Room for agreement: The bipartisan idea that could fix Nashville housing

Nine years ago, Atlanta was ranked as the worst community in the country for urban sprawl. Nashville got the silver medal.

That report, compiled by nonprofit Smart Growth America, couldn’t have predicted the growth that would sweep through Music City in the years that followed its publication – growth that exploded after the coronavirus pandemic drove people and companies to resettle around the country – but its findings speak to a problem that persists today: bloated cities divided into zones for work, for play and for (single-family) housing, with each connected by traffic-clogged roadways.

The costs of that division add up: Cities spend more money maintaining expansive infrastructure and have less land to develop, while home ownership is mostly limited to pricey suburban lots that require a car to get anywhere.

If Nashville, which is reportedly growing at a rate of 36 new residents a day per the U.S. Census Bureau, wants to learn from the mistakes of bigger cities, advocates say it’s time to do away with the dividing lines and promote higher-density development that makes better use of space and lowers the cost of housing.

Where previous attempts to address housing needs have put the city at odds with state leadership, it could be a strategy that satisfies both sides. For those on the political left, density allows more housing for lower-income families; for those on the right, it frees owners from restrictions on how to use their property.

The national housing shortage is one of the few issues to straddle the divide in today’s politically fraught landscape. Across the country, progressives and conservatives alike are pushing to reduce exclusionary zoning and promote higher-density development that could drastically increase housing inventory at lower costs to residents.

‘If nothing changes…’

The seeds of America’s housing crisis were planted in the years following World War II.

The promise of homes with two-car garages and white picket fences produced the wide-ranging, costly and inefficient suburban neighborhoods that came to define American housing. In the process, it ate up available land, capped the development of new supply and carved areas up by their usage — single-family homes, multi-family housing, commercial space, offices, etc.

That model seems viable when there’s room to expand, but as transplants from major metros like Los Angeles or Atlanta can attest, it’s a model that works until it doesn’t. 

Nashville is on course to learn the hard way that it has more in common with Los Angeles than locals may want to admit.

“That’s something I’m always having to drill home when I talk to policymakers in places like Montana or Tennessee is, ‘Your rules in many cases are actually as restrictive as in California; you just have that safety valve of new sprawl development. But that’s starting to run dry,’” said M. Nolan Gray. “[If nothing changes,] Nashville and Bowling Green are going to be one giant metro someday.”

Gray, who holds a master’s degree in city planning and recently published his first book, “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It,” is one of many voices calling for a new approach to housing.

He and his peers in the so-called pro-growth movement say prioritizing single-family neighborhoods makes housing unattainable for many. A single-family home carries a hefty price tag, whereas the same plot of land could host multiple, smaller dwellings that are cheaper for builders and buyers.

“In your typical metro area, probably something like 75% to 90% of area zoned for residential use only allows detached single-family homes, typically on larger lots, say 5,000-square feet or an acre,” Gray said. “Many consumers might actually want a smaller home. Zoning adds a bunch of entitlement delay and risk. It makes it harder to get permits to get housing, it delays the process … (while projects go through) variances, rezoning or [planned unit developments], all of which makes the process more expensive.”

In addition to ending single-family zoning, Gray’s proposed solutions include abolishing minimum parking requirements, eliminating or lowering minimum floor area requirements for homes, ending minimum lot size requirements and, lastly, decriminalizing affordable housing models such as prefabricated homes, accessory dwelling units (smaller residences on the same property as a standalone home) or low-rise multi-family housing.

Nashville has started on one of these: The city last year eliminated minimum parking space requirements for new developments in the city’s “Urban Zoning Overlay,” which stretches from East Nashville to Interstate 440 and from Hillwood to portions of South Nashville.

Higher-density development, or “upzoning,” is catching on with state and local governments alike. Liberal strongholds Oregon, California and Maine have all passed laws eliminating single-family zoning, and state leaders in rural, conservative communities including Utah and Montana are considering similar policy changes. Upzoning bills have also seen bipartisan support from legislators in North Carolina, Arizona and Virginia.

One legislator from Washington’s Republican minority said he understands Seattle’s need for housing, but doesn’t want solutions geared toward the big city to sweep up smaller communities that don’t face the same problems. State Rep. Andrew Barkis and democratic co-sponsor Jessica Bateman recently put forth a bill to allow multifamily construction on any residential lot, so long as that lot is in a city with more than 6,000 residents.

“There is a different need in Seattle, there’s density issues, major affordability issues … their [representatives] might be looking through a lens of subsets of people and demographics. Our lens is, ‘We need to address this, but let’s not develop policy that’s Seattle-centric while leaving the rest of the state out,’” Barkis said. “We’re having to find that policy that accommodates both. Not every area is going to be a six-story building on a light-rail system. You have to look at what’s available, and I think that conversation is happening.”

While Barkis and his peers are the minority in Washington, their concerns about affordability are echoed in the Republican supermajority of Montana. The state’s housing advocates say that protecting the open space that provided the “Big Sky Country” moniker means promoting upward growth, not outward expansion, and leadership agrees.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has said that zoning regulations “constrict supply and make affordable housing less accessible.”

Gianforte formed an affordable housing task force last summer which recommended prohibiting minimum lot sizes larger than 2,500-square feet and enacting an affordable housing tax credit tied to zoning reform.

For all the widespread support, upzoning may not be the cause around which all politicians can rally. Bills in various state legislatures have also been met with opposition. The most prominent example may be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis has spoken out against an upzoning ordinance adopted by Gainesville, the seat of one of the state’s few blue counties, and the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity has filed a lawsuit to delay its implementation.

Proponents of the reform have criticized the lawsuit as a political maneuver on DeSantis’ part, though it may be a moot point – the city leaders that adopted the ordinance left office in November, and the new administration is moving to re-adopt exclusionary zoning.

Former mayor Lauren Poe, who presided over the change, saw a public interest in providing “more diversity of housing” to the city’s residents, he said in an interview with the Business Journal before leaving office.

“I think it’s really interesting to see a conservative governor like [Greg Gianforte] in Montana be very supportive of this [in his state] and another conservative governor doing the opposite,” Poe said.

Poe said he and Megan Sladek, the conservative mayor of Oviedo, Fla., have had multiple conversations about housing and agree upzoning is the best way to address their respective housing needs.

“You’re allowed to do what you want with your property. That’s a bedrock principle of being conservative. The thought that the government should require you to live in a certain size home or own a minimum amount of land, that doesn’t appeal to people who truly believe the government shouldn’t be involved in those decisions,” Sladek said. “For whatever reason, the state government has tried to intervene and deny those rights to [owners], and I don’t understand the logic, but I guess that’s where we’re at in Florida.”

DeSantis has taken other steps to address Florida’s housing needs. He recently signed into law the Live Local Act, which appropriated $711 million for housing projects and requires local governments to authorize multifamily or mixed-use residential projects in commercial, industrial or mixed-use zones, if the proposed development provides at least 40% affordable-housing units fora minimum of 30 years.

The law, which went into effect days ago, also bars municipalities from requiring a multifamily development (within the aforementioned zones) to obtain zoning, conditional use approval or other permissions for building height, zoning or densities.

The changes being enacted around the country are relatively recent, but Minneapolis has been ahead of the curve. Leaders there in 2018 approved a growth plan that eliminated single-family zoning and residential parking minimums.

The updated growth plan, which took effect in 2020, neglected to address regulations about building size, so multifamily developments going up on a single-family lot have to fit in the same footprint approved for that property.

As a result, between January 2020 and March 2022, only 62 duplexes and 17 triplexes were approved for development, over half of which were planned for lots formerly zoned as single-family, as reported by Reason Magazine, a Libertarian outlet.

The growth plan is indicative of a larger attitude shift; in the same window that Minneapolis has approved thousands more building permits year-over-year and is seeing increased housing supply and falling rents, other cities around the country are moving in the opposite direction.

‘A few years behind’

If Middle Tennessee’s business-friendly reputation is the engine driving the car, the housing market could be the flat tire that ends the trip.

Multiple companies have announced plans to bring facilities to the region, promising thousands of jobs, but without the housing to support them, the promised economic growth may not materialize.

Charles Schneider, CEO of the Homebuilders Association of Tennessee, said housing density is one of the best ways to address the region’s growing needs, especially regarding workforce housing.

“When you have greater density, it’s easier to install all the infrastructure needed to serve those homes and you’re able to build at a price point that people are more likely to afford with today’s interest rates and still build high-quality homes,” Schneider said. “We often hear complaints from elected leadership about a lack of workforce housing, by which they mean nice housing at a good price point.

“If you’re on the planning commission, making three or four times the annual income and looking at a proposed [high-density] development, maybe you wouldn’t buy it, but you have to imagine what it was like for you 20 or 30 years ago. You might not want it, but it’s not for you.”

Developers active in the region have expressed a desire for higher-density zoning; multiple units on a single plot of land have comparable construction costs to a single home on the same parcel and yield more sales.

Nathan Weinberg, co-founder of MW Development and vice president of Greater Nashville Realtors, said he doesn’t think a measure to eliminate single-family zoning would pass today’s Metro Council because the situation isn’t dire enough yet.

“Nashville is on the same trajectory as other cities that have [done that], we’re just a few years behind. As the council becomes more progressive and the needs of its constituents change, I think we’re five to 10 years away from being in a position where the council is capable of making that vote a success.”

Improving traffic, Weinberg said, means vertical development, not horizontal, and it starts with large-lot, single-family neighborhoods like Cleveland Park andBordeaux.

“The problem we have right now is the people that make their voice heard most often represent the most extreme ideology in our city. This is just a hypothetical example: the folks who have lived in Green Hills all their lives, and don’t want to see it change. That area is emblematic of the traffic problems we have across the city,” Weinberg said. “That small group of constituents is driving the narrative around how Nashville should grow, but it’s not an accurate representation. Young people from across the country are moving here. They’re part of the city now, and they need to stand up and say something so their leaders know what they want.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center, a think tank based in Nashville, said the organization last year did a listening tour across the state to hear Tennesseans’ concerns about the state’s growth; housing was at the top of the list.

Owen, who described the Beacon Center as ideologically center-right, said the organization would “actively support” upzoning legislation. He thinks upzoning could be a solution that satisfies both Nashville’s left-leaning government and Tennessee’s conservative leadership: Conservatives see zoning as limiting supply, and progressives see zoning as racially or economically oppressive.

“I don’t think the state Legislature would prohibit the city from [upzoning]. Both sides have NIMBY’s and both sides have YIMBY’s who understand the negative implications of overly restrictive zoning,” Owen said. “I think you’d see reform-minded Republicans at the state level partnering with Democrats at the state or local level to say, ‘We need to fix this problem; we need to allow for more density in Nashville.’ That will inevitably have bipartisan opposition, either people saying Nashville gets to decide for itself or we don’t need more restrictions.”

Colby Sledge, the Metro Council member whose bill eliminated parking minimums, said one of the reasons he wrote the legislation was to make “more efficient and effective use” of the city’s urban core.

Two of the neighborhoods in Sledge’s district were upzoned to multifamily and are starting to see that higher-density development. He said that kind of growth is one way to address Nashville’s housing needs, but it’s not the only one.

“Eliminating single-family zoning is not a silver bullet for housing availability and affordability. In my district you have a lot of underused or vacant industrial land; you have to be thinking: How are you pushing the envelope on what’s assumed can be done versus what’s needed from a density standpoint to meet housing needs, to bring in basic services for everyone to benefit?” Sledge said. “There’s a full toolbox of incentives and regulations, and a variety of proposals to meet our housing needs. There will never be one thing that fixes it entirely.”

Tennessee State Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) works in the homebuilding industry and has previously served on that city’s planning commission. He said density is an issue for local governments to decide, not the state, but added that if municipalities were to enact high-growth plans, they should add mechanisms to ensure a developer is motivated to build the kind of housing they need.

“What’s happened in the past is you would have these zoning changes, and the builder would just construct more $250,000 homes instead of $175,000 homes. Or they might say, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to rezone because I have more profit options building single-family homes,” Williams said.

“In that instance, local communities could subsidize [the development] and invest money in shared costs for infrastructure improvements. If you have 100 lots and the developer was going to pay for the sewer, the city could provide reimbursement to reduce their costs. We have to find ways to help reduce the overall cost of the home.”

Even some of those voices that have spoken out against developments in various parts of the city have said they’re not against dense growth — provided it’s done the right way.

Steve Snyder is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city and the developers of two proposed developments that would require rezoning to allow taller construction. He said he supports upzoning, but the city is doing it badly.

“Everything is being done on a sort of ad hoc basis, block by block, parcel by parcel. Things are being upzoned without looking at the overall impact on the quality of life and the infrastructure, and everything that comes with those increased densities,” Snyder said. “I’m all for looking at things on a comprehensive, exhaustive basis that provides greater density, as long as the infrastructure is there to support it.

“Doing it on a block-by-block, developer-by-developer basis, all that does is enrich the developer who happened to control that parcel of land. That’s not part of a comprehensive plan and it doesn’t fit into an overall goal.”

Lorelei Bergin, president of the Harpeth Crest Homeowners Association, echoed Snyder’s concerns. Bergin and her neighbors have been fighting the development of a 417-unit apartment complex in Bellevue. They’re concerned the project, which borders the Harpeth River, will be a safety concern should the river flood and will create congestion in non-emergency situations.

“Why do we put these robust community plans in place and say it’s going to be our gospel for the future if we’re not going to adhere to them? That’s our argument for the [Ariza Bellevue] project; it was never part of the community plan but all of a sudden the developer comes in and offers donations to Metro Parks, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, why do we even have a plan?’” Bergin said. “If we trust the people we put in these positions to come up with these plans and then don’t stick to them, that’s what’s frustrating for community members.”

‘Keep complaining’

Nashville has been the “It City” for over a decade, and it shows no sign of changing anytime soon.

Developments expected to materialize in the next few years, like the East Bank, will continue to make the city a destination for companies and workers alike, but unless something changes, the city could easily become another major metro from which residents flee in search of cheaper housing.

John Brittle Jr., a Realtor with Parks Real Estate, said if city leadership has concerns about the city’s housing needs, the time to act is running out. Developable land in the city is getting more and more scarce, which has driven up the baseline cost for developers before they even lay a foundation.

“People are going to keep moving further and further outside the city, and it makes me mad. We’ve been saying we don’t want to be Atlanta since I was in high school, but here we are,” Brittle said. “I blame the neighborhoods: They band together and fight anything coming their way. West End, Hillsboro Village, East Nashville, they’ll fight anything coming their way.

“Keep complaining about traffic, keep being inconvenienced. You used to be able to get to the airport in 15 minutes, now it takes up to an hour. If we’re going to keep people moving to this city, we need more density, and I don’t see where it’s going right now.” 


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