Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the wake of a severe tornado, local housing activists fear that a wave of speculators could prey on North Nashville’s vulnerable homeowners.

Early on the morning of March 3, hours after a tornado devastated parts of Nashville, Anne Barnett grabbed her chainsaw and got to work.

A friend with a truck drove with her to North Nashville, a predominantly African American neighborhood that was struck especially hard by the storm. Felled trees blocked the roads. Telephone poles were snapped in two. Downed power lines snaked across streets. Other volunteers showed up with heavy work gloves and trucks, ready to help haul tree limbs away. It was hard to know where to start or where to go, Barnett says, because the damage stretched in every direction.

Others were drawn to North Nashville that morning, too — but not to volunteer.

“Within two hours, I saw a wealthier-looking, white, middle-aged gentleman walking around, talking to homeowners and handing out business cards,” Barnett says. “We were cutting a tree out of this elderly lady’s yard, and I was like, ‘What was he talking about?’ She was like, ‘He wanted me to sell my house.’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’”

The storm claimed at least 24 lives across four counties in Middle Tennessee, destroying some 400 homes in Nashville. But even as the first city workers were arriving in affected neighborhoods, real-estate investors were already on the scene in North Nashville, looking to relieve distressed homeowners of their properties, according to Barnett as well as other community members who heard rumors about house offers.

While the details of reported offers are unclear, Barnett’s observation raises an issue that has popped up before during crises in this and other historically black Nashville neighborhoods. A surge of speculation in the wake of the storm would suit the hot Nashville market — residents in this part of the city are used to getting mailers and phone calls with cash offers for their homes.

Now, the pressure on residents is tremendous, thanks in part to a federal program that has singled out this neighborhood for investment. In 2018, North Nashville was designated as an Opportunity Zone, the Trump administration’s place-based tax incentive program designed to lure capital to distressed areas.

Local housing advocates, fearing that homeowners who were affected by the storm might feel like they have few other options, are putting together workshops to offer legal and financial advice to residents in North Nashville, which still lacks electricity. There’s even a hashtag-ready motto for the resistance campaign: “Don’t Sell Out North,” referring to a name that longtime natives use for the neighborhood, Out North.

“Developers have been chomping at the bit thinking about that neighborhood for a while,” says Barnett, who is an organizer with the Central Labor Council for Nashville and Middle Tennessee. “It’s really, really scary to think about how this storm is going to change that neighborhood, not just the way it looks but who lives there and who has equity there.”

There are good reasons to worry. Framed by the Cumberland River and cut off from the rest of the city by two urban-renewal-era highways, North Nashville is one of the poorest places in the metro area. The median income for much of North Nashville is about $29,000, with some 36% of households living in poverty. In an adjacent census tract — Germantown, just across I-65 — the median income is $97,000. Many black homeowners in North Nashville lack the cash in hand that it takes to weather a crisis. (Most of the area’s residents are renters, who face a different precarious situation.) Working through insurance claims and federal assistance takes time; the process can be exhausting and intimidating. If investors showed up with their checkbooks the morning after the storm, they may have been offering stressed-out residents a life raft.

Zulfat Suara, an at-large member of Nashville Metro Council,  says that she hasn't seen direct evidence that speculators are now looking to buy houses from storm victims in North Nashville. “Historically, that’s happened before,” she says, referring to speculation following part storms. “That’s my understanding from people who have lived in the community for a long time. People are saying that’s already happening.”

Most homeowners are better off staying in their homes, if they’re able to, says Charlane Oliver, cofounder and executive director for the Equity Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. Her group is holding two community meetings on March 9 in North Nashville to bring together attorneys, insurance agents, financial counselors, and local officials to talk with folks about their options. “We don’t want these homeowners to sell their property,” Oliver says. “It can be more valuable as a homeowner and landowner to keep that property.”

To Odessa Kelly of Stand Up Nashville, a local coalition of community groups and labor unions, the threat of neighborhood displacement in the wake of the tornado looks like a local illustration of “disaster capitalism,” the term that author and activist Naomi Klein coined for profit-seeking amid natural or man-made catastrophes. Traumatized residents of distressed neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to exploitation, and the need for legal expertise is every bit as urgent as mobilization drives for food and flashlights. “Organizers are first responders,” Kelly says.

Much of the destruction associated with the March 3 storm happened in Germantown and East Nashville, which are home to Nashville’s world-famous nightlife districts. Residents of North Nashville work in those bars and restaurants, Oliver says, compounding the problems they face at home. Some residents working in the service industry may have lost both their homes and workplaces.

By almost any indicator, North Nashville is a highly distressed community. A report by the Brookings Institution found that the zip code that encompasses North Nashville has the highest incarceration rate in the country, for example. But the area may be uniquely vulnerable to exploitation in the wake of a disaster. The think tank that helped to write the Opportunity Zone legislation, the Economic Innovation Group, has compiled detailed statistical reports with scores measuring a community’s well-being. Among those scores is the cold-and-calculating-sounding Social Vulnerability Index, which measures a community’s ability to endure crises. “Communities that are more vulnerable to disasters, whether natural or human-made, have higher risk factors, including higher presence of vulnerable people and higher levels of housing instability,” the EIG report reads. On a scale of zero to one, a North Nashville tract almost pegs this misery meter, earning a 0.98.

“These are the type of social ills that we are dealing with,” Oliver says. “People have not seen the improvements in their communities for decades. We’re feeling the remnants of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, blighted areas, gentrification. All of that is affecting this area.”

Opportunity Zones were meant to shift these long-established patterns of disinvestment. Part of the massive tax cut package passed by Congress in December 2017, the Opportunity Zone program allows investors to defer their tax liability on capital gains by investing in assets within designated communities. But states were given great leeway in designating census tracts within their borders, and the IRS set few boundaries on what counted as qualified investments. What has resulted, say critics, is a “once-in-a-generation bonanza for elite investors.”

Cadre, a start-up that specializes in real-estate investments in Opportunity Zones, has targeted Nashville among other cities. In an investment profile in January, Cadre compared the city to pre-boom Austin, describing Nashville as a “coveted real estate opportunity.” Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, just sold his stake in Cadre for between $25 million and $50 million.

Speculators descending on North Nashville right now may simply be looking to flip properties. The New York Times reported on an unverified rumor that people in Land Rovers were scouting houses in the neighborhood this week. Oliver says that North Nashville is a target for developers looking to build “tall-and-skinnies” — narrow two-story houses, usually built in pairs, that have popped up in place of demolished one-story houses across the city. Oliver says that these detached duplexes tend to be used for short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb, not rental housing.

Gentrification in Nashville has proceeded hand-in-hand with a surge in experience-based tourism. Music City is now the nation’s capital for bachelorette parties. That’s a danger for a gentrifying North Nashville in the grip of a deep affordability crisis — especially now that a natural disaster is forcing longtime residents to choose between surviving and preserving their homes and communities.

Residents who choose to stay are now eligible for individual assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This weekend, teams of canvassers with clipboards organized by the local Equity Alliance will go door-to-door to try to assess the needs of local homeowners (and renters) in hopes of assembling a database to hand over to FEMA once the agency puts boots on the ground.

Right now, the people living in North Nashville are struggling to meet their basic needs. They might not know that help is on the way; in these vulnerable moments, a cash offer from a well-dressed man in a suit might look tempting.

“What we don’t want to see happen is what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” Oliver says. “You had developers come into the Ninth Ward and buy up all the properties. Now the Ninth Ward doesn’t look like the Ninth Ward anymore.”

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