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Pondering the recent emergence of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH)

Posted in Uncategorized by Mike Byrd on March 9, 2015

Almost 20 years ago I wrote the history and social analysis (here’s a shorter version) of a community-based Alinsky-style group here called Tying Nashville Together after several years of involvement as a participant observer. TNT was an ethnically and economically diverse ecumenical coalition of congregations and neighborhood associations that provided unique insight into social movements and voluntarism in Nashville. I was even able to publish a chapter that was rejected from the book project itself. Given those interests, I have kept up with other grassroots efforts in Nashville since finishing that project.

Most recently a group called Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) formed. NOAH started meeting with candidates for office in this election year. It self-describes as “a faith led coalition that is multi-racial and interdenominational comprised of congregations, community organizations, and labor unions that work to give voice to traditionally marginalized people.” Since there seemed to be parallels with TNT, I took interest in their cause.

One of the more conspicuous similarities of the two groups is that Mike Hodge, a lead organizer of NOAH, was a TNT lead organizer for a short time in the mid-1990s. Between NOAH and TNT, Mr. Hodge was most prominently the program manager at the Neighborhoods Resource Center, which brands itself as a non-profit partner with Metro government, providing training for neighborhood leaders and elected officials alike. Its board of directors has included officials with the Mayor’s Office and the Metro Council. In my opinion the NRC’s collaborative ties to Metro, under Mr. Hodge’s leadership, tended to dull any prophetic edge it might have as an advocate for marginalized communities. NRC’s role seems inconsistent with TNT’s more confrontational approach to organizing.

Alinsky himself argued that ridicule and pressure are two necessary tactics that empower the community. NRC never embodied those tactics. Will NOAH, with Mr. Hodge’s leadership, exhibit the cordial restraint of NRC or will it engage in what Alinsky called “the up-and-down and sideways swinging and cudgeling of a People’s Organization”?

One of the more conspicuous differences between NOAH and TNT has to do with a glaring omission in the former. Other observers besides myself have noted that broad support by the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development extended to Tying Nashville Together in the 1990s. CCHD is the Catholic Church’s anti-poverty program. The appearance that NOAH has not brought them on board is puzzling to me. They can only benefit by enlisting CCHD support. [Scroll to end of post for a correction of my perception].

I’m also surprised at how few Catholic parishes are represented on the NOAH membership list. One Catholic congregation is listed among NOAH’s current members. While NOAH has only been operating for a few months, they hopefully have plans to reach out to Nashville’s Catholic community more broadly. They have a good number of mainline denominations represented by their membership. The relatively small number of Catholic members hurts their cause in my opinion.

Electoral politics and NOAH

The next mayor will not take office until September, and she or he may not meet with NOAH until October (60 days after the election). Seven months of governance by Karl Dean, the Metro Council, the Metro Planning Commission and any other municipal agency will be water under the bridge by then. Some Nashvillians cannot wait until September. They need to see small victories won for their communities today, not promises to meet with a few leaders at the end of the year. Their future is tomorrow or next week; their sense of uncertainty stems from the fierce urgency of now.

If NOAH organizers believe that the movers and the shakers will wait until October, they have another thing coming. Only foolhardiness assumes that real estate developers and professional lobbyists are going to sit out the next seven months, knowing what they know now about NOAH’s platform. When builders in Salemtown caught wind of CM Erica Gilmore’s proposal for a conservation overlay to protect the smaller scale of homes, they immediately tore down the houses they controlled in order to build tall duplexes exempt from the overlay. Gentrification hit the accelerator in Salemtown. There is a lesson in that for community organizers: those whose power you are trying to check are watching your plans for October, and they will move their chess pieces between now and then to block you.

Nonetheless, NOAH seems trained staunchly on the candidates for office (I’m sure the campaigns appreciate the extra publicity that NOAH is bringing them). I see no evidence that organizers are paying attention to what happens when those in power behind the thrones are challenged. I wonder whether NOAH can respond to neighbors whose problems set upon them now. How can NOAH support people before the wealthy and powerful in this city cut their knees out from under them when their focus is on the election cycle?

I would be more willing to believe that NOAH has a strategic plan larger than the election if they had rolled out their project before this election year started. The Mayor’s Office has bounced from one growth project to the next and the Mayor’s big plans provided numerous opportunities for engagement from the bottom. Nashville Next has shifted growth discussions away from community-based planning to region-wide formulas. For instance, last year’s contentious debate over the character of Whites Creek in North Nashville as an agricultural, suburban or emerging urban community provided an opportunity for community engagement and political action missed by NOAH.

Looking back on Tying Nashville Together, I would say that elections only played a minor role in organizing. Elections were just an excuse for the next action to prompt reactions from the array of local officials. That is consistent with Alinskyite strategies. Saul Alinsky himself sought to shift the emphasis away from electoral politics to the organized action in the community. He was a secular Jew who found his greatest affinity with Catholics committed to social justice and the idea of subsidiarity. Again, the seeming absence of Catholics in NOAH is worth noting, but the point to be underscored here is that the 2015 election cycle seems to be the lynchpin around which NOAH pivots.

However, electoral politics should not trump everyday politics where battles much be waged outside of ballots, meeting-by-meeting.

Part of the challenge for organizations of organizers like NOAH is to get out in front of the concerns that bubble up from the community. The biggest gentrification project in the history of Jefferson Street is going up right now in the form of First Tennessee Park and the mixed-use satellite developments that will follow the minor league (AAA) ballpark. I wish NOAH had shown up in 2013 to demand benchmarks of benefits to be achieved by the real estate developers of that project. But when some in the Metro Council made a move to put even the slightest obligation on ball club owner and real estate mogul Frank Ward–that could have clawed back any unplanned losses in public revenues–CM Jerry Maynard railed hyperbolically against such protections by calling them “poison pills.”

CM Megan Barry did not lift a finger to object and she voted with CM Maynard to kill any taxpayer protection. Now she is running for mayor. And at NOAH’s February mayoral forum she endorsed their plank for “community benefits agreements” for any future projects. I have watched her for a long time. I do not recall a single time that she introduced bills to demand CBAs on new projects, especially not the historically huge capital projects leveraged by Mayor Karl Dean. CM Barry’s trite logic has always been that building such expensive monstrosities, regardless of the shock and instability caused in local communities, is better than not building them.

How can we have faith in the sheer chance that an elected official with no track record of advancing and winning CBAs on development projects has suddenly had a come-to-Jesus moment at the end of her council service and will act differently as mayor? More to the point of this post: how can we trust that NOAH can hold sway given the influence of campaign finance and partisan power structures over candidates like Ms. Barry?

The simpler explanation for her endorsement is that Megan Barry is throwing NOAH a bone to get elected; she will govern in the fashion of the previous mayor (with whom she voted her entire council career). Is NOAH aware of that possibility? Do they have contingency plans?

Gentrification and affordable housing strategies

NOAH’s election year platform seems to have a peculiar inconsistency on the issue of gentrification. On the one hand, it claims that there nothing good about gentrification. On the other hand, I am aware of NOAH leaders who supported the construction of First Tennessee Park, which in itself is historic development on Jefferson Street with shock waves that fan out across North Nashville. After Metro Council approved the ballpark, North End real estate prices spiked, landlords raised rents or let renters know that they were redeveloping, and people were displaced. If gentrification is bad, then why were ballpark proponents not held to account for unleashing it on Jefferson Street?

I am not a true believer in CBAs. Those implemented around ballparks have a tendency to favor developers instead of the community. If they are the only tool we have, then so be it. But again, where was NOAH’s righteous indignation over gentrification when the Mayor and North Nashville council members were pounding the ballpark through to approval without vetting it to the community and at least attaching some requirements Sounds’ ownership to minimize the negative neighborhood impact and risk? I certainly do not recall Mr. Hodge or other organizers asking to slow the ballpark planning process down. Some of us directly affected by construction did ask for more deliberation and community consultation.

Those requests for sufficient community engagement in an open, inclusive planning process were ignored by our elected representatives and by community activists.

Another peculiarity of NOAH’s platform is that it advocates subsidized, but market-driven solutions to solve the affordable housing problem. In particular, NOAH insists that Metro “re-purpose” tax increment financing to support affordability. TIF is welcomed by lobbyists for the construction industry because it commits assumed revenue increases from the future from developed land to pay the costs of development in the present in spite of rising costs and frozen revenues streams before the hypothesized projections actually occur in the future. It essentially minimizes the risk that developers take by publicly subsidizing their building projects. The benefits go inordinately to developers who already game the system with large campaign donations, who bankroll tireless lobbyists through their professional associations. How is TIF more than a breadcrumb benefit for a few residents lucky enough to get affordable housing?

I am still searching for a case where TIF has realized the promised returns in revenues on the original “investment.” TIF proponents ignore the proposition that land owners already drive down values by encouraging blight, hence driving down the costs of developing the land even without TIF. In cases where TIF does spur development and increased property values the increased revenues have to be committed to public infrastructure (transit, pedestrian, utility, water & sewer, etc) that service the new developments rather than paying for inflationary expenses caused by frozen revenue streams. Hence, it leads to the gentrification, about which NOAH claims “nothing positive,” while the bills continue to come due for Metro government.

We should not pass over too quickly the point that in many “transitional” neighborhoods land owners promote blight by failing to obey codes on property upkeep issues like tall weeds, illegal dumping, deteriorating structures and the general quality of their properties. They are empowered by oblivious or foot-dragging codes officials in government. When we first moved to Salemtown 10 years ago illegal dumping and owner neglect of their properties–along with sluggish Metro government response–was rampant. I have no doubt that there was a subconscious, if not subtle logic in that to encourage the depression of real estate prices with an eye toward future housing bubbles.

Rather than training on TIF, community groups need to rally around the idea of leveraging stronger Metro response to blight through enforcement of codes equally across all neighborhoods. TNT did that in the 1990s by sending its members out to audit neighborhood conditions. From those audits came lists for Metro departments to address. Likewise, we should be fighting the blighted conditions that give TIF its rationale in the first place.

TIF is first and foremost “a profit margin for the developer.” If the idea is to boost the power of the people, then making developers more obscenely wealthy with subsidies they may not even need–thus stoking income inequality–seems counter-intuitive to progressive grassroots organizing. The state that invented TIF, California, has already stopped using it because it is an unsustainable model for development. Has NOAH looked into other policy options in places where TIF is not used? Working with a new mayor to extend TIF to expand affordable housing seems to put the cart (the developers) before the horse (housing).

While the platform calls for the continuing allocation and redistributing of shrinking Metro budget revenues to the Barnes Housing Trust Fund (which attempts to make rental and owned homes affordable), it curiously avoids calling for rent control regulations to tap the brakes on rental property owners. Would Megan Barry or any other mayoral candidate sign on to Metro regulation of rent prices? Is there a community advocate bold enough to ask that question? As with its stance on TIF so goes its silence on controlling rent: NOAH’s platform seems to be long on carrots and short on cudgels for real estate merchants.

Jury still out, yet still some perspective

Several people have asked me what I think about NOAH, given my experience of past neighborhood organizing and Metro politics. Because I have not been privy to their internal processes like I was with other organizing efforts, my response has been, “I’ll withhold judgment until more information comes out.” Now that they are publicizing their actions, strategies and priorities through the news media, I believe I have a toehold to prospect what I can see.

I see a group with promise as long as it stays more locally focused on everyday politics in the now. I see a group that runs the risk of being too beholden to market forces and to Nashville’s power pyramid to be bold. I see a group that stands to benefit from more ecumenical collaboration with like-minded anti-poverty groups. By no means have I reached final conclusions about the organization, but I do have a perspective as someone with experience in this area.

Now that I am aware of NOAH, I will continue to follow it with interest as I have various community-based groups that have appeared over the years. TNT had an impressive run, but it is no longer with us. Hopefully, NOAH will have greater staying power. Finally, I hope NOAH does not become an election campaign tool that gets put back on the shelf in 2016 after robocalls and yard signs disappear.

Nashvillians–especially those locked out of the process by the current mayor–deserve better than that.

Update and correction: according to a 2015 announcement on the Catholic Charities of Tennessee website, NOAH is a CCHD grant recipient, which alleviates my concern about whether they are connecting with Catholics.

Update: Tuesday night (March 10) NOAH met for its monthly meeting and my impression from their social media source is that they are focused on voter registration and GOTV for the August elections. That does not allay concerns I express above that the organization is primarily focused on future elections rather than on current actions to solve immediate community problems. I hope to see more than tailoring political action for marginalized communities to suit the election cycle.