As in other cities that have experienced such booms, the growth has led to tensions. Longtime residents, many of them African-American, have been displaced, and the city’s homeless population has grown. A recent study commissioned by the mayor’s office found that the city had lost 18,000 affordable housing units since 2000. That gap could grow to 31,000 units by 2025 if current trends continue — without taking Amazon into account.
“There are many neighborhoods in Nashville where the fight is lost,” said James Fraser, a Vanderbilt University professor who has been active in the city’s affordable-housing movement.
Adriane Harris, who leads housing policy for the Nashville mayor’s office, said concerns about gentrification were legitimate. But she said there were two sides to the affordability equation: housing costs and income. Nashville’s tourism economy depends heavily on low-wage service workers. The promise of HQ2 is that it could be the foundation of a new, more lucrative industry.
“If we’re only addressing housing, then I don’t think we’re getting to the root of the issue,” Ms. Harris said. “Wage growth is critical in this conversation.”
Affordable-housing groups, however, worry that current Nashville residents won’t be, for the most part, the beneficiaries of the high-paying jobs that Amazon promises. Fabian Bedne, a Nashville City Council member, said the city should ask the company to help mitigate its impact, perhaps by financing affordable-housing programs.
“We welcome technology, we welcome great jobs to the city, and I think people would even welcome Amazon, but it would have to be a trade-off there,” Mr. Bedne said. “People don’t want to sign a suicide pact.”
Jenny Schuetz, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied housing policy, said cities would be wise to start planning for HQ2 even before Amazon announced its decision, which is expected this year. The good news, Ms. Schuetz said, is that the steps cities should be taking to prepare for Amazon are largely the steps they should be taking anyway, like improving transit systems and easing regulations that make it hard to build in the places people want to live.
Amazon, Ms. Schuetz added, should also take housing costs, traffic congestion and related issues into account. After all, she said, Amazon won’t benefit if its workers can’t find places to live, or if they are viewed by existing residents as a hostile force.
“It’s going to be a long-term relationship,” Ms. Schuetz said. “To retain good workers over the long haul, you should care about what housing costs could be.”