For Affordable Housing We Need To Think Big

I went to the Planning Department’s Second Stakeholders Group meeting on November 10. The consultant hired by the department to help formulate inclusionary zoning regulations was there. David Schwartz from Economic & Planning Systems in Denver gave an extended presentation to the group. You can see his slides here.

I continue to have faith that the process is going to lead us to a countywide, consistent approach to affordable housing. But there were parts of the presentation that have left me wondering whether we are going to see proposals that are big and bold enough for the affordable housing challenges that Nashville faces.

My sense is that Mr. Schwartz is going to tell us that our affordable housing issues are localized, not widespread, and certainly not countywide. I think this view is too narrow. And, if this is his perspective, I think the solutions he will propose also will be too narrow.

So, why do I think he’s going to tell us our problems are localized, not widespread, and not countywide?

Mr. Schwartz uses the term “central County.” I haven’t heard that defined precisely yet. But it is obvious that he means to refer to downtown and areas that are very close to downtown. To him, “central County” means the area at the center of Nashville that is approximately 4% of the county’s land mass.

Affordable Housing (2) - Nashville Inclusionary Zoning Feasibility Study

I am concerned that when we get Mr. Schwartz’s recommendations about affordable housing policies, they are going to be limited to apply only to his concept of the “central County.” If you were to ask people who attended the presentation, I think you would find general agreement that Mr. Schwartz repeatedly made reference to the “core” being different, and that different policies should apply to areas with different characteristics.

It isn’t just this definition. When Mr. Schwartz moved into presenting his data, it also showed too narrow a view of our affordable housing struggles.

The data presentation started by suggesting that real property values are appreciating at above average rates pretty much only in his “central County” area. You can see his slide below. In his map, Mr. Schwartz shows rapid price appreciation to be limited to the area from the Gulch across downtown and through lower East Nashville.

Affordable Housing (1) - Nashville Inclusionary Zoning Feasibility Study

But notice how this chart includes data from 2000 to 2015. By including the years before and during the height of the recession, the results on this map are skewed to show generally lower price appreciation. To me, this map fails to capture the rate that price appreciation is changing now…this year…in 2015.

The small area in his “central County” that shows the most aggressive price appreciation is surrounded by Wedgewood-Houston, the Nations, Jefferson Street, Madison, Inglewood, Donelson, and Woodbine. Each of these areas is shown on Mr. Schwartz’s map as having average, or only slightly above average, price appreciation over the last 15 years. But, c’mon…for those of us who live here, we know that these neighborhoods are the current front lines of advancing rapid price appreciation. Intuitively, we know that, if you limited the data to the last several years, the map about price appreciation would look very different. It would show a much larger area with well-above average price appreciation.

To test this theory, I went to the web site for our Assessor of Property. There is a tool there that lets you draw a border around an area, and it will give you housing sales data. When I drew a box around Woodbine (which is shown on Mr. Schwartz’s map as having average appreciation of 4.1% or less over 15 years), I saw that the median home sale price went from $127,450 in the beginning of 2013 to $158,000 in the third quarter of 2015.

Affordable Housing (2) - Sales Charts

So, if the map in the presentation had been limited to the last three years, Woodbine would have been colored two shades darker than on Mr. Schwartz’s map. I got the same result for Donelson ($141,500 in 1Q 2013 to $170,000 in 3Q 2015). This shows appreciation that is nearly twice the pace that is shown in the consultant’s 15 year data map:

Affordable Housing (3) - Sales Charts

I could keep going, but you get the picture. (Try it for yourself at

The bottom line is that the map in the presentation does not show the full area that is currently experiencing high price appreciation. To me, this means that the areas that need affordable housing solutions are being understated.

Listen, I know that you can make data say anything, and I know that this process with Mr. Schwartz is very much a work-in-progress. And, the presentation was already more than an hour long and had 38 slides. It is possible, or maybe probable, that the concerns I am sharing are fully on his radar. That would be great, and I am definitely keeping an open mind about his data and ultimate proposals.

But, for today, after hearing the presentation this week, I think it is fair to say that the idea of limiting affordable housing solutions to the “central County” would be too narrow. It is fair to say that showing price appreciation data over 15 years instead of the last 3 years might be used to (incorrectly) support a conclusion that our affordable housing problems are limited to the “central County.” It is fair to say that, if the policies that end up being recommended are based on this approach, we would be thinking too small for the challenges we face.

Bob Mendes

Bob Mendes represents all of Nashville as a Council-At-Large member of Nashville’s Metro Council. He is Chair of the Council’s Charter Revision Committee, a member of the Metropolitan Audit Committee, and a member of the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, Rules & Confirmations Committee, and Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee. Bob also practices business law at Waypoint Law PLLC. Bob’s complete bio is here. You can follow Bob @mendesbob.