Health and Wellness

Affordable Housing: Nashville’s Central Leadership Issue

Affordable HousingAccess to affordable housing is a topic challenging most major cities in the United States. As metropolitan areas continue to boom and grow, local government leaders across the country are seeking to create solutions to ensure all citizens have an opportunity to participate in the prosperity of their city.

Following  a major growth spurt that shows no signs of slowing, Nashville is currently developing solutions to address our city’s affordable housing crisis.

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution to affordable housing. It is a complex and layered topic, with considerations ranging from economic viability and sustainability to sociopolitical factors. The impacts that stem from a lack of access to affordable housing affect everyone in our community – not just those who are directly affected by the issue. Every citizen in our community should be prioritizing access to affordable housing for a number of reasons:

  1. We are all interconnected. The well-being of marginalized Nashvillians impacts us all.
  2. There are health, educational, social, moral and financial costs when failing to have affordable housing for different income levels, age groups, racial ethnic groups, and the disabled.
  3. The economy falters when secure, quality, workforce housing is unaffordable and hard to find for workers at low and moderate-income levels.
  4. The “lack of affordable housing results in concentrated poverty in neighborhoods and ongoing harm to the health and development of our children.” – Reverend Bill Barnes

What Does Affordable Housing Mean and How is it Affecting Our City?

Often, when people hear the term “affordable housing,” they immediately associate it with poor communities. However, Nashville residents at multiple income levels are struggling to find affordable housing and are cost-burdened by their rent or mortgage. When a renter or homeowner spends more than 30% of income on housing, they are considered cost-burdened.

Based on data provided by the Metro Humans Relation Commission and published in Understanding Nashville’s Housing Crisis, in Davidson County 49% of renters and 31% of homeowners are cost-burdened[1]. According to 2015 data, a Nashville resident needed to make an annual income of $55,524 in order to afford fair market rent[2]. Annual income needed to afford fair market rent has only increased since 2015; while wages have remained relatively stagnant[3].

According to Understanding Nashville’s Housing Crisis, over the past decade Nashville’s economy has experienced an increase in leisure and hospitality jobs, while higher paying jobs, like manufacturing, have decreased. All the while, the cost of housing climbed 64% between 2011 and 2015 while wages grew by only 14%[4].

Federal Government Exit From Affordable Housing

The federal government has intentionally discontinued subsidized housing development and now only maintains existing federal sponsored housing. Institutional homes have disappeared and nothing ever replaced it. Post WWII GI housing programs at one time subsidized workforce housing; there is no equivalent today. Historically real estate development costs (subdivisions ever further from downtown) were inexpensive to implement and now low end housing is disappearing through gentrification while the economic imperatives of housing trends require all replacement be high end market value.  It’s time to re-assess government’s role in affordable housing.

Affordable Housing Is A Central Leadership Issue For Our Time

Based on recent estimates, Nashville currently has a deficit of 18,000 affordable housing units, including workforce housing; and this deficit is projected to increase by 2025 to 31,000 units. In order to close the gap on affordable housing, we need to employ a three-prong strategy, including:

  • Preservation – ensuring current affordable units are not lost;
  • Rehabilitation – providing structural improvements for affordable housing units;
  • Production – leveraging public funds to facilitate low-cost debt and build new units.

Affordable housing in Nashville is a central leadership issue for our time. Solutions will require significant changes in the way we tax, spend, collaborate and coordinate. Solutions must be enabled by all levels of government, Federal, State and Metro. Locally, solving for the issue of affordable housing is not something that can be accomplished in a vacuum or by one singular group. This effort will require collaboration among many groups, including Metro Government, key business leaders, non-profit and for-profit real estate developers, local activists and human interest groups, and the State Legislature, among others.

Fostering Partnerships to Create Affordable Housing Solutions

Over the past five months, the Deane Foundation partnered with local activist organization Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (“NOAH”) and its Affordable Housing Task Force to develop a Strategic Action Plan for affordable housing.

The mission of NOAH’s Affordable Housing Task Force is to advocate for low and middle income Nashvillians to obtain and retain quality and affordable housing. Through our engagement with NOAH, we sought to accomplish the following goals:

  • Establish reasonable, yet aggressive goals for creating additional affordable housing;
  • Convene dedicated groups of stakeholders within NOAH and beyond who are mobilized and actively working toward the goal of creating additional housing units;
  • Create an action plan, inclusive of timelines and metrics, with short-term wins and long-term meaningful solutions;
  • Build stronger connections with NOAH member organizations, community members and external stakeholders to advance the affordable housing cause;
  • Develop strategies to coordinate with State Legislature to create affordable housing solutions. 

In order to achieve the goals above, we followed a rigorous engagement process that included reviewing key data, interviewing key stakeholders, and facilitating regular meetings with our Steering Committee members to vet and refine findings and recommendations. The stakeholder interviews were an integral part of our process and provided key insights into the complexity of affordable housing. Interviewees included Chamber of Commerce leaders, senior staff members in the Mayor’s Office, for-profit and not-for-profit real estate developers, City Council members, state legislators and media representatives, among others.

Following the data review and stakeholder interviews, we worked with NOAH’s Affordable Housing Task Force to formulate recommendations regarding key action steps that need to be taken in order to move the needle on the affordable housing. Overall, we developed five recommendations for NOAH, including:

  1. Metro Government must make affordable housing a priority, on par with economic development, water, energy and transportation.
  2. Metro Government must create a 10-year plan with specific goals, timelines and metrics for success; it is important the plan be designed to transcend election cycles and mayoral personalities.
  3. The Tennessee State Legislature must enable a dedicated, recurring and sustainable funding source for affordable housing.
  4. NOAH will develop a focused campaign on affordable housing that will educate and mobilize the broader Nashville community around the issue.
  5. NOAH will develop a protocol to ensure accountability of government officials that will enable the organization to act swiftly when predictable opportunities arise to organize people and funding to address current issues of the day.

While the implementation of all these recommendations is critical to success, the most important action step that can be taken to address affordable housing is securing a dedicated, recurring and sustainable funding source. What good is it for Metro Government to prioritize affordable housing and create a 10-year plan if there isn’t money to implement the plan and sustain it long term? Nashville citizens and government officials must collectively commit to addressing this critical funding need that is required to sustain our community.

State Legislature Represents Biggest Challenge, Greatest Opportunity for Addressing Affordable Housing

The city of Nashville has passed several laws related to affordable housing, including inclusionary zoning, which required developers to include a portion of affordable units in their developments when requesting zoning variances. However, after the law was passed locally, the State Legislature pre-empted it, and one of the city’s best tools for addressing affordable housing was removed.  This was a major set back for the affordable housing movement.

It is the purview of the Tennessee State Legislature to enable a dedicated, sustainable funding source for affordable housing.  Until an adequate funding source is in place, Nashville and other communities in Tennessee will fail to address the housing crisis in a meaningful way.

The Time Is Now To Address Affordable Housing

Affordable housing is Nashville’s central leadership issue of our time. The time is now to commit to a multi-dimensional plan and the funding required to enable government, non-profit and for-profit real estate developers and others to aggressively preserve, rehabilitate, repair and create the housing required for not only our poor but also for service workers, teachers, firemen, police and other citizens. Nashville is blessed with the capacity to solve this problem. It’s time to make it happen. Let’s act now and be proud that we are a city that provides a home for all it’s citizens.

[1] Understanding Nashville’s Housing Crisis. Metro Human Relations Commission. Pg. 6; based on 2015 data

[2] Understanding Nashville’s Housing Crisis. Metro Human Relations Commission. Pg. 7; based on 2015 data

[3] Understanding Nashville’s Housing Crisis. Metro Human Relations Commission. Pg. 10; based on 2015 data

[4] Source: Understanding Nashville’s Housing Crisis. Metro Human Relations Commission. Pg. 9; based on 2015 data


Brittany Witt, Director of The Deane Foundation provided extensive support in the drafting of this article.

Published on March 22, 2019 8:53am

John Deane

Article By

John Deane

Born in Baltimore in 1961, John attended American University. For 32 years, John led a successful career as a senior healthcare executive. In 1998 John founded Southwind Health Partners, a start-up healthcare business focused on providing management services for hospital and health system sponsored physician practices out of his home in Nashville and over 20 years grew the business into one of the nation’s pre-eminent healthcare consulting practices. Following the acquisition of Southwind by Advisory Board John led the development of an expansive, full-service consulting and management division serving over 250 health system clients in 50 states with approximately 400 consultants and staff.

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