On a weekday afternoon at Villa Maria Manor, the Diocese of Nashville's affordable housing complex for seniors, elderly men and women, many using walkers, motorized scooters or wheelchairs to help with their limited mobility, warmly greet each other in the building's main lobby. They complement each other on new hairstyles or clothes, inquire about each other's plans for the weekend.
"The residents will help each other out. It's like a real community here," said Villa resident Patricia Sakal, who sometimes accompanies her blind neighbor to doctor's appointments.
Sakal, 74, has lived at Villa Maria Manor on White Bridge Road for three years; before that she lived in another housing complex for seniors, but "the rent kept going up and it got too expensive." So she applied to the Villa, and waited, for two-and-a-half years, until a one-bedroom apartment became available. "It was worth it to wait," she said. "This one was the best."
Villa Maria Manor is proud to be regarded as "the Cadillac" of affordable housing for seniors in Nashville, said Sue Clinton, director of the Villa. With its Belle Meade location, amenities like free (limited) transportation, discounted meals and access to a social worker, the Villa is in demand.
That demand is higher than ever, as Nashville's affordable housing stock diminishes amidst an unprecedented boom in real estate development.
According to a recent "Housing Nashville" report issued by the office of Mayor Megan Barry, nearly 40 percent of renters in Nashville are now "cost-burdened," paying more than 35 percent of their monthly income for housing.
While some residents of Villa Maria Manor remain in the workforce past retirement age, many rely on some combination of Social Security, disability and pension payments to afford their modest rent, subsidized with assistance from the federal government's Section 8 housing voucher program.
"All Section 8 housing in Nashville has a waiting list right now, and at one time that was not the case," said Clinton, who has worked at the Villa for 30 years. "The demand is a lot higher right now."
"I'm trying to live on a very limited income, and this makes it possible for me to be in Nashville. Otherwise I wouldn't be here," said Darlene Peters, who has lived at the Villa for five months, after waiting for three years for a spot to open up.
"I got hit really bad in the recession and lost a lot of money and property. I was close to retirement and it was hard to get a job," she said. "A lot of different circumstances brought us here," she said of herself and her fellow Villa residents.
Villa staff members like Clinton see it as their vocation to ensure that fixed-income seniors have a decent place to live, as well as what's needed to ensure that they continue to thrive, through music and art classes, birthday celebrations, yoga, and more. "It's our mission to take care of low-income people," Clinton said. "God tells us to take care of the needy and the poor."
Housing as a moral issue
Embedded in Catholic Social Teaching as a basic human right, and affirmed by St. Pope John XXIII as necessary "for the proper development of life," shelter is indeed a primary human need.
"Shelter the homeless" is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy, which are found in the teachings of Jesus and "give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise," write the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Over the years, the USCCB has raised its voice concerning housing rights, reminding lawmakers and laypeople alike that housing is a moral issue. The bishops address housing in their document, "Faithful Citizenship," and previously reflected on the issue in the 1975 statement, "The right to a decent home: A pastoral response to the crisis in housing." That may have been written more than 40 years ago, but it contains messages that are still relevant today.
"The Catholic bishops believe decent, safe, and affordable housing is a human right. Catholic teaching supports the right to private property, but recognizes that communities and the government have an obligation to ensure the housing needs of all are met, especially poor and vulnerable people and their families. At a time of rising homelessness and when many workers' wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising, it is important to ensure housing security," states the USCCB's current advocacy position on housing.
Today, it's not just the stereotypical "working poor" who are caught in a housing crunch. It's teachers, musicians, social workers, college graduates. Amanda Edgerton, a counselor with Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Family Empowerment Program, works with families in unstable housing situations, and experienced first-hand some of challenges these families face when they are pushed out of housing due to rising rents.
Edgerton moved into the Howe Garden apartment complex in East Nashville in August of 2015, unaware that within the next six months the complex would be sold, major renovations would take place, and along with that, major rent hikes. Already paying more than 30 percent of her income for a modest $750 a month one-bedroom apartment, there was no way she could afford to stay after the planned upgrades and rent increases.
As a social worker, Edgerton was aware of her rights as a tenant, and knew what resources existed to help, "but it was still really frustrating," she said, especially as she witnessed neighbors with fewer resources struggle to cope with confusing lease termination letters and search for new housing. "With the housing situation in Nashville, most affordable places have a really long wait list," she said.
Living at Howe Garden during that time "gave me a sense of how vulnerable some individuals are," Edgerton said.
The experience also nudged her to shift her career focus from mental health counselor to housing counselor and advocate. "Since then I've had a heart for housing rights and advocating and assisting others who find themselves in that situation," Edgerton said.
The vital importance of a home was brought into sharper focus through that experience. "When someone doesn't have that stability, so many other aspects of their life are affected," she said. Daily life "is so much more of a struggle because that need isn't being met."
Edgerton, along with her two pet rabbits, now lives in a house with four roommates, which she said is about the only viable way for a median-income single person like herself to live in Nashville today. She also recognizes that with a master's degree, a stable work history, and a support network of family and friends in town, she did not have to face many of the barriers that her Family Empowerment Program clients do, including past evictions, poor credit ratings, and criminal records, that raise red flags with landlords. "Nashville definitely needs more housing advocates," she said.
Catholic Charities of Tennessee, primarily through its Family Empowerment Program, is one of those advocates.
Working with a Metro Nashville Public School program that identifies homeless students, and Safe Haven Family Shelter, which offers temporary housing to whole families, Catholic Charities' Family Empowerment Program provides case management services to help families get back on track with stable housing.
Since family homelessness remains a somewhat "invisible" issue in the community, with families living not on the streets but in shelters, motels, cars, or with family and friends, Catholic Charities collaborates with other professional service providers and community members to ensure that clients' needs are met.
Since the program started in 2014, the Family Empowerment Program has moved more than 120 families from homelessness to housing.
Families can be placed in apartments or houses anywhere in the city, including at Marina Manor East, another affordable housing complex owned by the Diocese of Nashville. Located on more than six acres in a rapidly gentrifying section of East Nashville, that complex is highly appealing to developers who are looking to flip the property into market-rate housing. However, the diocese has no plans to sell, and wants to keep these apartment units available as affordable housing, with rents up to $200 less per month than comparable units in the same neighborhood.
"The job market is booming here, but finding affordable places for clients to live is difficult," said Pam Russo, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. "So many people have jobs but all their expenses are going up, but not their income."
That makes it difficult for families to tuck away any savings, and many remain without a safety net, making them a car repair or serious illness away from losing their job, and with it, their housing.
"We always have more requests for help than we can handle," when it comes to affordable housing, said Russo.
To help improve their clients' chances for success, Catholic Charities staff members are working to build relationships with more good landlords, and are always scouring the city for affordable housing openings, which are becoming rarer. "The housing we are able to find for them, some of the places are not great," said Edgerton.
"There's so much more need, there's just not enough affordable housing resources," said Russo.
Catholic Charities also works to make clients aware of property tax relief programs available for seniors, and home repair assistance programs.
"We're always advocating when there is an opportunity," said Russo, staying apprised, through the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, of any legislation that could affect affordable housing policies.
"We want people to have their basic needs met," including food, shelter and clothing, "so they can develop to their full potential," said Russo. "We don't want to see anyone on the streets in an unsafe situation."
‘Complex and critical'
According to the "Housing Nashville" report from the mayor's office, the city will need an additional 30,000 affordable housing units by 2025 to accommodate the growing need for housing. The report also notes that Nashville had an estimated 2,000-unit surplus of affordable rental housing in 2000. By 2015 that surplus had become a deficit of 18,000 units.
To keep the city on task in adequately addressing the need for more affordable housing, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, a faith led coalition of community-minded organizations that gives voice to traditionally marginalized people, has made affordable housing one of its top three issues.
NOAH receives some funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops' domestic anti-poverty program.
"Our work is complex, very necessary and very critical," NOAH's Affordable Housing and Gentrification Task Force chair Paulette Coleman reminded her task force members at a recent meeting.
The task force is up against a number of challenges that are diminishing Nashville's affordable housing stock: developers who are converting former affordable units into high-end rentals, landlords who are putting their properties on the short-term rental market, such as Airbnb, instead of renting to long-term local tenants, and a dearth of landlords who accept Section 8 housing vouchers.
One of the task force's top priorities of the moment is to bring a voice to the table around Mayor Barry's proposed $5.2 billion public transit proposal. "Housing must be fully integrated into the transit plan," said Coleman, an alumna of the Jesuit-run Fordham University. "Affordable housing has to be as high a priority as anything else in this city," she added, noting that she is concerned that if housing doesn't get folded into the transit plan, it won't be effectively addressed, because "there's not going to be an appetite of the citizens to do another big spending project."
Affordable housing task force members expressed concerns about losing tracts of affordable housing along proposed transit routes; NOAH members want to ensure that housing near the transit line will be preserved and fortified.
NOAH, along with Catholic Charities and other concerned citizens and social justice advocates, previously advocated for a mandatory city-wide inclusionary zoning policy, which would have required developers to set aside a certain number of units in new developments as affordable housing, but those efforts were weakened by lawsuits and state government action.
NOAH's affordable housing task force mission statement says, in part, "Nashville is facing an affordable housing crisis, and we need to keep the affordable housing that we have. As a city, we need to be as serious about affordable housing as about stadiums and convention centers." They note that, "We are all interconnected, and the well-being of marginalized Nashvillians impacts us all."