Urban In-fill

Nashville      We met my old friend and frequent co-conspirator, Joel Solomon, at the Frothy Monkey (how about that for a name!) a couple of blocks from his infrequent office in his old hometown of Nashville.  Brian Kettenring, ACORN’s Southern Regional Director was with me, and our mission was to get sage advice from Joel that would help us step up our local operation and get traction on the central issues of this burgeoning city of what used to be called the new South. 

Joel is one of the sweetest people alive and working on the continent and has been a mainstay of inspiration and support for ACORN Canada, Tides, and innumerable projects, but he is also two other things that I happen to know and appreciate.  He is a “connector” in the terms that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in The Tipping Point.  He is person who just naturally has the talent to put disparate people together because he understands the connection and the fact that the sparks might lead to real combustion.   He is also what I would call a “serial entrepreneur” of social change.  He plants ideas, waters them with money, and pushes them quickly out on the street to make things happen.  His weapon of choice is frequently real property from what I’ve seen.  He leverages hard assets in a way that is distinct on the left and perhaps uniquely Joel.  He also reminds me frequently of someone an old political warhorse in Little Rock used to advise where you have to always “watch his fine hand behind the scenes.”  Once you know how he works, you can find the fingerprints.  If you don’t understand his MO, you will never know he was there.

There were two interesting points among many that he made in our visit that seem important to share and speak volumes about what is happening in the resettlement of urban America today.  Joel made the points about Nashville, but there is a list of cities where the same thing would apply. 

Joel mentioned that 10 years ago, when a company where he is a partner started doing residential real estate development in downtown Nashville, there were less than 100 total people living residentially in the downtown area.  He ticked off one development after another he and his partners had put together and were currently building.  There were now literally thousands of people living downtown.  That is in fact a profound social and demographic change!

The other point that emerged as we talked about other housing pieces had to do with the reality rather than the rhetoric of “affordable” housing.   We talked about units his people were developing and whether or not our housing counseling program could link them with qualified and eligible families for the affordable requirements.  Joel made the point starkly in an email after our visit:

So not only is our “Station Lofts”, 65 units of true affordable, and all our projects doing 20% true affordable condo/lofts, but the affordable sales product turns out to be selling for mid and low 100’s in some cases.  However, realistically, thus far, these categories of affordability are capturing the pre yuppie demographic, not people who are systemically poor.

Affordable in our vernacular means low and moderate income families and individuals.  Affordable in reality, whether on the concrete corridors of Nashville or the controversial Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, may just be a “starter” place for the upscale, young demographic wannabes, rather than an answer to the crises of affordable housing that ACORN confronts daily.  Unless of course there is a housing deal to actually put real lower income families in the properties which is exactly what the deal with Ratner is in the Atlantic Yards proposal with ACORN, and needs to be what we start putting together in Nashville and so many other cities. 

So, good points Joel!  And, as always, thanks for your help!

October 18, 2006

Joel Solomon
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