District 6 Metro Councilmember Brett Withers will host a community meeting Wednesday evening to discuss his new bill that circumvents a precedent based on state law to increase the maximum residential density in certain zoning districts.
The new bill will be fielded before the Metro Planning Commission on Oct. 14 and before Metro Council in November, and it aims to amend the municipal code’s requirements for certain mixed-use, core frame and office-residential zoning districts. In so doing, it would restore requirements those zoning districts already had until 2018 when state law got in the way. At the community meeting — 6 p.m. in the East Park Community Center at 700 Woodland Street — Withers hopes to relay feedback he has already received from developers in exchange for more feedback from residents.
The bill stems in part from recommendations published by Mayor John Cooper’s Affordable Housing Task Force in a June report addressing the socioeconomic disparities causing many area residents to fall behind. At the time, task force member Marshall Crawford, CEO of the Housing Fund nonprofit, expressed incredulity that those recommendations would apply to the Cumberland East Bank redesign underway in Withers’s District 6, but Withers aims to prove otherwise.
“The purpose of Wednesday’s community meeting is to provide an overview of the legislation and the feedback that I have received so far from housing industry professionals and stakeholders and to gather additional community feedback from neighborhood association leaders and other community members,” Withers told the Post.
The task force recommendation was that the the zoning code’s floor-area ratio exception be updated to permit properties in mixed-use districts to not include the residential space when counting the floor-area ratio, which creates a so-called “bonus” to residential space. This is a zoning approach to increasing affordable housing, but it would only apply to developments in which at least 25 percent of the property’s floor area (not counting parking) is intended for residential use and only within certain mixed-use zoning districts.
“The task force was about the preservation side and also the creation side” of affordable housing, according to Crawford.
The recommendation, in fact, harkens back to preexisting Metro policy that was preempted by the state’s legislation against rent control, chiefly its 2018 affordable housing amendment prohibiting municipalities from requiring private residential or commercial rental units to be sold for less than market rate. This inadvertently created a conflict with Metro codes that stopped Nashville zoning districts from benefiting from the preexisting floor-area ratio bonus policy.
The original policy created the residential floor-area bonus and provided inclusionary zoning — the requirements for which only applied to rentals — so developments with 10 or more multifamily units had to comply with housing restrictions for 25 percent of them. Prior state law restricted Metro from affecting the sale prices of for-sale product as opposed to rentals. Those inclusionary zoning requirements mattered whenever owners appealed to Metro Council for zone changes to increase density. Metro funds then reimbursed landlords for the difference between market rent rate and the affordable rent tenants paid.
“Metro Council’s goal was to create mixed-income developments along corridors and transit routes [through] an inclusionary zoning tool that many of our peer cities use,” Withers said. “The state legislature then preempted Metro’s inclusionary zoning provisions” with its 2018 amendment to the rent control law.
At first, the Codes Department kept approving the bonus in these zoning districts anyway until then-Zoning Administrator Jon Michael concluded that the state legislation preempted the entire code section in which the residential bonus provision existed. By that point, the Metro Historic Zoning Commission and other entities had already approved certain projects for which the Codes Department then did not issue permits on the basis that they now exceeded the floor-area ratio.
One such development at 201 N. 11th St. at the corner on the intersection of Forrest Avenue across from the Red Door Saloon was a six-unit townhome development whose plans were approved by the MHZC at the time. Codes has withheld the permit for the building prospect because it exceeds its mixed-use zone’s floor-area ratio. Withers cited other large developments slated for 943-947 Woodland Street as well as the Wedgewood-Houston area, similarly held up by ratio noncompliance.
The Affordable Housing Task Force’s recommendations viewed the Barnes Fund and the Catalyst Fund as keeping nonprofits involved in driving the affordable housing market but also “being mindful of the current housing stock that we have that is considered affordable," Crawford said. "How do we keep that stock? Because the affordable housing equation isn’t just one-sided: build more, build more, build more. It’s also about: don’t lose any more.”
The floor-area ratio bonus in these zoning districts is a means to accomplish that not only in Nashville but also in proof-of-concept cities like New York and Nashville-peer cities like Bellingham, Washington or Minneapolis.
One bastion of relief thus far is the Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority’s redevelopment districts for which the MDHA Design Review Committee does not enforce floor-area ratio requirements. Redevelopment projects with larger ratios than their zoning allows have continued to be permitted within those districts.