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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Let Them Eat Cake

01/16/15 01:39 PM | Steven Samra | Homelessness

Whenever I train homeless service providers to provide housing focused outreach, the first question I typically receive is, “Yeah, this is great and all, but what if you don’t have any housing available?”

Yeah, what if?

The reduction in affordable housing stock in this country is endemic. According to The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s report, Out of Reach 2014, “Finding a decent, affordable home is a challenge for all renters, but the poorest households have very few options. For every 100 extremely low income (ELI) renter households, there are just 31 affordable and available units” (4).

Making matters worse, the National Coalition to End Homelessness states, “According to HUD, in recent years the shortages of affordable housing are most severe for units affordable to renters with extremely low incomes. Federal support for low-income housing has fallen 49% from 1980 to 2003 (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2005). About 200,000 rental housing units are destroyed annually.”

Let me help you defrost these cold, impersonal statistics with a real world example. A December 4th opinion piece in The New York Times regarding the explosive growth and gentrification of Nashville, Tennessee laments:

“These two tendencies — save our soul, but grow grow grow — are now colliding in a bizarre form of hyper-gentrification. Neighborhoods close to downtown once drew teachers, writers and musicians with well-built, well-priced Craftsman homes. But with the influx of wealth has come a new kind of buyer, often an investor offering cash well above asking price. A house that went for $40,000 a decade ago might now go for 15 times that amount. Even worse, for many of these new gentrifiers, the old Craftsman homes are just too small, so developers have been buying up these small houses, then demolishing and replacing them with much larger ones.”

This “gentrification wave” is certainly not isolated to Nashville, and is impacting large and small cities around the country, but I digress. As a former street outreach specialist in Nashville and current Commissioner with the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, I know all too well what gentrification has meant for the most vulnerable, low-income populations in the Nashville area. Currently, fully 50% of those experiencing homelessness who are eligible and receive a Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher through the How’s Nashville campaign to end chronic homelessness cannot find an affordable housing unit that will accept their voucher before it expires.

In December 2014, fresh with the exciting news that the How’s Nashville campaign had miraculously housed almost 900 chronically homeless individuals in the previous year and a half, the situation for the most vulnerable in Nashville suddenly grew exponentially worse. Reporting in the Nashville Scene, journalist Abby White writes:

“The James Robertson Apartments, a 124-unit, 12-story Art Deco building located at 118 Seventh Ave. N., have been operating under a project-based Section 8 contract through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But as the Nashville Post reported on Dec. 19, Robert Keenan, who administers the ownership entity through James Robertson Properties, is not renewing the HUD contract and is selling the building to an unidentified buyer. Now the occupants must vacate the building by April 21. All are living on low- or fixed-income rent subsidies. All are age 62 or older.”

Although the Nashville Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) responded quickly to the news of the sale and has worked diligently to provide alternatives and support to the soon to be displaced residents, what they cannot do is provide “priority” to these residents in shifting them from the private “project-based” property to the public housing units under MDHA’s purview. This means that the residents, most of whom would find it challenging to go to the grocery store on their own, will now:

  • have to decipher and complete an application packet to obtain a Section 8 voucher
  • find an available housing unit
  • pay for the costs associated with any move to a new residence
  • pack and move their belongings
  • secure appropriate transportation
  • recruit others to assist them in the move, and
  • resettle and rebuild the community they’ve come to enjoy as residents of the James Robertson Hotel.

Changes in living conditions are considered a “major stress event” according to the Holmes- Rahe Stress Inventory. Exacerbating the situation in Nashville is the very real possibility that even with intensive support, current residents will find it extraordinarily challenging to secure an available unit in the Nashville area, especially a unit that is close to essential services downtown and near public transportation.

Even for those of us with the resources and funds available to choose where we want to live, unfettered by the need for a landlord to accept our housing voucher, the thought of locating a home and getting ourselves moved in less than four months is daunting. Imagine the impact on the mental and physical health of the elderly and disabled residents living at the James Robertson right now. Most know all too well the difficulties in front of them, and they also realize there is a distinct possibility that they will end up homeless once the April 21st deadline arrives. Given the current health status of some residents, the deadline may very well be a death sentence.

What’s particularly concerning about the events occurring in real time now at the James Robertson is that there are literally hundreds of other properties in the Nashville area (and across the country) operating on similar HUD leases, each of which could choose not to renew. The James Robertson occupancy capacity is small compared to many other housing complexes in the Nashville area, and the idea that hundreds of people could be displaced literally in the blink of an eye is frightening and shocking. We are woefully under-equipped to address those displaced residents’ housing and support needs.

So what can we do so that we never again hear the question, “What if there are no affordable housing units available?”

Given the explosive, high-end growth Nashville and many other urban communities across the country are experiencing, perhaps it’s time to consider a “penny on the dollar.” For every dollar invested in commercial development, new residence construction, or rehabilitation of existing structures within Nashville, why are we not requiring that one penny of each dollar spent be set aside to fund the development of affordable housing? Consider that with just the new $350 million dollar construction of a 35-story Marriott Hotel now being planned in downtown Nashville; a penny per dollar set aside would generate a desperately needed three and a half million dollars towards procuring new affordable housing.

In August 2014, Nashville was ranked #8 in CNN’s list of the country’s “friendliest cities.” However, at least 58 people died during 2014 while living on the streets of Nashville, many directly under the noses of those living in some of the city’s finest new housing developments.

Clearly, we’re not “friendly” enough. A penny per dollar set aside could help change that and at the same time provide hope, safety, security, and real permanent homes to hundreds of Nashville’s neediest citizens. While this infusion of funding would be extraordinarily helpful, if we really want to advance positive change, we need to also consider the city itself as a complex body—a diverse, yet interdependent system. We must examine the health of a city as a whole, not just single blocks or neighborhoods. Gentrification is not just a story of money coming in and pushing others out. It is a systematic process of sorting, of fragmentation of the city itself, and by extension, of those who reside within it.

Nashville and many other American cities today enjoy the largest growth boom in decades. We as a community, both local and national, must decide now whether the rising tide lifts all boats. Are we all so callous and uncaring that we cannot afford to give one penny on each dollar to end homelessness? For our most vulnerable, do we simply continue with the status quo and “Let them eat cake?” Or do we continue embodying the long histories of social justice that cities like Nashville are famous for through compassion, inclusion, fairness and opportunity for everyone in our communities?

Image: The James Robertson-Nashville by Brent Moore/cropped/ CC BY 2.0

Steven Samra

Written by Steven Samra

Steven is an Associate at the Center for Social Innovation. After entering recovery from homelessness, substance use, and mental health challenges in 1999, Steven has dedicated his career to assisting and advocating for marginalized, disenfranchised populations. He serves as Deputy Director and Consumer Advisor on SAMHSA's Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale Technical Assistance Center Strategy (BRSS TACS) and has served in leadership capacities for SAMHSA on HHRN, PATH, and SSH consumer involvement roles. He lives in Nashville, TN where he co-founded a street newspaper, The Contributor, and serves on the Nashville Metropolitan Homelessness Commission.