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Convention sinners or housing saints?

 The Contributor (USA) 14 June 2019

A recent article in the Tennessean newspaper from May 4th touts the headline, “Nashville needs a new convention center”, while on On April 13th, Tennessee Mayor Karl Dean insisted that the“current economic conditions only further underscore the need for this facility.”However, in the times of such adverse “economic conditions” are these “needs” more apparent than the “need” for more affordable housing in a city where more than 6000 of its inhabitants are homeless. (1292 words) - By Amos House Community

A Tennessean article from May 4th touts the headline, "Nashville needs a new convention center." On April 13th, Mayor Karl Dean insisted that our "current economic conditions only further underscore the need for this facility." The language of "needs" here is interesting, if not disturbing. In introductory marketing classes, college students are taught to use the language of "needs" rather than "wants" when attempting to market or sell a product, and often in marketing, bigger is always better. If we can convince people that something is a "need," they are more apt to buy in. So does Nashville need a new convention center? Maybe-it is certainly open for discussion. But if the Nashville community at large is to claim that we do in fact need a new convention center, then what other "needs" can our city claim?

Is it not even more apparent that our "current economic conditions" also "underscore" the need for more affordable housing in our city? The need for low-income housing in this community isn't even debatable; there exists a clear and desperate need to house well over 6,000 homeless citizens of this city. The desire for a new and bigger convention center is not a need, but a want based upon a calculus that presupposes that a new center will bring additional business, additional jobs, and thus, additional security for the residents of Nashville. While such desires may be laudable, we can be more than reasonably sure that constructing a new convention center is not a matter of life or death, whereas thousands of vulnerable citizens living on the streets is, in fact, a matter of life or death.

Furthermore, whereas the construction of a new convention center can perhaps be argued for on the basis of desire or want or in terms of economic figures, low-income housing that is urgently needed, and which was promised long before a new convention center was added to our city's wish list, is unquestionably a matter of saving hundreds of lives. Moreover, the building of low-income housing will also provide additional jobs, additional business, and certainly additional security for many of our citizens, including the over 2,000 homeless school-aged children in the Nashville area. Surely, a city that refuses to house all of her citizens is not entitled to bigger, better recreational facilities while her citizens die on the street for lack of shelter.

So let's discuss costs in order to better understand our dilemma. The projected cost of land acquisition for the 15+ acres on which to build the convention center is projected to cost $75 million, the expenses of financing the center's construction is projected to cost $595 million, and facilitating parking is projected to cost $40 million. That brings the total cost of Music City Center to $710 million. To put this amount in perspective, consider what we could do if we decided to truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves; $710 million dollars could create 17,750 units of low-income housing for chronically homeless individuals. This calculation is based on Nashville's Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (SPECH) that estimates that it would cost $40 million to create 1,000 units of such housing. To give a little background, SPECH is a 10-year plan initiated in 2005 by former Mayor Bill Purcell to end chronic homelessness in Nashville by 2015. The plan calls for the creation of 1,800 units of housing for the homeless with the projected cost of $73 million*; roughly a tenth of the projected cost of the new convention center. In the last 4.5 years however, less than 100 of these units have been created, leaving the city only 5.5 years to create the other 1,700+ units to stay on target with their 10-year plan.

Those of us who are engaged in the fight for affordable low-income housing alongside our brothers and sisters who have no shelter are often told "there is no shortage of housing in Nashville; we simply have to access the many units of housing available on the private market."  As it turns out there are well over 2,000 units of luxury condominiums and lofts that have been constructed since 2005 in Nashville's downtown vicinity (most standing vacant), a fact that reeks of unmitigated disregard for the least of those among us, especially when juxtaposed with the plan to construct a 1,000 room hotel in conjunction with the creation of Music City Center. Clearly, the creation of 1,800 additional low-income housing units is not a question of whether we can create that many units in a reasonable amount of time; the question is, will we do it?  Do we want to extend the possibility of housing and inclusion to all citizens of Nashville, or only a select few?  Perhaps it is only a matter of "accessing units on the private market." We at Amos House would consider it a blessing to spend the next year of our lives moving our brothers and sisters into the vacant luxury condominiums and lofts that stand empty and waiting in downtown.

Our ears ring with the shrieks that such a plan would destroy the lucrative business of luxury condominiums and convention centers and only betrays our ignorance of economics, as we have heard all too often: "low income housing doesn't generate wealth." Never mind that it saves lives and provides dignity. So at the end of the day we are left to depend on our city government rather than the private sector to construct housing for our impoverished citizens. Therefore, we propose that if the city of Nashville should continue with the plans of constructing a new convention center, it should tax itself 10%-we'll call it a responsible tithe-in order to simultaneously provide housing for 1,800 of our most vulnerable homeless citizens. This tax could go into a development fund that would be committed to supplement construction costs of low-income housing for our homeless by the year 2013 when Mayor Dean projects that Music City Center will be complete. Such a tax or "tithe" would concretely demonstrate Nashville's commitment to affordable housing that the Mayor's office claims to already demonstrate, a claim that rings hollow in the face of reality.

This discussion is, at its heart, certainly a discussion of priorities, but it is also more: it is a discussion of the moral character of our city. Dorothy Day, social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, once said, "I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions." If we were to look at Nashville's actions, or more specifically, the actions of the Mayor, his office, and the city's annual budget, it is clear that that while their talk about ending homelessness is certainly impressive, their actions suggest that they are really concerned with the well-being of our city's wealthier counterparts and with satisfying the wanderlust of tourists. So what do we, as a community, value? Do we, like our government, value attracting outsiders to entertainment events and conferences, or do we value protecting the human rights and dignity of our most vulnerable citizens? The prophets of the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos declare that entire cities will be judged on how they provide for or neglect the widow, orphan, alien, and oppressed. If this is, in fact, the case, Nashville currently stands against a harsh verdict. There is, however, always a choice to be made. The authors of Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement state, "when responsibility and compassion become public, they take the shape of justice." Such is our private and public moral/spiritual/humanitarian obligation: to call our city and her leaders to justice.

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