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By LANDON WOODROOF

The Natchez Street Historic District was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, but that does not mean it was frozen in time.

Since its placement on the register the community has increasingly faced many of the same issues related to gentrification, like rising home and rent prices, that other parts of the city have.

A community meeting was held Thursday night at the First Missionary Baptist Church on Natchez Street to discuss the nature of encroaching gentrification in the neighborhood in recent years and to brainstorm how to address the changes it brings. Elected officials, including Mayor Ken Moore, city staff, community leaders and area residents packed the church for the meeting, which was hosted by the Williamson Herald and Southern Exposure Magazine.

Kevin Riggs of Franklin Community Church outlined what he feels is the main challenge that gentrification poses.

“What’s happening to us is a segment of the population that built Franklin is having to move out,” he said. “We’re in danger of losing a culture and losing a significant part of our history if we don’t try to figure out some way to address this situation.”

Much of the discussion that followed was related to the topics of affordable housing and the character of the Natchez Street district and its surrounding area.

“I get phone calls every day, ever single day, from people wanting to move into this community,” Franklin Housing Authority Executive Director Derwin Jackson said. “The one thing they say is I can’t afford it. I can’t find affordable housing here in Franklin.”

Kerri Bartlett, managing editor at the Williamson Herald, provided some numbers. She said the median home price in Williamson County is $489,000, while the median price in Franklin is $517,000.

Even some less affluent parts of Franklin have seen developers buy smaller, older homes for $175,000 to $200,000, tear them down and then replace them with much larger homes at prices triple what existed there before.

Franklin City Administrator talked about the challenge of providing truly affordable housing in the $150,000 to $175,000 in Franklin.

“That is really difficult to deliver largely because straight up the dirt is worth as much as the house that may be on it,” he said.

Despite the challenge, Jackson and the FHA are hard at work on providing as much affordable and low-income housing as possible in the city. He said the FHA had a master plan to encourage home ownership and increase the number of affordable units to 600.

For him, though, the issue goes deeper than just new construction.

“I’m not about just wanting to build new buildings,” he said. “I feel if that’s all we do, just build new buildings and don’t truly empower the residents, help them become self-sufficient, then 50 years from now you’re gonna have these same things.”

Riggs and Scott Roley, a former pastor who was at the meeting representing the Hard Bargain neighborhood, both spoke to the importance of community cooperation and interpersonal relationships in trying to solve the problem.

“I think as a community with the wealth that we have and a church on every corner…we can eradicate this whole problem if we can just come together and get serious,” Riggs said.

Roley said it was within everyone’s ability to help those in need in their communities if they were just willing to make the necessary sacrifices of time and effort.

“When you work to love your neighbor, when you care for the poor, when you do the things we know the creator told us to do, when you do that it’s not like rocket science that takes all this education and ability and talent,” he said. “It’s not like that. The reason it’s not popular is because it costs you your life. You have to give up your life to be somebody who is willing to look and see your neighbor taken care of. I really do think that spirit is here.”

A large part of the evening was devoted to a topic intended to preserve the historic nature of the Natchez Street Historic District and surrounding area. Alderman Pearl Bransford has been interested in creating a historic overlay for the community, which could require new construction to match the character of existing homes.

“We are not trying to say who can or cannot live in this historic district,” she said. “We are really concerned about the design and character of the homes that are built in our infill. Or if there’s a tear down that there’s a good reason for that…The property and appropriate infill within our historic district is one of the focuses of our petition.”

Bransford had raised the idea of creating a historic overlay over a decade ago, around the time she was involved in getting the district on the National Register of Historic Places, but she said she found little appetite for the idea at the time.

Based on Thursday’s meeting, it seems that the idea still makes some community members uneasy. Several speakers highlighted friction that they sensed between the idea of a protective historic overlay and property owners’ rights.

“I just really want us to think long and hard before we start to create overlays or we start to implement laws and procedures for what we can do to our property,” Ann Calloway said. “I’m a proud African American Franklinite, I am also a red, white and blue, love the United States of America, and the United States of America gives me the right to do with my property what I believe.”

Franklin resident Guil Ezell lives on Battle Avenue in a house that has appreciated in value considerably since the time he bought it. He said rising home prices were a perk of being a homeowner and was wary of infringing on anyone’s right to do with their property what they saw fit.

“You know if they came over to my neighorbhood and said we’re gonna cease it where you can’t change the footprint of my home, you’re done, I’d be up in arms,” he said.

Emily Brown raised the history of economic and property-based discrimination against African Americans to highlight the importance that rising real estate values can have on families who may have never had the opportunity before to pass down significant wealth to future generations.

“When I die now if I have three children instead of handing them $33,000 apiece, maybe I can hand them $100,000 apiece,” she said.

Bransford insisted the whole idea of the historic overlay was being misinterpreted. She said she was all for residents selling their homes for as much as they could possibly get. The purpose of the overlay is just to make sure any additions on homes or other new construction would have to fit within the character of the area.

“You can build, you can make it nice, just sort of stay sort of within the scale and design of established homes,” she said. “We want new product in the neighborhood, but stay within the design. You know the scale can be overwhelming, and I think that’s where people can get a little concerned.”

After the meeting was over, she said she supported the idea of creating a Natchez Street homeowners association, which could allow residents to work out among themselves any restrictions they want to put on construction in the area.

“We’re gonna kind of start from there and let the homeowners association kind of create guidelines from that,” she said.