Astute Observations

Housing heartaches

My friend Gina is a blues singer. Until recently, she lived in building E at Howe Gardens on Greenwood Avenue with her boyfriend, Scott, a drummer. They spend much of their time on the road. The rent they paid was affordable and allowed them to make ends meet. Ownership at the complex has recently changed hands. The new management company, Brookside Properties, did not renew any expired leases. Along with many other residents on month-to-month leases, Gina and Scott were given approximately six weeks to vacate or renew, post-renovation, at nearly double their current rent.
     How can anyone afford to live in East Nashville anymore? Stories like this have become common, as common as bulldozers out the front window. “Lovey, did someone steal the lawnmower? Shake me up another appletini, won’t you?”
     Gina told me about her neighbors Dorothy and Evelyn. One is in her 60s and the other in her 70s, and both receive Section 8 assistance. Both live alone and neither drives. They take the bus. Their church is 10 minutes away. They both received notice to vacate or stay and pay a $500-per-month increase.
     The new owner of Howe Gardens is Middle Farms Capital, LLC. East Nashville resident Nick Ogden is one of three principal partners in the company. According to The Tennessean, Ogden is the owner of Howe Gardens.
     I became aware of Ogden five years ago when he financed a record that I played on. I remember hearing stories of the generous Vanderbilt whiz kid who ran a nonprofit company dedicated to clean water and building wells in Africa. I was impressed.
     Five years later, the nonprofit advocate, globetrotting hippy, clean water crusader is a heartless capitalist? I needed to know more. How did that happen? I had heard the stories of rude treatment from the Brookside Management office, the most blatant of which was the notice informing leaseholders that their current leases would not be honored and that they must vacate like those on month-to-month leases. This was later blamed on a clerical error in the management office.
     Dorothy and Evelyn cannot afford the increase. They are not plugged into the Internet, and apartments disappear fast. Section 8 housing disappears even faster. Gina told me she spent hours fruitlessly searching online and making calls trying to find anything for them.
It was at this point that I knew I had to write about this. Young people move all the time. Rental properties change hands. That’s just the way it goes. But little old ladies put out on the street? That’s not the East Nashville way.
     I got a phone call. “James Haggerty, this is Nick Ogden.” I had spoken to some mutual friends and word had reached him. We had a long conversation. We talked about percentages and partners, about the spirit of East Nashville. We talked about the great society. He was worried that I might be less than kind with my words. I didn’t blame him.
     “I’ve been taking a tremendous amount of criticism over the purchase of Howe Gardens,” he said. “It’s been really hard over the past two weeks.” I told him I understood that he was under no legal obligation to help people like Evelyn and Dorothy. I asked him if he thought he had a moral one. He told me that he was not aware of their situation. He asked me to push my deadline to see what he could do. Less than 24 hours later, he found Section 8 housing for Dorothy and Evelyn and committed to doing the same for all of his Section 8 residents. He would be refunding security deposits early to help residents with moving expenses, and that Middle Farms Capital would help Dorothy and Evelyn with their moving expenses. And any other elderly or disabled residents who needed financial assistance in moving would be helped on a case-by-case basis.
    Compassionate capitalism. I love it. I wish it were the rule and not the exception. Thank you, Nick Ogden, for proving me wrong.
     This story should have a happy ending. Sadly, as of this writing in mid-February, it seems that Dorothy and Evelyn are not taking advantage of the housing that is available to them. Both alone with no family to help them, it seems they hope ignoring the problem will make it go away. I wish that were true. The truth is if they do nothing and the eviction process is started, they will lose their Section 8 housing vouchers and truly be left with nothing. That will be heartbreaking.
     Stories like these are multiplying in the new Nashville. With no rent control statutes in place, we will hear them more and more. Last week, the Metro Council tabled two proposed affordable housing bills. Perhaps they weren’t strong enough. This problem needs fixing. Nashville is a great city because of its people. I’m hoping the Metro Council will act to keep it that way.