This article ran originally in the Tennessean. By Getahn Ward
Richard Price is anxious about what lies beyond April 30.
By that day, he must leave his downtown home of the past decade. The owner of the James Robertson Apartments building won’t be renewing a contract under which the building provides subsidized housing for elderly and disabled residents.
“It puts me in a bind because I have no transportation to get around,” said Price, who pays $297 a month to live at the 87-year-old art deco building and is finding a three- to six-month waiting list at similar apartments. “If I don’t find a place, I’ll either be out on the streets or back at the Mission. That’s the last place I want to go.”
The transition underway at James Robertson Apartments, 118 Seventh Ave. N., is the latest blow to Nashville’s dwindling affordable housing, especially near the urban core where high-priced condos and swanky new apartments dot the skyline.
With rents and land values rising here, landlords who accept U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development project-based rental assistance vouchers are pursuing other, more lucrative uses for their properties or turning subsidized apartments into market-rate dwellings. In the past decade, at least four owners of properties in Nashville have opted out of project-based Section 8 contracts, according to HUD.
“What is happening in a lot of cases is as rents go up, the Section 8 cannot pay what the market is now paying,” said Woody McLaughlin, who owns apartments in the Nashville region. “So once you pass your 15-year compliance period, you sell it to someone who’s going to rehab it, raise the rent and no longer rely on Section 8.”
Dorothy Keenan, who’s involved with the entity that owns James Robertson Apartments, is mum about plans for the historic property. But in a letter on Dec. 2, that ownership entity told the Tennessee Housing and Development Agency about its plans to sell.
Not long afterward, the Metro Development and Housing Agency inquired about buying James Roberston Apartments. “The owners told us they were not interested in selling to us,” James Harbison, executive director of the public housing and development agency, said about the response.
Phil Thomason, principal in local preservation planning firm Thomason & Associates, who nominated the building for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, said a developer that buys the building could be eligible for a 20 percent federal tax credit toward any substantial rehabilitation that’s in keeping with its historic architectural character.
“The easiest conversion would be for housing — whether it’s for apartments, condos or a hotel,” he said about various potential uses.
A helping hand
Pending funding from HUD, Price, 67, will be among James Robertson Apartments’ 110 low- and fixed-income residents to whom MDHA will issue tenant-based housing choice vouchers. Mattie Edison, 82, is among 87 residents who completed application packages who expect to start getting those Friday.
They, however, would join more than 200 people in seeking landlords who accept the vouchers.
“The number of available affordable housing units is very limited in Nashville right now,” said Norman Deep, director of rental assistance at MDHA, which has more than 1,200 landlords who accept the vouchers.
Under the rental assistance program, residents pay no more than 30 percent of their adjusted incomes for rent and HUD pays the rest.
MDHA is barred from accepting a lease in which the family has to pay more than 40 percent of its monthly income, which limits eligible properties. “It’s a program-wide issue — rents in Nashville are exceeding program limits,” Deep said, citing the average assistance payment at around $500 a month.
Meanwhile, MDHA is recruiting area social service agencies to help the apartment residents with transportation and other needs as they seek new dwellings.
Price, a Vietnam veteran and one-time truck driver and day laborer who walks with a cane and has no relatives in Nashville, is looking forward to the assistance.
“If I want to go put in an application somewhere and the bus runs there, I have to ride the bus,” he said. “If I have to ride two or three buses to get there, that’s $8 and when you’re on fixed income, that can make a big difference on extra income you have.”
Reach Getahn Ward at 615-726-5968 and on Twitter @getahn.
1928: James Robertson Hotel is completed in art deco style.
1949: Christian radio station WNAH (With News About Heaven) 1360 AM starts broadcasting from the penthouse. It moved out in 1961.
1978: The building is purchased and remodeled into elderly apartments.
1984: The building is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
‘I don’t need a place’
Greg Ellis enjoys living downtown for $199 a month in rent. He walks to the YMCA to work out, often grabs a bite at Oscar’s Taco Shop, shops at Walgreens and the H.G. Hill Urban Market, hangs out with his fellow musicians on Broadway, gets sunshine, practices his trumpet, watches boats on the Cumberland and plays tour guide for tourists.
A trumpeter who played for the likes of late artist Lou Rawls, Ellis has called Nashville home since moving to the area in 2010 to be beside his brother, who lost his wife to cancer. Well familiar with being on the road during his music career, Ellis has come up with lodging plans after leaving the James Robertson Apartments that involve enrolling in truck driving school.
“It’s a driver’s market,” Ellis, 65, said about his research showing strong demand for truck drivers. “I’ll live on the road. I don’t need a place.”
Back to square one
For Garland Thomas Richardson, moving into a unit at James Robertson Apartments brought an end to more than two years living on the streets. Now he’s back to square one.
His niece and social worker are helping him to find a replacement for the apartment he rents for $217 a month.
“If I get a place, I want to be on the outskirts of town somewhere — I don’t want to live right here,” Richardson, 78, said of downtown. “I like quiet places. I don’t like to be around a lot of people all the time.”
Richardson, a Nashville native who once worked cleaning cars for area dealerships, is hopeful that his social worker would again help him find a place he can afford with monthly Social Security income of $700 and the voucher he’ll get. “I’m just trying … for the good Lord,” he said.
‘I don’t know where I’m going’
After Linda Harrison’s husband died, a desire to be closer to her sister led her to relocate to the James Robertson Apartments three years ago.
“I don’t really have a plan,” Harrison, 67, said, adding that she hasn’t heard back after submitting applications. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
Harrison pays $350 a month at James Robertson Apartments. “I have doctors’ bills and medicines that cost me over $100 a month,” she said.
Her nephew takes care of her former home in South Nashville, which Harrison said is in need of major repairs and that going back to live there would be painful. “I’ve had three people die in that house,” she said. “My dad — I took care of him until he died. And then my husband, of course.” The former property owner also died there.
‘I hate leaving’
Mattie Edison packs a little bit of her belongings daily toward moving to an apartment at a newly built Section 8 apartment complex in White House.
She’s been accepted and looks forward to signing the lease Friday after MDHA issues her tenant-based housing choice voucher.
“I like it here. We all like it here. I hate leaving,” said Edison, who 31/2 years ago moved to James Robertson Apartments, where she pays $357 a month because she couldn’t afford their Goodlettsville apartment after her son-in-law died. “I tend to the plants. I know everybody. Everybody knows me, and we’re close to the dollar store, H.G. Hill and Walgreens.”
Edison, 82, said her daughter, who was working as a nurse in Montana, has been traveling here to help her prepare for the move. “I need help in moving, and I’ve got to pay my electric and water bills,” said the Nashville native, who draws Social Security income of $906 a month.
HUD’s Nashville fair market rents*
one bedroom, $710
two bedroom, $850
three bedroom, $1,130
four bedroom, $1,213
* HUD and the tenant with a voucher pay up to this amount in monthly rent and essential utilities
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
How to help
Landlords interested in accepting tenant-based housing choice vouchers can contact:
• Norman Deep, director of rental assistance, Metro Development and Housing Agency, 615-252-6517
• MDHA also will host a resource fair from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 12 for residents in the lobby of James Robertson Apartments. Organizations interested in helping to fill a need for the residents should contact Norman Deep. Needs include boxes for residents to pack their belongings.