Affordable housing needs in Franklin complicated by potential moratorium on apartments
An apartment building under construction on McEwen Drive in Franklin. (Photo: staff)
Once a sleepy farm town south of the Tennessee capital, Franklin has long since become known not only for its exquisitely renovated historic homes and charming Main Street, but for boasting high-priced real estate in the state’s most affluent county.
So it wasn’t surprising when a recent public discussion about placing a moratorium on construction of multi-family housing attracted outcry from affordable housing advocates.
The Feb. 25 Franklin Municipal Planning Commission meeting featured consideration of a proposed neighborhood, Brownland Farms, that would include 136 apartment units.
As talk turned to requests for affordable, multifamily housing in Franklin, Commissioner Marcia Allen asked about the possibility of a placing on hold on apartment construction, saying she had a “deep concern about our multifamily overtaking us as far as single-family.”
“Every meeting we have, we have more and more multifamily requests coming in,” said Allen.
For days after the meeting, Allen received emails from concerned citizens telling her that her comments had come off as “elitist”: she was being portrayed as standing against affordable housing.
Allen said that her original comments were taken out of context of a larger conversation involving the commission’s acknowledgment that “the city of Franklin’s [development issues] were getting out of line with the Franklin planning commission’s vision. ”
Commission members have considered holding a retreat to continue discussion about the increasing requests for multifamily developments. Nearly 5,800 apartments and 2,400 townhouses have been approved to be built, and Allen asked about the possibility of a moratorium until after the commission’s retreat in order to avoid problem-solving with a “moving target.”
Franklin city officials acknowledged in a Vox article from February 2021 that they are aware there is an affordability problem, noting officials have approved only 4.9% of proposed single-family housing compared to 69% of proposed apartments.
On Feb. 23, the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved an ordinance that would reimburse some city impact fees for developers in exchange for building low-to-middle-income housing. This was done in an effort to remove some of the financial barriers faced by builders in developing such projects.
Despite this, Allen said the city struggles with attracting developers offering to build low-to-moderate income housing. The multi-family housing options that are being pitched to planning commissioners were duplexes, townhouses and apartments “are anything but affordable, in my opinion.”
“The horse is out of the barn on affordable housing, as much as I hate it, and we fight for it, but if developers don’t bring it before us…the government of Franklin is not prepared to mandate [affordable housing],” said Allen.
“By the way, to be very clear, I’ve always advocated for affordable housing. I’ve been very vocal about this stance from the time I’ve served on the board of Alderman to now,” said Allen, who’s held public office since 1997 and is a Franklin native.
One of the things I hear from residents is that they complain about traffic. Well, one of the ways to cut traffic down is to have folks who work in the area live in the area.
– Elizabeth Wanczak, Franklin Housing Commission
As a part of the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area, Franklin’s suburbs are desirable for families seeking high-performing schools for their children along with recreational facilities, a strong business climate and a wide range of restaurants located in its historic downtown.
Housing advocates said low-to-middle income residents are being priced out of Franklin. Local activist Howard Garrett said more needs to be done to prevent housing developments that “do nothing but drive up rates” and push affordable housing out of the city.
Elizabeth Wanczak, a board member of the Franklin Housing Commission, said she was concerned for essential employees, such as teachers, working in the city but unable to live there. She has received complaints from employers unable to find employees because “There is no incentive for people to work in Franklin if they get paid the same as other cities.”
“The reason why I’m a proponent of affordable housing is that one of the things I hear from residents is that they complain about the traffic. Well, one of the ways to cut traffic down is to have folks who work in the area live in the area,” said Wanczak.
Areas of Nashville have discussed housing moratoriums in an effort to combat Nashville’s rapidly increasing population. A district in Southeast Nashville is considering a moratorium on development of apartments and townhomes.
Councilmember Tanaka Vercher proposed a 120-day moratorium on multi-family developments in Antioch and received significant pushback from developers and council members representing neighboring areas that would be affected by the moratorium. Vercher explained the moratorium was meant to control booming growth in the area that has led to over-capacity schools, but Metro Council voted down the proposal. Brentwood, also in Williamson County, has no multi-family zoning districts.
Franklin’s Affordable Housing Crisis
Exclusionary zoning favoring wealthy single family homes has recently minimized housing opportunities for low-to middle income families in Franklin. In 2016, the Board of Mayor and Alderman voted to remove an inclusionary zoning policy that aligned Franklin with a state law, which made it illegal for cities to regulate a percentage of existing or newly constructed units as affordable or workforce housing. Instead, city officials recommended certain districts not have residential properties smaller than 2 acres.
Other mixed residential districts, such as duplexes and townhouses, have ordained minimum size lots of 4,000 square feet, causing them to be more expensive; this is in comparison to the average size of a Nashville apartment of 888 square feet, according to Rent Café. On average, Franklin houses sell for about $590,000, compared to Nashville’s average of $338,000.
In 2014, the city hired BBC Research & Consulting, to create a report on the city’s housing issues. Housing consultants found that residents aged 25-44 declined significantly during the last decade, from 38% of all residents in 2000 to 28% in 2010. The number of children has also declined, potentially related to the decline of parent-aged residents. During public meetings to address these issues, residents expressed concerns about Franklin losing its diversity.
“In the beginning, we were a diverse city…with farmers, African Americans and rich people,” said one resident cited in the 2014 report.
Franklin’s population consists of only 6.6% Black residents, compared to Nashville’s population of 27.6 % Black residents, according to the U.S. Census.
Housing consultants came to the same conclusion as housing advocates: the city needed more affordable housing options.
“Compared to similar cities, Franklin has a relatively low proportion of minorities and a moderate poverty rate, suggesting that the city’s ‘missing’ demographic is lower income residents, who are generally an important part of every community’s workforce,” the report stated.
In 2017, the planning commission adopted Envision Franklin as a means to create future developments that steer Franklin’s rapidly increasing population’s sustainably through diverse housing options, but Garrett said the proposal served as “a guideline and not a bible.”
“Yes, it’s their goal and they try to go by it, but it can be changed, and sometimes it is changed to meet certain needs of a developer or certain interests,” he said.
City officials are currently looking into auctioning off four acres to developers offering affordable or workforce housing development plans. The site, known as the Hill, was declared unsuitable for most other city developments despite being located near downtown and is worth $1.23 million.
One of the entities that has expressed interest is Hill LLC, a coalition made up of Williamson County Community Housing Partnership, Habitat for Humanity of Maury and Williamson County, Hard Bargain Association and the Franklin Housing Authority.
Affordable housing is not only good for working-class citizens, but it’s good for the economy, said Wanczak. It’s no secret that local businesses’ sales have plunged over the past year, and Franklin’s economy needs the potential revenue coming from people already making a living in Franklin.
“We want the people who work here to be a part of our community. We want them to spend their money in our restaurants and our small shops,” she said.
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