Despite some skepticism, Metro councilmembers and local nonprofit leaders alike are celebrating the approval of a $50 million plan from the mayor's office as a big step forward in solving Nashville’s homeless crisis.
“It's definitely moving in the right direction, and on paper, $50 million sounds like a lot,” says India Pungarcher, the advocacy and outreach specialist at Open Table Nashville. “But that is going to be spent really quickly, and these are the types of investments that we desperately need our city to continue making year after year and not just this one time because we have an influx of federal funds.”
The plan, which was passed during last week's Metro Council meeting and was signed by Mayor John Cooper on Wednesday, directs federal American Rescue Plan funding toward four areas. The largest of those allotments is $25 million toward affordable housing gap financing.
Unlike the Barnes Fund — a trust fund dedicated to providing nonprofits with grants to develop more affordable housing in Nashville — this $25 million will be made available through loans to for-profit companies building affordable housing, with the intent of moving faster than Barnes Fund projects. The plan also specifically addresses units for households making 30 percent or less of the area median income — crucial for housing people experiencing homelessness. AMI is a metric used to determine what is affordable in a given area.
“That is one of the biggest gaps for housing we have in our community,” says Pungarcher. “It’s just really hard to build and subsidize, so we’re really excited that there’s an actual program.”
Making units available to chronically homeless individuals — people who have ongoing struggles with homelessness inflamed by disabling conditions — on the private market is a challenge. And while there are still concerns over how effective it will be, this bill provides incentives to private companies to build those affordable developments.
“We've talked a lot in this conversation about the chronically homeless, and for-profit developers are not traditionally eager to create space for those populations in otherwise market-based developments,” says District 19 Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell, who this year announced his candidacy for the mayor’s office. But despite his misgivings, following a back-and-forth with the mayor’s office, the Metro Council and local nonprofits in the lead up to the plans approval, O’Connell says he feels confident that this plan is putting the city on the right track.
But Pungarcher says it’s going to take more to really make a dent in Nashville’s homeless crisis.
“We want to have some sort of dedicated revenue stream so that there is legislation requiring repeated and recurrent funding going into the Barnes Fund every single year,” says Pungarcher. “We need a dedicated stream so that people don't have to fight to try to get the administration every year on board.”
Cathy Jennings, the executive director of The Contributor, a paper sold by currently and formerly unhoused Nashvillians, says this plan could be a great step toward more steady funding. She explains that when the city applies for competitive grants, plans like this one signal that Nashville is committed to housing homeless people, putting the city in a stronger position for the grant competition.
“Funding attracts more funding. And then you have success, which attracts more funding,” says Jennings, who also chairs the sheltering committee for the Continuum of Care Homelessness Planning Council.
Back in May, a study from an out-of-state firm found Nashville severely lacking in resources directed toward addressing chronic homelessness. This came following Judy Tackett stepping down as director of the Metro Homeless Impact Division near the end of 2021. Two interim directors later — plus a controversial plan that closed the Jefferson Bridge encampment — Nashville has yet to name a permanent executive director of the Metro Homeless Impact Division.
The rest of the $50 million includes $9 million toward housing-first supportive services, which prioritize moving people from homelessness into housing as soon as possible; $9 million toward temporary gap housing; and $7 million toward landlord engagement and competitive grants.
Earlier this year, 1,916 people were counted to be experiencing homelessness in Nashville.
“Now is the time,” says Jennings. “If we let this go much longer, we’re going to crush that wave. So this is going to be a great kick-start.”