Q&A with The Tennessean: "The Cost of Growth and Change in Nashville"

March 27, 2017

Q&A with The Tennessean:

In preparation for CNM's "Changing Nashville Neighborhoods: What's Next?" session on March 31, we sat down with Opinion Engagement Editor David Plazas (left) and Photojournalist George Walker (right) to learn more about the ongoing series "The Cost of Growth and Change in Nashville."

We are also thrilled to bring David in as a moderator for the "Affordability and Development" panel as part of our "Changing Nashville Neighborhoods" event! Click the image above to watch the conversation, or read the transcription below.


Click here to register for "Changing Nashville Neighborhoods: What's Next?" on March 31.


Q: How would you describe the editorial series?

David: The series is called “The Cost of Growth and Change in Nashville” and it’s about looking at what’s happening in the affordable housing sphere. It started out with months of research, and thinking about how everyone is talking about how Nashville is getting more expensive and how everyone is feeling it. Meanwhile we’re hearing this talk of the “it city” and “New Nashville,” but what does that mean for the people who have lived here for a long time and who are being priced out of the community? So the idea is to tell the story, raise consciousness, raise awareness, and at the same time, hopefully come up with some solutions that can help us become a city that can be for all of Nashville.

Q: What was the catalyst for starting this series?

George: As a native, I’ve always been interested in how the city is changing and what’s going on. As you look around, you see old neighborhoods that don’t look how they used to. You see what was middle-class workforce housing look completely unaffordable. They look like places that I myself couldn’t afford and I’m sure for people who lived there before are looking at it going, “Is this city for me anymore?” So that’s one of the things that interests me because I’m a native. With my friends, neighbors, and people I’ve grown up with, I’m just curious: who is this city for?

David: That’s a great point because this information – empirical anecdotes – help lead us to data. We found, for example, that since 1962 when Metro formed as a county city government, we’ve been on a pro-growth mode for the longest time, with different eras of renewal in the suburbs or in the urban core. Right now we’re in an urban core renewal mode, and what it’s doing is causing some great things, of course, to happen to Nashville. Nashville is promoting itself as a great tourist destination, as a place for music and food and fashion, but at the same time, it’s a place that’s becoming unaffordable.

There are also some national trends that have hit Nashville really hard. One of them is the renters dilemma. There’s a renters crisis; home ownership has dropped to record low levels. About a decade ago it was near 70 percent and today it’s about 61 percent. We’re nationally building for high-income earners, and that’s pressing a lot of people out. The average household income is $52,000 [in Nashville] and that’s not enough to afford $2,000-6,000 in rent. [Read more here.]

Q: Through your research and conversations in the community, what has surprised you?

George: I’m not sure that in things I’ve done [I am too surprised] – and David has done most of the work in the research and look at hard numbers. I’ve been out talking to real people who have been in this situation or dealing with this situation. I’m not sure there has been that much that has surprised me, but it’s good to know and it’s good to hear from people who are being affected by this. Those folks are where the real stories are.

David: Because I haven’t lived here as long as George, there were several surprises for me. First of all, the big surprise was how aggressive some people are at trying to get people to sell their homes. That’s something that was new to me and that I didn’t realize until we did the research and when George met Sallie Dowell – who is now the inspiration for a country song [learn more here] – and Sallie has a placard that says "THIS HOME IS NOT FOR SALE" and is really adamant that she’s going to die before she sells this home. [Read Sallie's story here.] That kind of tension between the development community and realtors and people who just want to live in their neighborhoods by their churches, their services and their friends, they are really having to make a tough decision. Because if you do so, where do you go? Because there aren’t a lot of places that are comparable. At this moment, the affordable areas, or so we’re told and from the research we’re seeing, is in Madison and Antioch. But even Madison is getting more and more expensive. And Antioch, despite being more affordable, really has no transportation access that is easy and Belle Meade is a mess half the time. So there are some real issues that people are dealing with. George did a great job talking with Kennetha Patterson.

George: Kennetha was a woman who lived in an apartment complex that was near downtown in the Edgehill neighborhood and now lives in Cheatham County. [Learn more here.] It takes about an hour to get to her place now – she is way out there in the sticks as you could say – and it’s kind of unfortunate that she’s away from all of the things that she’s known throughout her life. She’s also a native of Nashville and is now living outside in the counties.

Q: In your opinion, is Nashville headed in the right direction in terms of how we, as a city, are responding to changing neighborhoods?

George: I think Nashville is in a direction of growth; of course it is, and growth is good. But we can’t forget about who is here and who is from here and who benefits from the services of the city. We can’t forget that that’s what makes Nashville Nashville, and if those people aren’t here – if everybody has to move out of the city – what is Nashville?

David: From the affordable housing perspective, we heard a lot about that during the mayoral campaign of 2015 and now there has to be execution. There have been a lot of good things on that front but what’s very difficult is that we’re in a hot, booming market. Zillow has named Nashville the number one real estate market in the country and you have a lot of tension between supply and demand. Those are things that are out of the hands of the government. There are some things that are being done by Mayor Barry and her staff but the question is, how fast can you do it? One hundred units of affordable housing created by the Barnes Fund is not enough. People are saying you need 20,000-40,000 units of affordable housing and that’s going to be very difficult to accomplish. Though from the standpoint of “is there the intention?” I think there is. Will we be able to execute it? I think that has yet to be seen. Right now the economic situation is really against us at this moment.

Q: David, what are you looking forward to about “Changing Nashville Neighborhoods: What’s Next” event?

David: I’m really looking forward to the CNM changing neighborhoods session very, very much, and the reason is because it’s an opportunity to raise consciousness, again. If anything, I think nonprofits have to speak up, and they have to encourage their clients to speak up because a lot is changing very, very quickly and if we don’t move now, if we stay silent, we really miss an opportunity to do something effective. There are a lot of good things happening with Nashville and we’re moving forward in many good ways – we’re seeing some tremendous developments and we’re seeing the benefits of being the 25th largest city and growing – but at the same time, we have to watch those who are the least among us.

Q: Where can readers learn more?

George: Our affordable housing series is running on the last series of every month, so pick it up on the newsstand or go hit the www and go to the Tennessean.com to read what David and I have to say.

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