Tennessee Housing Development Agency Executive Director Ralph Perrey told a group of Middle Tennessee State University scholars recently how important public perception impacts discussions about housing in general, and affordable housing specifically.
He cited a recent report from the National Association of Realtors that said 34% of potential homebuyers were stopped because of lack of available homes for sale in their budgets.
“You have to change the picture in people’s mind about houses,” he said, adding that the term “affordable housing” is a loaded one, and work must be done to change how people view that — until that is done, there will be continued pushback against affordable housing initiatives.
The Jennings and Rebecca Jones Chair of Excellence in Urban and Regional Planning at MTSU hosted the THDA executive director recently for a forum on affordable housing across the region and state with students in the chair’s COE-URP Scholars Program, an interdisciplinary program that kicked off at the beginning of the fall semester and pairs 11 selected scholars with faculty mentors.
Moderated by Jones College Dean Emeritus David Urban, Perrey’s talk was followed by a Q&A with the scholars, their faculty mentors and others attending the luncheon event inside the Business and Aerospace Building.
Roadblocks to housing affordability
During his talk, Perrey focused on two main points regarding affordability: the roadblocks to housing affordability and the future of it in Tennessee.
When discussing the challenges that people face with affordability, Perrey pointed to multiple variables, including Middle Tennessee’s unprecedented population boom in recent decades, reducing supply and increasing demand. It is not, Perrey argued, that there are no affordable options in the region; rather, population changes are requiring more options be built than ever before.
“We have to build more houses,” he said. “… And at the affordable level, there’s almost nothing that gets built in America anymore without some sort of subsidy involved.”
The current landscape of affordable housing does not cater to middle-income people who struggle to make ends meet, Perrey said, but specifically expanding this would address the supply issues. He also pointed to alternative housing and mixed-use communities as circumstantial solutions that can be applied to certain areas to alleviate the housing affordability crisis on a case-by-case basis.
Perrey recommended that more tax credits be given to incentivize developers to build, including more affordable houses such as starter homes, duplexes and townhomes.
Based on Perrey’s experience, there is a serious lack of homes being built for under $300,000, which is tied to building costs and the trend to build larger homes. To understand the rise in building costs, Perrey pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the price of building materials, among other factors.
Scholars impressed with discussion
Middle Tennessee State University senior Justin Dohrmann, who’s majoring in finance with a concentration in real estate, said he has noticed that large corporate investors across the country are scooping up single-family homes, and asked Perrey if he thought there was anything legislatively or economically that could be done to stem a trend that’s limiting housing supply.
“I learned that there are people working on these issues,” Dohrmann said. “He mentioned that they’re working on a program to offer interest-free loans to builders, which means that they can build those homes more cheaply as long as they are selling them to people who are going to actually live there and are owner-occupied when they’re sold. “
As Hendersonville, Tennessee, resident, Dohrmann said he’s watched how the region’s growth has exploded, resulting in “different issues and stressors on different communities.” That’s partly why he applied for the COE-URP Scholars Program, a nine-month research and engagement program for undergraduate students designed to bring students, professors and community members together to address pressing urban and regional concerns through academic research.
“So for me, it’s figuring out where I would fit into that after graduation, and what I can do now in terms of researching issues and solutions,” said Dohrmann said, that he plans to pursue a career in real estate development or valuation after earning his degree in May 2024.
Perrey also discussed the importance of cooperation between those with resources and those who make policy decisions, noting that one cannot make change without the other, so synergy is vital. He emphasized the main purpose of the 50-year-old THDA, which is offering loan products, including down payment and closing cost assistance, through private-sector lending partners that help Tennesseans achieve the goal of homeownership.
“This information may influence my academic work and future professional decisions,” said Scholars Program participant Usman Saeed, a computer science major from Murfreesboro interested in housing affordability. “Perhaps enabling me to make a significant contribution to projects or organizations with a similar focus on increasing housing accessibility and affordability.”
Perrey wrapped his talk with advice to the students who are willing and working to own a home. He provided them with a public resource in the form of Great Choice Tennessee, which is a website that aids potential homeowners in understanding and creating a plan for eventual homeownership.
The Chair of Excellence in Urban and Regional Planning, or COE-URP, aims to encourage dialogue about pressing urban and regional issues in the Middle Tennessee region. The current holder of the chair is Murat Arik.
In addition to gaining relevant experience and learning key skills, students in the COE-URP Scholars Program will receive a stipend of $3,900, a completion certificate and the opportunity for a scholarly designation on their graduation diploma.
The next COE-URP Scholars Program Public Session will be held at noon Friday, Oct. 27, in BAS Room S326. It will be a roundtable of experts on sustainability, mobility, and livability, sponsored by Cumberland Region Tomorrow.
For more information, visit www.mtsu.edu/urp/scholarsprogram.php. For questions, email email@example.com.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)