How Nashville’s (relatively) affordable housing is reshaping the region’s politics

Katie MacLachlan hasn’t missed the frenetic pace and high cost of New York City living since moving to Nashville three years ago.

She traded a 400-square-foot apartment for her own home and partnered with a friend to open Walden bar and restaurant in East Nashville.

"Starting a business is very expensive, and it was less expensive and easier to talk to people and get information here than it would be in a larger city," MacLachlan said. "I think Southern hospitality is the real thing. I feel like I’ve become a more trusting and nice person."

She’s not alone in seeking out a better quality of life down South.

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Migrants from across the nation are flocking to Nashville, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Raleigh-Durham, Austin, Charlotte, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Orlando, where taxes are relatively low and homes can still be found near cities for about $250,000. The cities are among the nation’s top-10 real-estate markets in 2019, according to leading industry reports.

While many longtime Nashvillians have sticker shock from the fast-rising home-prices across the city, new residents from major metro areas have the opposite point of view. Experts say the mass southbound movement from blue states will continue to liberalize red states already seeing Democratic streaks from expanding young minority groups.

"George W. Bush took all the southern states, even Florida," said Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey. "That changed with Obama – partly because of African-American votes, but also because of changing demography."

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Political parties are paying attention

The movement – including recent yearly averages of 17,000 people to Nashville and 90,000 people to Dallas – is on the radar of political party leadership in Tennessee.

Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said the popularity of Nashville and other southern cities is a testament to conservative ideologies.

"I call Tennessee a success story," Golden said. "We don’t have a state income tax and have reasonable property taxes. When you look at Illinois, New York and California – their liberal ideology and issues have made those states a really unattractive longer-term investment."

However, the growth of the Nashville metropolitan area – along with the Memphis area, one of the only blue enclaves in the state – could lead to more Democratic political representation in Tennessee when legislative districts are redrawn after the 2020 census.

"People moving here are choosing to live in certain counties that meet their ideological perspective, so there is a rise in political circles in landslide counties," Golden said. "The exponential growth of Middle Tennessee is going to reshape the map. The question is: ‘Will Nashville gain representation in the state Capitol?’"

The greater Nashville metropolitan area grew by about a half-million people from 2010 to 2017, and that growth is expected to continue at its current rate of twice the national average.

More than 5,000 New Yorkers migrated to Tennessee annually, on average, during that period. They were joined by nearly 9,000 Californians and 3,000 Pennsylvanians, according to U.S. Census data.

In 2016, nearly 10,000 Illinois migrants moved to Tennessee – the largest annual number recorded from the Midwestern state in available census data since 2005.

"The secret sauce of many of these cities is that they are college towns," said Mitch Roschelle, a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner. "It’s really about affordability, employment growth, population growth and employment stability. Low or no state income tax is becoming a bigger and bigger factor when people start making choices about where they want to live."

‘Diversity explosion’

MacLachlan, the former New York City resident, said she has become more interested in politics and her local community since migrating.

"My biggest things are equality, women’s rights, and policies that help small businesses," she said. "I’m definitely more liberal when it comes to social issues, and more conservative when it comes to business."

Sun Belt states with strong Republican majorities have experienced a Democratic influence in recent years along with fast-growing Hispanic, Asian, black and multiracial groups.

The diversification will likely continue to benefit Democrats, Frey argues in his book, ‘Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America.’

"The diversity explosion that the United States is now experiencing is ushering in the most demographically turbulent period in the country’s recent history," Frey states, in the book. "Long-term racial demographic trends should favor Democrats. It is in both parties’ interest to make efforts to close the current cross-party cultural generation gap in their policies and messaging in order to stay relevant."

Tennessee newcomers are bucking the trend of growing southern U.S. diversity.

More than half of new metropolitan-area residents since 2000 have been white, according to census data collected by Frey.

Population growth in Memphis, however, is dominated by new black residents.

"States in the New Sun Belt stand at the forefront of electorate change," Frey said. "The geographic dispersion of new minorities and the southward migration of blacks work to the advantage of the Democrats."

Democratic turnout rising

Joseph Lecz, a film producer who moved from Los Angeles in July, said he experienced some culture shock from the conservatism here.

"I really fell in love with the Southern charm," Lecz said. "These are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and I can get a gorgeous place for a fraction of the cost. But I’m coming from such a liberal state and I was shocked to hear that building the border wall is such a concern here."

Blue-state newcomers are probably not the only reason Democratic voter turnout increased significantly – 28 percent – in August for the first time in years. It was also an especially competitive gubernatorial primary election. Republicans saw a 10 percent increase in turnout.

But Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini said she has had success in her mission to unify voters around improving access to affordable housing and healthcare, and appealing to minority groups.

"Voter registration has increased, as has voter participation," Mancini said. "Blount County, near Knoxville, elected its first Democratic African-American county commissioner. Their Democratic voter turnout increased 250 percent in August."

In Williamson County, where the $500,000 median home price is the highest in the state, Democrats contended for county commission seats for the first time in more than two decades this year.

Regina Owens Kennedy moved from New York to Nashville in mid-2016 with her husband and two young children to escape high housing costs and taxes, and long commutes to work.

"We started looking at what kind of home we could get down here and we were like: ‘Whooaaa!,’" Kennedy said.

But the state’s Republican politics have been a down-side for her.

"It was comforting to know that Nashville is a blue city," she said. "But Trump has visited here way too many times now."

Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at smazza@tennessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.

Population growth and home prices in fast-growing Sun Belt cities

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX

2000: 5.2 million

2017 population: 7.4 million

Median home price: $245,109

Austin-Round Rock, TX

2000 population: 1.2 million

2017 population: 2.1 million

Median home price: $354,659

Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC

2000 population: 1.2 million

2017 population: 2.2 million

Median home price: $272,500

Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL

2000 population: 1.6 million

2018 population: 2.5 milion

Median home price: $241,000

Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC

2000 population: 1.7 million

2017 population: 2.5 million

Median home price: $237,000

Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL

2000 population: 2.4 million

2017 population: 3 million

Median home price: $216,000

Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN

2000 population: 1.3 million

2017 population: 1.9 million

Median home price: $265,000

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