03 August 2014

Until Teleportation Becomes A Real Option...

In the past few months, reports have been published for Franklin, Tennessee, and downtown Nashville citing the need for affordable housing options. For most Middle Tennessee residents, these reports were more of a "duh" moment than a revelation of a real community need. Franklin holds small-town charm surrounded by beautiful countryside while being 30 minutes south of Nashville. Downtown Nashville is in the middle of a growth spurt and robust recovery from the recession, and condominium and apartment building has resumed after about five years of stagnation. Several conversations with friends and coworkers about the rapidly rising rental and home prices here echo the concerns of the reports, but no one seems to really touch on the reasons I'm about to advocate for protecting or creating decent housing for low- to middle-income residents of these areas.

First, the report highlights:

The Franklin report found that 40 percent of its resident renters pay 30% of their income on housing, and 18 percent pay more than half. A worker making the area average wage of just over $54,000 per year could afford only 11 percent of the homes sold last year or the year before in Franklin.

The downtown Nashville report noted that the rental occupancy has been around 98 percent for three years, pushing rental rates to painful heights, and downtown condo sales have hit record prices. There are 14 new projects on the books, including Ray Hensler's TwelveTwelve complex, which began as an apartment development but converted to condos after exceeding the lender pre-sale requirement of $35 million, hitting $49 million in reservations in mid-June.
In the background, in June, TwelveTwelve was still being serviced by a crane;
in the foreground, another housing development nears completion on Demonbreun.
Shortly before the Franklin report came out, a broker friend of mine and I had been discussing how rent control in Manhattan came about and how it worked. When I sent him the news article about the need for affordable Franklin housing, he said he found it interesting that "the sense of entitlement that permeates our culture extends to the notion that somehow everyone should be able to live where they want regardless of whether or not they have earned the privilege." He said that no affordable housing existed because there wasn't a business case for it.

In response to an email in which I asked Mr. Hensler of TwelveTwelve if he would consider developing a downtown project for middle-income folks, Hensler agreed with me "that having good options for folks at all income and demographic levels is important." His company, though, is small and focused on what they know, which is the luxury segment of the high rise market. A former multi-housing broker explained to me that developers can't get financing for so-called "affordable" housing and instead build to meet the market demands that bring a greater return on their investment.

Fair enough.

Now, the reasoning for more affordable housing:

So why do city governments and organizations and citizens need to consider affordable housing within city cores? The most simple answer is because we need to remember the people who serve those communities in low-income jobs. The second reason corresponds with the first and touches on an issue that Nashville is struggling with as it grows: if people can't live near where they work, they commute, and that means more of their income goes to transportation, and the city experiences traffic congestion, air pollution, and a greater need for public transit options.

According to the Franklin housing report article, 85 percent of the nearly 51,000 Franklin workers live outside of Franklin. "Of the five largest industries," the article continued, "none have average wages high enough for a worker to afford a single-family detached house. Only two paid enough to cover median rent." Anyone who drives south on I-65 or I-24 after 3:00 PM on a weekday knows that a significant portion of Nashville's working population also commutes, turning what might otherwise be a twenty-minute drive into a 45-minute to hour-long rush hour commute. Many choose to live in Williamson and Rutherford counties for their excellent school districts, but how many people are traveling into downtown from Antioch or Nolensville, the more affordable areas south of Nashville? As Middle Tennessee discusses mass-transit options, no one in the major publications has publicly suggested that maybe one part of the solution is to provide housing for those people who make low wages at area gas stations, fast food restaurants, dry cleaners, hotels, and other service industries, not to forget the creatives who fuel these cities' cultures.

When I worked in the food-and-beverage and hospitality industries during and just after college in Charleston, South Carolina, I lived within walking distance to work at first, but I later moved to more affordable housing on James Island. After that, I sometimes spent thirty minutes to an hour on a bus to travel what would be a six-mile trip by car. As Nashville embraces a hotel and restaurant boom, the city needs to consider where all of those hotel and restaurant workers will live. As ServiceSource and UBS announce faster-than-expected downtown employment growth while, simultaneously, the city works toward increasing parking options in the blocks surrounding those offices, it becomes an obvious [to me, at least] need for more housing options for these workers. If Franklin wants to retain a more walkable, healthy, less congested community, it might need to consider affordable housing options for those who work in those quaint little downtown shops.
One of Nashville's Metropolitan Development and Housing Agencies'
family housing apartment communities at Charlotte and I-40.
Downtown Nashville can be seen in the background.

Wages for certain jobs will never keep up with the housing pricing in areas that are experiencing popular demand from people who can afford above-average prices per square foot. Those who live in downtown Nashville or Franklin are willing to pay the premium prices required to be near exciting new restaurants, shopping, and working options. Perhaps, though, we need to revise our impression of living the good life with good schools and decent housing: maybe it shouldn't be as much a privilege for those who worked their way up as it is a privilege to have coffee shops and drugstores and convenience stores in those exclusive communities. Perhaps having clean air and quiet roads requires supplying nearby housing options for the people who work at those places.

There are a few options for the lowest incomes in Nashville. The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency of Nashville (MDHA) lists 13 family housing properties on its web site, most of which look nothing like the old-school housing projects of decades past, and many are located near the downtown core. They also claim to have "served as the catalyst to other unique and innovative projects that are increasing housing options for low- and moderate-income Nashvillians," including the income-based Nance Place, a Freeman Webb property near Rolling Mill Hill in the downtown area that currently has a waiting list for its under-$1,000-per-month options. The Franklin Housing Authority also operates 288 public housing units for those earning low to moderate incomes. Compared to the populations of these cities, those options leave quite a large group of people who fall between those qualifying for public housing and those able to afford the Nashville average rental rate of $1,040 per month [as of February 2014].

For someone like myself living in that group, the public options make me happy but don't actually serve me. The non profit organization Urban Housing Solutions owns and operates 30 affordable housing properties around Nashville, some of which serve people in public service careers such as teaching and social work. Again, these options serve a community in need, but they don't serve me.

Since I can't afford to buy because my husband and I aren't in a position to save for a down payment (or mortgage insurance plus housing insurance plus a home payment), we have few options. We will stay where we live now as long as possible, in the third floor apartment of a house we share with a vocal coach, where my husband competes for practice time on his drums with students practicing in the apartment below us, or move out of the area further west to the countryside or south to Antioch, increasing our rent a couple hundred dollars per month, or move to a neighborhood that sits beneath an interstate with high crime rates and still pay a hundred or more per month than we do now. One of us could get a second job, of course; that would be in the cards if we choose to have children. These are our options in the city I love. Market forces have made it this way. If market forces were the only things that mattered, then my broker friend would be correct in that I don't deserve to live in certain areas. If the work I do matters to the city, though--or if the work of the creatives in this city like my husband matter to a place called "Music City,"--there needs to be more options in the middle range.

As Music Row becomes a battleground for developers hoping to capitalize on the housing boom versus preservationists who want to retain the unique character of the neighborhood, and as officials and activists fight over public transit options, I hope that people will remember the forces that prop up the money behind the property buyers. I will never forget a radio interview of Bill Gates' father in 2004 in which he said, in essence, that those who make the most money do so on the backs of those who serve at the lowest income levels. Cities need people to serve in those jobs that pay minimum wage. What has only recently occurred to me, though, was that everyone's quality of life can be improved in some way--reduced traffic congestion, better services, reduced poverty and crime--by providing opportunities for people to improve their living situation with not only jobs but with actual affordable living spaces.

17 July 2014

Real Fans Respect the Process

This blog does not rant. Airing out grievances here was never my intention; I want to inspire thought and action, not bore people with angry tirades. It's from this place, this desire to project a specific and calculated opinion in each post that does not rant, that I came to my topic today.

The newly released Michael Jackson album is a crime against Michael Jackson.

Creation is an act of discovery.

I might choose later to take the words "an act of" out of that last sentence to create impact, then even later decide to leave those words in for all the weight that their meaning could hold, and tomorrow question whether that weight affects the sentence negatively.

To publish the unfinished, unapproved works of an artist, any kind of artist, is to rob that creator of true, uncensored expression. An artist's own revisions are part of the creative process, and until a creator deems his or her work complete, the work is, in effect, censored of its creator's final thoughts. Each modification to a creative work imprints the artist's personality upon the piece until it ends up reflecting just what the artist wanted reflected. To release unfinished works posthumously risks exposing weaknesses, flaws, mistakes, or other particulars that might not have been released by the creator. It opens up the work to misinterpretations or criticisms from which a dead creator has no self-defense.

In an era of reduced privacy and instant sharing of emotions, it may seem like we should feel more comfortable with a stream-of-consciousness style of creativity. Myself, I love the editing process, in both my writing and my photography, and consider the editing to be as important as the initial composition. It's why I don't journal anymore—I don't want anyone to think my journals are the sum of my thoughts, especially if I should happen to die at an inopportune moment of self-reflection! Virginia Woolf, the poet and diarist, noted that people tend to journal in times of great emotion, limiting the value of the thoughts expressed in a diary as an accurate reflection of life. So, too, are the limits of works in progress, as they are the incomplete reflections of an artist's musings.

My creative process, by the light of a lava lamp. My scribbles will be edited
during typing and then again in the morning before posting.
We, as consumers (often our only real power in the U.S.) must not allow others to profit from the publishing of Michael Jackson's unfinished recordings that were completed by others without Michael's input and therefore are not truly Michael's songs. The same applies to releases of Tupac Shakur's extensive previously unreleased catalog, or the publishing of manuscripts left behind by J.R.R. Tolkien by his son Christopher.

Do I believe some diaries and journals should be published posthumously? If it was clearly the intent of the author to share with the world a particular perspective from a particular point in history, then yes. If it was clearly a private expulsion of emotional pleiades meant only for personal enlightenment, then maybe not. If we aren't sure, then maybe some things are best left private. To do otherwise would be exploitation.

Do I think George Lucas should have altered the original Star Wars films to fit his original vision, the one he claims he was denied by the limitations of technology in the 70's and 80's? As I say about oh-so-many things, just because he can doesn't mean he should. Once released to the public, a piece of art becomes part of the public consciousness. Art is a gift. It is the personal struggle of the artist to create within imposed limitations, which forces creativity. The public release makes art a new thing, ready for interaction with observers and listeners and readers. It becomes a collaborative agreement with an audience, an agreement that George Lucas violated. Star Wars fans were pissed because they did respect the original process and the original results.
A masterpiece is something said once and for all, stated, finished, so that it's there complete in the mind, if only at the back. —Virginia Woolf
What about the works of masters, especially from ancient history? While I admit to my own hunger for more works from great artists who died too young or who simply spark an insatiable craving in some of us, it's still just not right. To discover a missing or previously unknown finished work is exciting, but I say again, anything else is exploitation.

Part of the beauty of art is its limits: its impermanence and limited quantity. Cake decorators understand this. If we love an artist—if we are a true fan—we must respect the creative process and let that artist's unfinished works dissolve quietly into the ether, hints of what could have been but were never meant to be.

12 July 2014

For The Love of Nashville

I never meant to be absent from my blog for this long. It wasn't that I had writer's block. It was more that I was unable to focus on any one topic. As this summer has bloomed, though, some trends in the local news and conversations with various friends have been percolating.

In the time since my last post, I survived unemployment and started a job that I love in January, one that challenges me and stresses me out and pushes me beyond my comfort zone and tests my mettle and stretches my creativity: it's a position in business development for a small commercial construction company working with wonderful people who build wonderful things. It has absorbed a lot of my focus while I learn about the business, follow leads, and cultivate inspiration. It's everything I wanted in a job, and it makes me want to work really, really hard.

It's part of my job to know what's happening in the Nashville market, both with commercial real estate and with business in general. Nashville is actively touting its current "boom," it's growth as a hub of entrepreneurialism, healthcare, technology, and creativity. Community leaders have been enviably successful these past few years at fostering a business-friendly environment, drawing large corporate relocations, incubating hundreds of start-ups, fostering significant development in both commercial and residential real estate, driving job growth and home sales, and even improving academic performance in the public school system. All of this growth benefits the construction industry as we build the places where people will work, live, and play.

View of downtown Nashville, TN, from the balcony at 424 Church Street.
The SunTrust building in the foreground, the Pinnacle at Symphony Place building in the far left, the Music City Center with the green guitar-shaped roof, and the Omni Hotel immediately in the center were all built after my husband and I moved here in 2004.
Being so immersed in the hyperbole of the city's success, though, it becomes easy to forget about the core culture of the city and where Nashville is headed, if it can survive the growing pains without diluting the attributes that make it great. In just the past month, two issues arose that touched on the fate of Music City's legacy, the potential sale of RCA Studio A and a proposed retail restriction over 17 acres of Lower Broadway. Ben Folds, who leased Studio A for 90 days at a time and renewed his lease over 50 times, lobbied for the protection of the studio (which may never have been in real danger) and a general historic preservation overlay on Music Row. He garnered a lot of attention from artists, property owners, and developers. Some fall on the side of protecting the city's musical heritage by protecting the remaining studios in which that heritage was recorded. Others don't want to restrict any development and want to preserve the value of the properties as investments. Northeast of Music Row, the retail restrictions on Lower Broadway proposed by Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore would limit the types of business that can open there. The original bill banned national chains and required new businesses to be music venues or somehow otherwise reflect the country music theme of the honky-tonk district. Gilmore is working on a revision while opponents have proposed their own, less restrictive bill that redefines a "chain" and reduces the rule's physical footprint, decrying the push to narrowly define the face of downtown. Both problems reflect an old battle of capital versus culture.

The issues have been bubbling up in areas surrounding downtown in the past few months, also, as East Nashville bumps up against redevelopment district guidelines, and Germantown property prices inflated rapidly following the ground-breaking of a new baseball stadium for the Sounds this year, an event that drove a flurry of development deals. Metro Nashville issued a record value of building permits in the fiscal year ending June 30th, $1.87 billion. In Christine Kreyling's Nashville Post article linked above about East Nashville's redevelopment district, Metro Councilman John Summers stated the issue neatly: "Just because property values have risen dramatically doesn't mean everyone is going to do neighborhood-senstive development." It's an issue my husband and I know well from our experiences in Charleston, South Carolina. We've seen the rise in property values and property taxes that drive out poor populations, often driving minorities, especially, out of their neighborhoods to make way for new businesses and higher-income residents. We watched as rental rates on Meeting and King streets rose too high for the small, independent business owners to sustain their shops, shops that were later replaced with stores like Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. Yankee vacationers and retirees began buying the mansions on the peninsula and the beautiful linguistic accent that rolled off the tongues of the Charleston elite all but disappeared. (Actually, I haven't heard it in years; it may be gone now.)

The music industry in Nashville has changed, as well, with the influx of new hopefuls following the success of the ABC show, "Nashville," a couple of short-lived reality TV shows, and the general trend in voter-driven singing competitions like "The Voice" and "Rising Star." My husband, a drummer, and his friends have been discussing the changes to their careers as a result. Hungry newbies on the scene dilute the value of creative work by playing for free, paying to play, or virtually giving away their catalogs. Executives want to know what show singers have been on, how many Facebook "likes" they've acquired, or how many YouTube hits a performer has attracted before considering them for a label. Record labels hire young--or young-looking--performers to back up their vocalists, to the detriment of the careers of seasoned professionals. Performers in the honky-tonks have to be human juke boxes to entertain the tourist crowds. The rapidly declining opportunities for paid gigs has caused more than one in our circle of friends to question the path this city is taking toward growth at the expense of the musicians who paint the scene.

Being pro-business and pro-progress, yet also pro-minority empowerment and pro-cultural preservation, I am torn on these issues. I don't believe that restricting Lower Broadway to only country music-related businesses is wise, but some restrictions could help retain the local flavor, whatever flavor local business owners choose to sell. I believe in preserving the heritage of Music Row, but I also believe the people who want to preserve those properties need to pay a fair-market value to protect them. I believe in the value of independent music labels and innovative start-ups in all fields, and I have grown to love the small-town feel of this somewhat large Tier 2 city. I abhor the big machine behind country music, but I recognize that profit motive always has and always will drive any industry.

So, what's to become of the culture here in the next five years? City leaders know that we have to get this growth thing right in terms of traffic, infrastructure, and housing, but it's up to the citizens to protect the pieces we love. In a way, it's another reason for locals to pursue their own businesses; it's the unique businesses here that do the most to preserve the culture. It's the locally-sourced and locally-owned restaurants, the small brewers and distillers, the indy labels and the label-less musicians, the artists, the techies, and the fashionistas that keep the profit-above-all system in check. They create jobs and opportunities while perpetuating that delicious blend of traditional and quirky. While I and others may worry at the dissolution of Nashville's peculiar flavor, it's possible that we are attracting and encouraging more of the ambitious people who will fit right in and help us become a more sustainable, more diverse, and ultimately more interesting community.

Is it likely? I don't know, but it is possible. It's possible we just need to fight business with business.