After announcing in his State of Metro address that his administration planned to establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Mayor Karl Dean offered an explanation why the long-percolating idea was just now coming to fruition.
Standing in the belly of the just-opened Music City Center, he told reporters that only in the past year had the city been able to identify $3 million in funds from existing grants to give the fund a start. "During the depths of the recession," Dean said, his administration knew "it would have been very difficult to do."
Yet it was during that very same Great Recession that Dean was selling the idea of putting the $585 million convention center on the city's credit card. One would think there'd be no better time to address affordable housing than in the depths of economic downturn, when the need is most pronounced.
Similarly, there may have been no better time to announce the affordable-housing fund than the State of Metro address, which sets the items on the city's agenda. Framed by the largesse of the half-billion-dollar MCC, however, it came off as a crumb tossed quickly from a passing limo. If you want to see where the city's priorities lie, the setting said, just look around. What remains to be seen now is whether Dean's announcement represents a true commitment on the part of the city to affordable housing, not a hasty attempt to show he hasn't forgotten Nashville's working poor.
Dean deserves some credit for turning toward the problem now. With Nashville continuing to grow, rental vacancy rates have plummeted and rent prices have soared, leading to what the administration itself has characterized as an "unprecedented rate of housing-cost burden" — that is, families being forced to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Thus the mayor-appointed commission would award grants to nonprofit housing developers to fund "renovation or construction of affordable homeownership and rental opportunities, project-based rental assistance or other supportive efforts to encourage affordability," according to information about the program provided by the mayor's office. It will be aimed at households earning less than 60 percent of the Housing and Urban Development area median income, which is currently $26,800 for a single-person household.
Beyond that, though, details of the plan remain vague. As of this writing, the bill that will set up the fund and establish the commission had not yet been filed with the Metro Council. The administration says "the fund is expected to be ongoing," but there's no word how it will be sustained once the initial $3 million runs out. That will be the most crucial step of the undertaking — and likely the most difficult.
"The idea behind housing trust funds is to have a dedicated, ongoing source of public funding," says Mary E. Brooks, an advocate for housing trust funds nationwide (including in Nashville) and the project director at the Center for Community Change's Housing Trust Fund Project.
There are some 700 housing trust funds operating around the country, in 47 states. Brooks says it is not uncommon to see an initial allocation of dollars to get a fund started, as is the case here. Those initial funds, she says, can allow a city to pursue projects that give the local council, and the public, a glimpse of the program's potential.
After that, though, housing trust funds require some ongoing source of funding to be sustainable. A continuing, reliable stream of funding — a portion of revenues from a current tax, for instance, or those raised by increasing an existing tax or fee — allows the program to use money in more creative ways, Brooks says, and enables long-range planning. That's where the real fight for affordable housing always begins, she says.
"Any time we talk about public revenues it gets messy," she says. "That's always the case with housing trust funds. Once we start talking about where is the dedicated revenue going to come from, everything gets kind of squirrelly."
If the Dean administration is committed to addressing the city's "unprecedented" need for affordable housing, that is the next step. Of course, any funding source will need approval from the council, assuming it first approves the establishment of the fund.
In that respect, the council's relations with the mayor during the wind-up to the Music City Center may shed some light. The famous nine opposing votes notwithstanding, the council's backing of the convention center was never in question. The MCC is a six-block, 2.1 million-square-foot monument to the council's inclination, as a body, to go along with whatever the mayor proposes.
Dean succeeded in corralling a majority to support the largest publicly funded project in Nashville's history as a recession lingered. Surely the mayor can find 21 votes now to provide relief for those trying to keep a roof over their heads — even if it doesn't feature 14 different types of vegetation and mimic the rolling hills of Tennessee.
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