It’s harder than ever for military veterans experiencing homelessness in Nashville to get back on their feet because of high housing costs.
Landlords, focused on the bottom line as property values swell, are increasingly unwilling to accept below-market rent payments through subsidized housing programs like Section 8.
The resulting uptick in veterans in crisis who find themselves sleeping on the street, on friends’ couches, in cars or in other temporary housing has drawn attention from public social service agencies and private citizens.
Late last year, a new partnership between Metro Homeless Impact Division, Tennessee Valley Healthcare Systems and other nonprofit and social services organizations launched to entice landlords to make more affordable units available.
The effort, named 90 in 90, sought to place 90 homeless vets in homes in 90 days from October through December.
But they couldn’t find enough willing landlords and only housed 59 people – more than double the typical placement rate, but short of their goal.
"Landlords would offer rents that are way too high," said Metro Homeless Impact Division Director Judith Tackett. "No voucher is going to cover houses for rent for close to $2,000 per month."
‘Their rates are too high’
There are about 250 homeless veterans trying to get into permanent housing now in Nashville, according to Metro officials. That’s up from about 180 people in October.
The 90-in-90 campaign drew resources from a number of federal, state and local agencies dedicated to helping veterans and the homeless. They produced a brochure promoting a $1,000 incentive to Nashville-area landlords who house veterans, and called landlords asking for their participation.
The campaign succeeded in more than doubling the number of homeless veterans typically housed monthly, from 8 to 20 people.
But, even with 11 partner agencies working on the issue, they couldn’t persuade enough landlords to participate to meet their goal of housing 90 veterans in three months.
"We definitely have a lot of landlords who have a natural desire to help veterans," said said Jackie Hall Williams, supportive housing supervisor for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s veterans affairs division, which participated in the campaign. "We all know there is a limited amount of affordable housing in this area. There are a lot of landlords who would love to partner with us but their rates are too high."
Building new affordable housing
In lieu of finding affordable rents, advocacy groups have partnered with private developers to build their own low-cost housing for veterans.
Construction will begin on a new $7.3 million 39-unit veterans-only apartment complex this month in Edgehill. It’s set to open in about a year.
That project, called Curb Victory Hall, is financed by federal low-interest loans, the Tennessee Housing Trust Fund and a $500,000 grant from Curb Records founder Mike Curb.
It was designed with volunteer efforts from developer Tony Giarratana, nonprofit veterans services agency Operation Stand Down and the Metropolitan Housing and Development Agency.
"We wanted this project to serve as a new model for public-private partnerships to try to address the issue of affordable housing," Giarratana said. "We hope other developers and investors will come together and do likewise."
The building is next to Operation Stand Down, which will provide job training and other resources for veterans living there at 12th Avenue South and Edgehill Avenue.
MDHA will manage the property of one- and two-bedroom apartments. It will be available to low-income veterans earning less than $26,250.
"We work with veterans who have Section 8 housing vouchers in hand but are just not finding an opening," said Operation Stand Down CEO John Krenson. "This will be a great deal of relief for them."
Domonique Union, who served as an administrative specialist for the U.S. Marines, recently found herself homeless and seeking help at Operation Stand Down earlier this month.
She is one of the roughly 250 veterans trying to get into permanent housing.
Union, her sister and her three-year-old son moved to Nashville last year from St. Louis, hoping to find better work opportunities.
They moved in with a family member and Union got a job driving trucks. But, after a dispute with the family member, they were on the street and Union was out of a job.
"I’ve never encountered a situation like this before. I’ve never not had a home for my child," Union said. "It really sucks."
Operation Stand Down is paying for a hotel room for Union and her family in Antioch while she looks for a job and place to live.
Their InTown Suites room has a small kitchen, a bed and a couch. Union’s sister helps with her son, Melvin Jr., while she hunts for a job and apartment in the Hermitage and La Vergne area.
Operation Stand Down will pay her application fees and the first few month’s rent while she gets stabilized. She’s had several interviews for clerical jobs.
Union said she’s trying to stay positive and make the best of the situation, and the help from Operation Stand Down has given her more confidence.
"I don’t want my son growing up in a hotel room," Union said. "I’m so thankful I came across Operation Stand Down. They helped out with a lot of things and that really takes away a lot of the stress."
Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at [email protected]nnessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.
MORE ON HOMELESSNESS IN NASHVILLE: On bitterly cold nights in Nashville, police, neighbors, homeless work together to keep warm
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville’s homeless vets on front lines of housing crisis