Apr 11, 2024 - Politics

Middle-class housing plan on pause

Illustration of ripped up blueprints.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Former Metro Councilmember Emily Evans sat in the front row of a community meeting in the Belmont neighborhood last month when suddenly, she seemed to be staring into a mirror.

  • The meeting was led by rookie Metro Councilmember Quin Evans Segall, who a few weeks earlier proposed a sweeping series of bills to address Nashville's middle-class housing crisis.

Evans thought to herself, "She kinda reminds me of me."

Why it matters: Evans' approach to a complicated policy issue years ago is instructive as the city government navigates the fallout from Segall's stalled effort to slash zoning restrictions and codes regulations.

  • Evans, who isn't related to Segall even though they share a name, tells Axios she appreciates Segall's zeal and willingness to tackle a big problem, but not necessarily her approach.

Flashback: When Evans first ran for council in 2006, she was surprised to find voters wanted to talk about one issue.

  • A backlog of city stormwater projects was creating incessant flooding, in some cases ruining people's homes and properties.
  • It became clear, she says, that the solution was to introduce a first-of-its-kind stormwater fee to charge property owners based on how much land they owned.

What happened next: Evans turned the issue into her own political crusade and began hosting meetings across Nashville.

  • Similar to the response to Segall's bills, some neighbors resisted change. "We heard it all. Some guy would say, 'Well, I live on a hill. Why should I care about flooding?'"

Flash forward: After Segall introduced her legislation, Nashville neighborhoods worried about increasing density took their "not in my backyard" opposition to new heights. The networking hub Nextdoor lit up with posts lambasting Segall and her plan.

  • Segall hosted a few community meetings before it became abundantly clear her legislation was going nowhere.

Segall was criticized for political haste since she filed her legislation before seeking approval from department heads, neighborhood group leaders and fellow council members.

  • The majority of Segall's most impactful solutions are now on the back burner while city departments conduct a major study.

The big picture: From Segall's perspective, affordable housing was the top concern in last year's election. She says she acted quickly out of fear that issues already in the pipeline could delay meaningful housing reforms for years.

  • The November transportation referendum will dominate the political landscape this year, and a property tax increase is likely next year.
  • If the state's effort to cut the Metro Council in half survives a legal challenge, then 2026 could be defined by a dramatic redistricting process.

"If you look at the people who were elected last election cycle, Nashvillians are craving bold leadership that will stand up for what is right and what the majority of people want," Segall says. "But we're not elevating that conversation."

💭 Nate's thought bubble: When it comes to complicated policy solutions, the Nashville way is to build a broad coalition, find consensus and slowly take plans to the community like Evans did.

  • There's a real urgency to address middle-class housing because 92% of residents said in a recent poll that they can't afford to buy a house in Nashville.
  • The vitriol directed at Segall during this debate was gross. Stakeholders need to make sure Nashville doesn't become a place that's toxic for bold ideas.

The bottom line: Evans' pursuit of the stormwater fee took about two years and overcame eleventh-hour pushback from large-property owners, before council approved the measure in 2009.

  • Evans says her experience applies to Segall's pursuit.
  • "It takes humility" because "getting big things done is really, really hard. You have to listen to people."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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