Nashville is a progressive city, in many regards a liberal city. But all of that is window dressing for the kind of city Nashville truly is: a developer’s city. Always has been, always will be. Developers own this town (always have, always will) and each successive liberal, progressive Democratic mayoral administration seems perfectly happy to turn our quality of life, livability, sustainability and affordability over to the leeches who have sucked this city dry of all that made it special in the first place.
A perfect example of this is our policy regarding short-term rental properties, aka AirBnB, VRBO, etc. Last year Nashville’s Metro Council passed a law regulating (and taxing) these rentals, the logic being not doing so would push this activity underground and cause the city to miss out on a revenue source. Ever since it’s been a nightmare for neighbors and overwhelmed our zoning department:
Enforcing these regulations has forced Nashville inspectors and zoning enforcement employees to devote a large part of their time just to check on short-term renters. What the city thought would be permitting for 200 individuals and investors turned into more than 1,000 applications.
“Since we set our first date for permitting, it has absolutely inundated our department,” Herbert said in an interview with The Courier-Journal.
We’re actually closer to 2,000 now. The ordinance as passed is completely unenforceable, and therefore useless. It has also enriched developers mightily, while making Nashville’s housing crisis worse. That’s because in Music City we allow both kinds of STRs — those operated by actual homeowners, and those operated by LLCs.
The image rental platforms like AirBnB present is of a carriage house or extra room rented out on weekends by a nice family living in the main house; the owners are people who are on-site and available to monitor their renters and able to make a little extra cash to pay their mortgage. Indeed, that is the very image that is pushed by right-wing think tanks like the Beacon Center, an ALEC-spinoff which has sued Metro Nashville over its ordinance (no doubt at the behest of AirBnB lobbyists). Those rental situations may indeed exist but in Nashville, they are not typical. The typical short-term rental in Nashville, at a whopping 80%, are investor-operated businesses, condos and apartments.
And herein lies the problem: years ago, Metro Nashville’s Planning Department (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the private, for-profit development community) commissioned a study about population growth trends. This study found — shocker! — that the region was expected to grow by a whopping 1 million residents, prompting headlines like this one in our developer-friendly news media:
Thus launched the long-range plan for Nashville’s growth known as “NashvilleNext,” which included the usual dog and pony shows known as “community input meetings.” I went to a few of these meetings. Attendees were given tasks like putting colored stickers on a map to indicate where they want to accommodate these newcomers; I know of one such meeting in which attendees crammed their stickers into the city cemeteries. Not exactly a useful exercise, but I digress.
The point of this was to give the process the veneer of “community input,” while the Planning Department went ahead and did what it (and the developers) wanted. Thus our new long-range plan calls for infill in our wealthy and desirable neighborhoods. The large lots and green space we once enjoyed are now filled with the dreaded “tall-skinnies,” detached properties which in defiance of all logic are still called “duplexes” under Nashville’s weird definition of a duplex. They loom over their neighbors and sit on concrete pads where one house with a yard and trees used to be.
We have been told by our city leaders that we need to accommodate this infill, that “everyone needs to do their part,” and take that loss of our neighborhood character and history on the chin because “ZOMG a million people are coming!”. And yet, after five years of a building boom and with thousands of new homes being built all over town, we’re still seeing headlines like this one:
Nashville struggling to meet demand for new homes
With all of this building going on, why are so many new houses showing up on AirBnB, VRBO, etc., as short-term rentals for bachelorette parties? Nashville, why are you doing this? If we truly have a housing shortage, why are you letting developers and real estate companies clear away lots that contain perfectly good homes — many times, even, the affordable “workforce” housing we so desperately need — only to build luxurious new homes that are then used by tourists? Why?
Why allow properties like this one, in the so-hot-I-gotta-wear-gloves 12South Neighborhood:
Or these in the (once historic, now transformed) Germantown neighborhood:
Or this in the East Nashville neighborhood, one of four adjacent tall-skinnies, all rented out to tourists and therefore off the market to be used as actual housing:
And it’s not just new houses. Old houses are off the market, reserved for tourists. Entire apartment complexes are being built, not for the housing we desperately need, but so developers can make money on the short-term rental market. This has made developers very rich, but it hasn’t helped Nashville’s housing crunch, and it’s also removed any free-market controls on overbuilding. Great for developers, not so great for us residents.
I have a few AirBnBs in my neighborhood. So far, most are in condo complexes on my street. These are condos that could be rented out to someone who needs housing, but instead profits some real estate company. I didn’t even know they were there, though I did wonder at the strangers I suddenly saw walking down my street, people I’d never seen before. One couple in particular I thought were homeless and living in the neighborhood park. (Sorry, dred-locked and tattooed tourists: hipster or homeless is a real thing.) When I saw them walking through a neighbor’s yard, I grew alarmed … then saw they were just taking a short-cut to an apartment. Never saw them again after that weekend, and so I’m guessing they were guests at the AirBnB I saw listed on the platform. Thanks for letting us all know, guys.
Telling us we have to build build build to accommodate projected growth and then not putting those houses and apartments on the market for actual residents is the kind of move that makes me call bullshit on Nashville’s planning agenda. It’s one of those glorious moves you can expect from a developer-owned town. Tell everyone we need to build like crazy, then let those houses sit empty most of the time. If Nashville’s city leaders really gave a crap about housing, they wouldn’t have allowed LLCs to operate short-term rentals in the first place.
Our Metro Council is currently weighing in on some tweaks to the STR ordinance, while our state legislature is looking at House and Senate bills that would prohibit municipalities from regulating or taxing short-term rentals at all (of course they are!). It’s all fun and games until someone gets a party house next door.