Nashville Affordable Housing Bill Advances, But Opposition Intensifies

Jul 22, 2016

Nashville’s proposal to encourage construction of more affordable housing units took a step forward Thursday. More than 100 residents, officials and business leaders shared opinions, and the Metro Planning Commission voted in favor of a plan known as “inclusionary zoning.”

It faces its next debate — likely to be intense again — at the Metro Council.

The moment for decisive votes comes after nearly a year of study and meetings — and one prior vote by the Planning Commission that shot down the first draft of inclusionary zoning.

“Last time this was here, I’m sure you’ll recall, everybody hated it,” Councilman Bob Mendes told the commission.

He was referring to a three-hour pile-on in January when commissioners, housing developers and even affordability advocates blasted what they described as a convoluted and hurried proposal.

The commission sent “Bill 133” back for more work.

As rewritten and streamlined, it now says that apartment developers who ask for special permissions, or “entitlements,” must, in exchange, build affordable units. A detailed chart (still simple compared to prior versions) outlines how many units they would need to set aside, and at what income levels.

“Frankly, the council … at every turn, in my opinion, has erred in favor of the development community, erred in favor of narrowing the reach of 133,” Mendes said. “All the changes since it was here is in the direction of making this a narrow, careful experiment.”

Deep Divide Over Specifics

In more than 75 letters to the Planning Commission, a ratio of roughly eight to one were in favor of inclusionary zoning. But those few opposition letters represent big organizations — power players like the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the trade groups for realtors and apartment managers.

Supporters of inclusionary zoning say it still won’t spur enough affordable units, but described it as one tool for a city that has several proposals in the works. 

“While it may not be as bold as we advocates would have hoped, without question, in the sake of moving the needle forward in our community on a crucial issue, we completely endorse it and urge you to do the same,” said Avi Poster, with A Voice for the Reduction of Poverty.

Opponents flatly disagreed, saying inclusionary zoning will burden developers, deter investors and potentially make housing costs worse. Their economic argument, voiced by developer and Vanderbilt University Professor of Real Estate Marty Heflin, is that Nashville’s problem has been a shortage of apartments.

Now that as many as 26,000 units are in the pipeline, Heflin said rates would naturally come down by as much as 10 percent in the next 18 months.

Councilwoman Burkley Allen, left, argues in favor of inclusionary zoning.
Credit Metro Nashville Network

Both sides made overtures about the future. But the lead sponsor on inclusionary zoning, Councilwoman Burkley Allen, also looked backward.

She spoke of the dozens of meetings that brought the policy to its current form, and to the other Metro policies that she says have failed to encourage construction of affordable units.

She said developers have been able to request extra density, avoid requirements for including parking spaces, and pay low fees compared to other cities — but haven’t served low-to-middle income residents in return.

Vote’s Timing Questioned

In addition to the policy specifics, another pervasive question was one of timing: Did the Planning Commission need to act, or would a deferral allow for further discussion and compromise?

Council members Sheri Weiner and Colby Sledge disagreed.

“Disapprove this bill and consider it incomplete, so that we can go back to the drawing board for a little bit longer. There’s no rush,” Weiner said.

“There is absolutely a rush on this,” Sledge said moments later. “Section 8 voucher-holders are losing their apartments every day. That’s not exaggeration, because I get the calls.”

Planning commissioners like Lillian Blackshear sensed the urgency.

“It’s starting to feel a little irresponsible, to me, as a commission, to not have acted on this yet,” she said.

Commissioner Stewart Clifton said it was time for new rules after years of allowing pricey redevelopments that offered little public benefit in return.

“Growth has been good for us, however …we have for a number of years inadvertently — through many neighborhoods and through a lot of downtown and Midtown rezonings — eliminated possibilities for future affordable housing and for future workforce housing.

“And with every passing week, we continue to do that,” he said. “That should not go on any further.”

Like in January, the debate lasted another three hours, but commissioners passed inclusionary zoning this time, by a wide margin.