Publicly subsidized housing in the United States goes back to the Housing Act of 1937, a law that aimed to replace the slums and shantytowns that multiplied during the Great Depression with more habitable quarters.
In Nashville, that meant the immediate construction of the James A. Cayce Homes at the doorstep of the Shelby Street Bridge in East Nashville and the J.C. Napier Homes near Lafayette Street.
By 1949, Nashville, not unlike other cities, embarked on an intense period of urban renewal. Communities of shacks — most dramatically, those north of the state capitol — were wiped out, with the poorest of poor becoming tenants of the city’s new public housing.
Conditions at those first few units, and others built later, inevitably deteriorated over time. And the mission, in many ways, of the Metro Development and Housing Agency — also borne out of that New Deal-era law — has been to maintain and update its facilities, which today provide housing for more than 28,000 indigent, elderly or disabled Nashvillians.
Funding, which comes courtesy of the federal government, hasn’t always come easy. Depending on the presidential administration, public housing has been either embraced or ignored.
A sea change has occurred in how those dollars, when available, are spent. Rather than bolstering the old mode of acres of homogenous, rectangular brick units, leaders in recent years have tried to inject some vibrancy, life and sustainability into what’s still perceived as a less-than-ideal living situation.
The shift in thinking has left its most visible mark via the federal HOPE VI program. Beginning in 1998, $88.5 million in federal HOPE VI grants trickled down to Metro Nashville over the next decade, dollars that were used by MDHA to renovate four of its oldest, most dilapidated housing complexes with rows of new, pastel-colored duplexes.
Drivers heading north on Interstate 65 can spot the Vine Hill Apartments by the state fairgrounds, the first MDHA community revitalized with HOPE VI funds. Near Tennessee State University, there’s the Historic Preston Taylor Apartments; off Spring Street in East Nashville are the Levy Place homes; and along Charlotte Pike are the J. Henry Hale Apartments. All three public housing neighborhoods have been enhanced with colorful, energy-efficient units through HOPE VI grants.
“It’s about keeping properties up-to-date,” MDHA Executive Director Phil Ryan said of the benefits of HOPE VI. “Some of the old properties go back to the ’40s. They’re small, with few amenities and small closets. They’re very difficult to renovate and update to be compatible with other apartment communities.”
Despite its success in Nashville, the HOPE VI program was virtually stripped of funding during the tail end of President George W. Bush’s administration, and President Barack Obama hasn’t continued the initiative.
Instead, the bulk of funds to upgrade MDHA’s housing communities have come from Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So far, more than $18 million in stimulus dollars have helped engineer drastic upgrades to five of the agency’s high-rises: Edgefield Manor, Vine Hills Studio Apartments, and Parthenon, Hadley Park and Madison towers.
Upgrades are geared largely toward environmental sustainability. Last month, a new solar energy generator — the largest in Davidson County, in fact — was installed on the rooftop of Parthenon Towers. Solar energy generators are also slated for Edgefield Manor and Madison Towers. Other amenities at the city’s high-rises include new loft-style living arrangements, along with energy-efficient heating, cooling and water systems.
“It’s all the same concept for us,” Ryan said of the shift from HOPE VI funds to federal stimulus dollars. “To rebuild [and] renovate our communities so that they’re attractive for our residents and for the neighborhoods around them.”
Stimulus funds, however, will eventually dry up. Ryan said he and other urban and housing agency leaders throughout the country are on a constant lobbying push to ensure that funding for public housing upgrades is addressed in the future.
Whether efforts trigger a resurgence of HOPE VI, a continuation of environmental upgrades or any cash at all, remains to be seen.