund, the money to come from the operating budgets.  Budgets are approved each year and there are competing needs. This intent to fund the Barnes Fund at a higher level is no more than a good intention. One mayor or council cannot obligate the next.

$350 million of the money Briley proposed would come from issuing new general obligation bonds. This is at a time when Nashville has the highest debt obligation per person of any city in America. We need to be lowering our debt, not adding to it.

$250 million would come from voluntary investments in affordable housing by the private sector.  This is pulling money out of thin air. He could have made his plan a billion dollar plan by saying the private sector would make $500 in voluntary investments.

Briley's plan is smoke and mirrors based on wishful thinking.

John Cooper
At the NOHA event, Cooper pandered and said he advocates putting a NOHA representative on MDHA's board. While I generally have a negative view of NOHA, and while I would not want to specify than any one political group be entitled to a representative on the MDHA board, I would not oppose that their be a low-income person  from a "pocket of poverty" or low-income census track be on the board.  In my view, MDHA is too focused on building luxury condo's and one advocate for poor people on the board, would not hurt. That is not much of a solution to the problem of the declining availability of affordable housing however.

Cooper has a modest, practical affordable housing plan on his website. He advocates small changes that can make a difference. It is not a bold creative vision; he is not reinventing the wheel, but I like that.  It includes better management of what resources we already have, a new revolving fund for affordable housing, and greater leverage of federal and state housing funds for affordable housing.  

Carol Swain
Carol Swain has a plan she says is based on parcels of land owned by the city. She would make those excess parcels available for development of homes costing about $200,000. While I like this, those parcels are already being made available for development under an existing program. I am not sure, this is anything new. One thing she does advocate is to "use modular technology, new creative ideas to get the price down even further."  It is a shame Nashville stands in the way of the development of affordable housing by the private sector by effectively prohibiting the use of factory build housing in Nashville. I am pleased to see the advocacy of modular construction.

John Ray Clemmons
He says affordable housing is a "real crisis."  He would commit at least $50 million a year to the Barnes Fund using a dedicated revenue stream, but he does not identify that revenue stream. There is nothing magic about a dedicated revenue stream.  If the city, for instance, should take $50 million that now is paid in codes fees and direct that money to the Barnes Fund, that is $50 million that now goes into the city coffers to pay for education, police protection and everything else the city does.  That is not free money. That means the city would have to make $50 million in cuts to other services or raise taxes.

He would also create "income-source protection" for people with Section 8 housing vouchers, and a land bank for surplus public property. I am not sure how "income-source protection" works. So, I would have to know more to know what he is talking about.  For a primer on Land Banks, follow this link.  I tend to favor letting property be developed to its highest and best use but am not opposed to land banks playing a limited role in helping low income people become homeowners but it is no magic bullet that will solve the housing "crisis."

Rod's thoughts
First of all I do not think we have a housing "crisis." We have an "issue" or "problem."  For the person making the median income in Nashville, the median priced house is still affordable. We are in much better shape than many other cities in America where the median income person cannot afford the median priced house.

In one sense, this is what we asked for. When you attract people to move from elsewhere to Nashville and those people make a much higher income than most Nashvillians, they are going to drive up housing prices. A lot of what we are experiencing is simply supply and demand. That is not to say that for lower income people that they are not priced out of the market. What we are experiencing is an issue to be addressed but not a crisis.

I am disappointed that none of the candidates took the position that Nashville should stop taking actions that make the problem worse. Much of the fault for loss of affordable housing, is directly due to government policy. As an example of this, there is a new plan to redevelop Dickerson Pike. The Dickerson Road area has long been one of the cheapest parts of the city to live.  In addition to affordable apartment buildings along Dickerson, the neighborhoods adjacent to the thoroughfare have lots of modest affordable homes.  On Dickerson Road there are several old-fashion junky trailer parks.  On Dickerson Road itself there are businesses that serve the people who live in the vicinity. There are businesses such as laundromats, payday lenders, convenience stores, and discount tobacco stores, and used car lots.  Dickerson Road has always had a problem with hookers walking the street and the area has a lot of drug dealers.

Metro has a plan to improve this bad part of town. The plan envisions a dense collection of modern offices, shops and multifamily housing, widened streets and added transit hubs, greenways, crosswalks, sidewalks and bike lanes.  The city is going to beautify and upgrade one of the worst parts of the city.  The Tennessean says, "But the increased investment is expected to send property values soaring in one of the few areas where relatively affordable housing can still be found near downtown."  I am pleased to see this recognition of the effect of improving parts of the city.

We are talking about hundreds of units of housing are going to be lost.  Thousands of people will no longer be able to afford to live there.  Some of the people living in trailer parks rent by the week. Where are they going to go?   No one likes to have a seedy part of town, but when you beautify and upgrade a seedy part of town you are destroying the only place poor people can afford to live.  Every community can't look like Brentwood and still have affordable housing.

Less ambitious than a master plan such as is planned for Dickerson Road are city policies that little by little destroy affordable communities and thereby affordable housing.  These are policies that make busy corridors look nice. These are rules which say used car lots must have an attractive decorative fence in front of them, that say one can not have in close proximity businesses of the same or similar type such as used tire stores and auto repair businesses, and rules that say all dumpsters must be placed on a reinforced concrete pad behind the building, and rules that require a certain distance between pay day lenders.  These rules drive out the kind of business that serve low-income people.  They make unattractive parts of town more attractive and change the character of the community and make it attractive for people who make more money.  They turn low-income parts of town into middle-income parts of town.

Another way in which Nashville destroys affordable housing is by the policy of making large parts of the county single-family only.  Almost every Council meeting, there is a bill to down-zone a neighborhood from a zoning which allows duplexes to a zoning which does not.  Such legislation may change a zoning from R20 to RS20. I understand people wanting to preserve the character of their neighborhood.  I understand people wanting things to stay the same. However, this has an impact on future home prices.  This makes future affordable housing less likely and it encourages urban sprawl.  With higher density, there are fewer places to build houses and this causes the available places to be more expensive.  Also, with less available building spaces close in, it causes people to move further out.

Another way the city causes a loss of affordable housing is by driving up the cost of development and stifling the development of more affordable housing. Take the policy that requires a sidewalk in front of every house.  Sidewalks can add thousands of dollars to a the price of a house. This means developers will build more expensive homes rather than less expensive homes to absorb in the home price the cost of the sidewalks.  Also, I have talked to developers who say they have tried to build communities of affordable housing and instead of getting assistance from planning, they got obstacle after obstacle thrown in their way.  It is simply easier to build pricey homes rather than affordable homes.

Another way government destroys affordable housing, is my stringent codes enforcement.  I own a little rental house in Woodbine.  I only own one rental property.  It is the house I lived in  myself until I moved to my current home.  It is a two-bedroom one-bath house.  A few months ago I got a codes complaint and I had to deal with it. It is not the first time.  It was a headache and an annoyance.  I have a tenant who has different taste than I do and likes "yard art."  He also keeps a lot of stuff that he might can sell to make a little money.  The stuff was stored neatly in covered storage.  He also was parking a car on an unpaved or graveled area.

I only charge the tenant a modest price for rent.  I could put central heat and air in the house and dress it up just a little and rent it for about half again what I am getting, or I could sell the house.  I get about two postcards a week from someone wanting to buy that house. If I sold it they would tear it down, and build an expensive house on the lot. There would go a unit of affordable housing.

Quite frankly, I don't need the money I could get from selling the house or from upgrading and raising the rent.  My tenant is a Cuban refugee who really did come to America by a raft made of intertubes.  He has been here about twenty years or so but has a heavy accent and little education. He makes a living by selling scrap metal.  He would have a difficult time paying more rent.  I rent to him at a modest rent more out of a sense of doing a good deed than anything else.  When I get a codes letter, however, I am tempted by the postcard offers to buy my house.  I have talked to other landlords who get harassed by codes.  I know we have to have codes enforcement, but there is an effect.  When codes officials harass property owners they destroy affordable housing.

The other way Metro government contributes to the loss of affordable housing is by refusing to zone property for greater density if what is planned to be build on the property is affordable housing.  Worse yet, is the taking away of ones property rights in order to stop them from building affordable housing. This was attempted in Antioch. Ultimately, the person's property rights were not taken but the threat hung over the owners head for two years and the affordable property was never build.

Nashville could have more affordable housing if would embrace manufactured housing. There is a certain snobbish elitism that doesn't want "trailer trash" in Nashville and Nashville has had a long-standing attitude that we would keep "mobile homes" or "trailers" out of Nashville. A lot of the prejudice against manufactured housing is irrational. Manufactured housing could play a major role in insuring there was housing available at various price points.

The best way to make housing affordable is to increase incomes for those at the bottom of the income scale.  Rather than subsidizing poverty, in my view, we should strive to lift people out of poverty. You can't lift all people out of poverty, but we should have as a goal to have fewer poor people.

The loss and increasing lack of affordable housing is of concern, but much of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of the same people who bemoan the fact that we are losing affordable housing.  You can't have affordable housing if you don't want affordable neighborhoods.  You can't have affordable housing and have every neighborhood look like Brentwood. You can't have affordable housing, if you are going to ban greater density or fight having affordable housing in your neighborhood.

For source material and more information, follow these links: link, link, link, link, link.

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