What's Yours Is Mine 

A NIMBY Metro Council member goes out on a tenuous anti-property rights limb

A NIMBY Metro Council member goes out on a tenuous anti-property rights limb

If we build it, she'll shut up.

That's Cathie Dodd's strategy as she prepares to begin construction of an affordable housing apartment complex off Murfreesboro Road even while Metro Council member Vivian Wilhoite tries to change (retroactively) the property's zoning to stymie the project.

During a Metro Council meeting last month, Wilhoite abruptly introduced a resolution to render Dodd's plan to build about 120 affordable housing units deader than Ashlee Simpson's microphone. The Woodbine Community Organization, which Dodd heads, has already sunk $1.4 million in cash into the apartment project, including a $579,000 purchase price, market studies and architect and application fees. Real estate may be a risky business, but Dodd wasn't exactly playing the role of Donald Trump with the investment. She followed all the rules and left nothing to chance. She just didn't count on a meddling council member trying to seize control of the land.

In 2003, when the nonprofit Woodbine Community Organization purchased the eight-acre lot, the property already had the medium-density zoning it needed to develop affordable housing apartments. (In fact, Dodd could have built twice as many as the 116 planned apartments if she had chosen.) The zoning was the reason she purchased this particular land on behalf of the nonprofit. Because she didn't have to fight for a zoning change, the Tennessee Housing and Development Agency readily approved her application and promised $695,000 in tax credits each year for 10 years. In turn, that allowed Dodd to find an investor and secure the necessary building and site permits.

"I don't have anything that's not approved," Dodd says, in disbelief that a council member would try to block critical affordable housing units. After all, everybody is for affordable housing—until it appears in their neighborhood. Citing traffic and safety concerns, residents of the nearby Forest Park subdivision have bitterly opposed Woodbine's project. Residents say that with overcrowded schools and inadequate fire services, Antioch can't support a new development. But they admit they'd have no problems with condos on the site.

"We're all in favor of homes being built there, but we want true affordable housing, not apartments," says Anita Hyche, a resident of the Forest View Park subdivision.

Of course, it doesn't help the residents' case that their own subdivision was built after the zoning was established for the vacant property. Hyche says that their agents lied and told them that the Hamilton Church site was reserved for a greenway. So why fault the Woodbine Community Organization for developing property that was already zoned for their project?

"I would hope that anybody building in a neighborhood would consider if the type of thing you're building is welcome," Hyche says.

There may not be much they can do to stop the project, though. That's where Vivian Wilhoite, a first-term council member who has rushed to the defense of the neighbors, comes in. During the Oct. 5 Metro Council meeting, the Starwood-area council member requested an emergency waiver allowing her to introduce a last-minute resolution. Wilhoite asked to begin the process of removing the planned unit development designation for the Hamilton Creek Property and, on top of that, asked the council to waive the $400-plus in application fees she'd ordinarily have to pay to apply for a zoning change. The council reluctantly granted her request and, as we speak, Wilhoite's application to change the zoning of the Hamilton Creek Property sits in a Metro Planning Department office.

Wilhoite says that she was born in the projects and has nothing against affordable housing. "But I'm talking about safety and an area that needs sidewalks and schools. We're growing fast, and we need to deal with other issues."

Wilhoite's colleagues say that her initiative to rezone a single lot against the property owner's wishes is practically unprecedented. Council members rezone property all the time—but typically at the request of a property owner. They don't try to take control of someone's property, which is what's happening here.

Wilhoite acknowledges the rarity of what she's doing, but she has an unlikely source of inspiration. "I'm sure Martin Luther King was quite scared, but that didn't make what he did wrong," Wilhoite says.

Wilhoite's harkening of the civil rights movement is especially befuddling considering that many young, working African American women raising families are likely to benefit from the new apartment complex, Dodd says. People who make $30,000 or less will be eligible to rent the apartments.

In general, an affordable housing complex can include low-income families as well as singles in their 20s starting their first job out of college. Both the state and federal government encourage the development of affordable housing by issuing tax credits. While residents claim that Dodd and her investors are looking to turn their project into a cash cow, she says the Hamilton Creek Apartment will include a computer lab and a resource center for job services, tutoring and home buying tips.

"I'm sorry, but this is a fair housing issue," Dodd says.

Fortunately for the project, Wilhoite's chances of success are slim. David Kleinfelter, planning manager for the Metro Planning Department, says that the department's staff will recommend disapproval of Wilhoite's request because it's "not consistent with the land-use policy for that area." If the members of the Metro Planning Commission also recommend disapproval of Wilhoite's request, she'll then need 27 of her 40 colleagues to vote for her bill.

That's as close to impossibility as you get in politics. Wilhoite's measure has the uncanny effect of annoying two disparate factions of the council: the conservative, property-rights advocates who think that people should be able to develop their property as they see fit and the progressives who believe that the lack of affordable housing is one of Nashville's most serious problems.

"Only God knows" whether the measure has a chance for passage, Wilhoite says. But even if her measure succeeds, Wilhoite still loses. That's because the new zoning probably wouldn't apply to an apartment complex already under construction. Dodd tells the Scene she plans to begin building before the measure reaches the council.

"The worst-case scenario is she gets this passed and we're grandfathered in," Dodd says. "How can they take away my property rights?"

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