My Quiet Life My Quiet Life

growing pains

Everyone loves growth. People love it, cities love it, economies love it. Growth is the measuring stick by which we gauge success – for better or worse. Nashville is no different, and over the last decade our city has emphasized growth and tourism, largely at the prompting of interested parties, including primarily the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation and its CEO Butch Spyridon, among others. Driven by the cracking whip and rallying cry for room-nights, our city has seen a massive influx in both visitors and residents. We’re a popular destination – an “it” city. With growth, of course, comes change.

As with gentrification, though, so with growth: the accompanying change is all fine and well as long as it happens to someone else. And so, we begin to see a backlash: the NIMBY calls for regulation and curtailing of the symptoms of growth.

The latest target is Short Term Rental Properties (STRP), Airbnb and VRBO foremost among them. (Some) residents are not pleased with the influx of visitors, and the accompanying aches and pains. These STRPs are taking the brunt of the criticism – though unfairly, as I will argue shortly. A brief list of some of the background on the outcry and some proposed rule changes (thanks to Councilman Jeremy Elrod (@JeremyElrod26) for gathering these for me.

Don’t worry, no need to read them all – the tl;dr: (some) residents are complaining to their councilpeople and the media about bad behaviour – specifically (as far as I can tell) regarding noise and sanitation/waste from the increase in visitors. The predictable proposals involve extensive additions to metro codes for regulating property owners in offering their dwellings as STRPs. Unsurprisingly the complicated regulations are proving difficult (read: impossible) to enforce, resulting in more recent calls to have the Metro Police Department become responsible for enforcing these rules. This is, in a word, insane. Our police department has better things to be doing than becoming the intermediary in endless code/NIMBY/neighborhood disputes. Introducing them as enforcers would be a colossal waste of time/money, and would create a spectacular new intersection of police/citizenry ripe for conflict and tension. Even if it were feasible to train the police department on the tangle of rules, it’s unlikely that these rules will remain static. Regulation of innovation is an endless (and futile) arms race – imposing the added burden on the police of keeping up with the constant changes. It’s unreasonable to expect they’d have any chance of doing this job effectively, and it’s unfair to ask them.

If the proposed regulations are unenforceable, they are useless, and should be abandoned – particularly because they are a bad idea either way.

While these STRPs are being targeted as bad neighbors, the reality is that they are merely a symptom of what’s really going on. A popular city attracts visitors. Visitors like to stay near hip/popular areas. The appearance and popularity of Airbnb and VRBO properties in a given neighborhood simply heralds a more fundamental shift: that of a quiet, family neighborhood into a not-so-quiet, entertainment/urban neighborhood. This is no doubt unsettling to residents who previously thought of their neighborhood as a quiet enclave far from the hustle and bustle of city life.

I am sympathetic to this concern, but you can’t fight it. Nashville asked for growth and it got it – with both the good and bad that come with it. There’s nothing wrong with a call for neighbors to be neighborly, and property owners that are serving STRPs should be held to the same standards as anyone else, and where they are in violation of the law, they should be held accountable. Targetting STRPs specifically makes no sense, and only poses an onerous burden of regulatory complexity. The only complaints (that I’ve seen so far anyway), largely have to do with noise and waste management/sanitation (and, hilariously to me: people walking around). These issues are all already well regulated in the city codes, as far as I know, and don’t require any specific additional rules.

There are minor, relatively inconsequential reasons to perhaps license and document STRPs (though as you might imagine, I’m deeply skeptical), but I think it’s important not to ignore the real motivation driving this backlash. People don’t like STRPs because they represent a fundamental demographic change to their neighborhood. Our government can fight that, at great cost, and with an unpredictable (probably disastrous) outcome. Or, we can collectively grow up a bit, and accept that things change. Neighborhoods get popular and become dense. This drives up property values. Don’t like your neighborhood anymore? Adapt, or move.

For what it’s worth, as an anecdotal coda: I live in Lockeland Springs, arguably ground zero for the STRP explosion in East Nashville. My nextdoor neighbor (a ginormous victorian house) has three different offerings alone. I’ve never had one single problem with them that I wouldn’t expect given the area (and its increasing popularity) I live in. (Ironically the one disastrous airbnb related experience I’ve been party to was the opposite: at 3AM, a local drunk driver careened into and nearly totaled the parked Jeep of an Airbnb guest staying nextdoor. He was super nice and understanding about it, all things considered, given his trip to our fair city had just been ruined.)

payday lending regulation

I thought I’d jot down some notes/observations after this conversation about payday lending. Payday lending is an interesting subject to me, both because of the demonization of the market and the interesting economics at work – it provides an interesting microcosm of how attempts to regulate markets can backfire and/or fail.

1st premise: people wish to lower the market rates for payday loans (ignoring for the moment the various moral/ethical reasons for this). 2nd premise: the current rate for interest on loans is at a (dynamic) equilibrium allowing for firms to remain viable/profitable given costs of default/administration/etc.

When the equilibrium rate is perceived as being too high, the usual approach is to simply legislate a ceiling cap on rates that can be charged. When you do so, there are two options:

1) You set the rate too high, which creates a schelling point that encourages implicit collusion at this higher rate. There’s some empirical evidence that this already happens.

2) You set the rate too low, which means some portion of the supply (lending firms) will exit the market (voluntarily or go out of business), or reduce the scope or quality of their services.

Thus the two possible outcomes are: harm to low-income borrowers via increased rates, or harm to low-income borrowers via reduced market choice/options.

This all leads back to square one: if you want to eliminate high payday loan rates, there’s only one option: find and provide a better (more efficient) emergency funding option.

The natural and usual rebuttal to this is that regulators simply need to find the “right” rate at which to set the ceiling. I cannot write a better response to this fantasy than Hayek did 70 years ago.

monitoring and abuse of authority

This started as a half-formed tweet but quickly took the shape of a tweetstorm, and I hate those, so:

Every time there’s a horrific police shooting, I hear a lot of talk about the need for more police body/dash/helmet/whatever-cams. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, here, but perhaps this path needs a bit more scrutiny.

Given an insidious hidden abuse of authority, increases in technology that enables monitoring will, inevitably, shine a light on it. There are two main effects of monitoring on abuses of authority:

  1. deterrence (an abuser will think twice, knowing they are being monitored)
  2. documentation/justice (even if an abuser is not deterred, they can subequently be brought to justice, assuming the evidence is reliable)

The latter is useful for the pursuit of justice in documented (recorded) cases of abuse, obviously, and is fairly easy to measure (though of course you still don’t know if an increase in documented authority abuse is evidence of increasing abuse or simply increasing documentation).

Deterred abuse, however, is trickier to measure, because you can never know what acts of abuse an authority didn’t commit. It seems unlikely, as a result, that we’ll ever know what police body/dash/etc-cams do actually manage to deter, since it’s impossible to measure, and hopelessly intertwined with many other variables (increases/decreases in actual acts of abuse, etc).

This is not sufficient to say that increased police *-cams are a bad idea, necessarily, though. But they don’t come without a cost, either: specifically, we’re talking about the deployment (let’s be honest, the expansion) of a massive surveillance state in order to counter the police state. Is this a cure worse than the disease?

Overt police-controlled surveillance also has drawbacks, simply because it’s in the control of those we are seeking to deter. If these authorities are willing to collude and murder, why do we trust them to not collude to tamper/manipulate/delete the evidence? When is letting the fox guard the henhouse ever a good idea?

A more robust solution is citizen-controlled (covert or overt) surveillance of authorities. Many recent acts of abuse came to light not because of police-controlled dashcams, but citizen-controlled technology (phonecams). Why, whenever one of these atrocities is committed, isn’t anyone lobbying for an increase in citizen-controlled surveillance as well? Of course, the answer is somewhat pragmatic: not everyone has a phone out and recording ready to go every time an egregious abuse of authority happens, nor is the prospect of a society that is monitoring itself mutually and perpetually particularly appealing. But technology marches forward, and it seems that this is an inevitable arms-race of escalation already in progress. I am not sure if this is good or bad, but it’s certainly territory that science fiction has already started covering in a rather bleak light (see Black Mirror, The Entire History of You)

The fundamental question remains: do we want a police state that surveils itself or a police state surveiled/checked by its citizenry? Frankly i’d prefer not to have a police state at all, but that seems like a bridge too far.

it’s not about “affordable housing”

I have a small but important piece of advice for journalists: stop using the phrase “affordable housing”. This occurs to me often in general, but occurred to me in particular while reading Amanda Haggard’s otherwise fine summary of the Ft. Negley tent city situation. The problem is the use of the phrase “affordable housing” – repeatedly, from the title to the body of the piece.

Why is it a problem? Because “affordable housing” doesn’t really mean anything, and for a journalist to use it means accepting the narrative being set by wily politicians using it as a weasel phrase. When politicians/administrators furrow their brow and and say we need a solution to “affordable housing”, it means about as much as a fart in the wind. So, unfortunately, Haggard’s piece, written through the lens of “affordable housing” misses the opportunity to identify the actual problem(s) and uncover potential solutions, and instead shines the spotlight on the oh-so-very-concerned politicians who aren’t actually doing anything.

There are many types of housing. What kind are we talking about? Affordable for whom?

  • Emergency shelter? (it’s 5F outside and I have nowhere to go)
  • Transitional housing? (I’m homeless and waiting for the maze of myriad bureaucracies to work me through the system to get Section 8 and I have nowhere to stay)
  • Treatment facilities? (I’m a homeless drug/alcohol addict and I need help)
  • Bathrooms/showers? (I need to shower and take a dump)
  • etc …

The list goes on. The people camping at Ft Negley are a group of people who have chosen to camp together (often because the few emergency/transitional housing we do have is abysmal if not outright abusive, but that’s another story), likely for equally diverse reasons, some or all of which would be solved by the above. But they are all different situations, and “affordable housing” means nothing to any of them. It means nothing, and is often interpreted as meaning everything from emergency shelter to a shortage of cheap housing for the politically active voting middle class. So, when it comes time for our political elite to claim they’ve addressed the “affordable housing” problem, which do you think they are going to focus on? Spoiler: not homeless people. There are no people camping at Ft Negley who are homeless because there aren’t enough apartments in the Gulch. Solving that problem won’t eliminate homelessness. You’ll never eliminate homelessness, and to think you can requires the sort of psychotic delusion that only a politician can muster. What we can do is identify the causes of homelessness and build infrastructure to ameliorate the symptoms and provide a path out.

So please: stop accepting that bogus narrative and start digging into the specifics. Connelly and Howsnashville have done a great job in helping people navigate the process of getting Section 8, but that is only one small piece of the puzzle. Show us the rest.

the best hot chicken in nashville

Posting this mostly for posterity and as a reference for when people ask me. For clarity, I am only listing restaurants that meet my (arbitrary) definition of “Hot Chicken Restaurant”, which is that they have to serve a leg quarter in varying levels of heat, and should at least nominally focused on hot chicken itself – that is, I’m not bothering to list the random restaurants that coat chicken fingers in cayenne and call it hot chicken (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Ranked in order from worst to best:

  1. Bolton's.

    The only reason Bolton's makes this list for me at all is because it's an institution in Nashville, and so people will inevitably ask "what about Bolton's?". Bolton's is part of the narrative of hot chicken history, as it originally split off from Prince's. And, it fits the aesthetic of what people want out of a hot chicken experience. The place is a cinderblock dump, but it's warm and cozy inside. The chicken, however, sucks. Sorry. I've tried it three times -- each time the leg quarter was overcooked (to the extent that the skin was burnt). I'm also not a fan of the dry-ish/er "saucing" they do there. The chicken on a stick is okay, insofar as a dried chicken finger on a stick is okay, but it's amateur hour for hot chicken aficionados. Go there if you're craving fish, or want to get chummy with your neighbors, but otherwise: skip it.

  2. Party Fowl.

    Party Fowl is a newer contender. Their hot chicken is not mindblowingly good or hot, but it's tasty. They also have a huge menu of Other Stuff, so it's a good option for dining with other people who don't care for the heat.

  3. Helen's.

    I haven't been to Helen's since they moved to Jefferson, but when I tried it at the food truck it was not great. The chicken was well-fried, but the sauce was clearly made with oil (possibly their frying oil), which is something you see cropping up in recipes recently. I do not approve. There wasn't a lot of spice, and it tasted like rancid oil. I'll probably give them another chance, though, now that they have an actual brick and mortar location. UPDATE: 12/21/2015 -- tried Helen's again now that they moved to Jefferson street. Possibly the move to a permanent location has improved quality. I got a leg quarter, "hella lot" (their hottest). It was pretty decently hot, maybe somewhere between Hattie B's Hot and PepperFire's Medium. I could be wrong but the sauce had a hint of tomato in it -- tasted a bit more like a more traditional tomato-ey hot wing sauce. Still not good enough to break the top 4, but good enough to best Party Fowl.

  4. 400 Degrees

    People are often down on 400 Degrees, and I'm not sure why. I've been eating there since it opened, and they've always been consistent. Their chicken is always a little bland (not sure why -- no brining? shitty/cheap chicken source?), but the crust and heat have always been spot-on for me. I know the owner had some health issues resulting in erratic hours, so maybe this also contributed to some quality control issues. I went a few weeks ago and it was great, though, so if you've counted them out, give it a whirl.

  5. Hattie B's

    It's hard to say enough good things about Hattie B's: they took hot chicken, perfected their own version of it, and added beer. What's not to like? My preferred heat level here is Shut the Cluck Up, but it's not for the faint of heart -- roughly about the same as Prince's Extra Hot in my experience. Only Pepperfire's XX Hot is hotter.

  6. Prince's

    Objectively speaking, Prince's is still king. They're the originals, they set the bar high, and it's still great. But this is my list, and I'd be lying if I said I went all the way over to Dickerson pike every time I wanted hot chicken. Which is why my favorite pick goes to:

  7. Pepperfire.

    That's right, Pepperfire. It's very possible I'm suffering from sample bias because Pepperfire is so close to my house, but it's my favorite. Pepperfire won my heart with their chicken, which originally was very lightly battered -- and I was able to convince myself made it healthier somehow. Although they have since backed away from this recipe to a more traditional battered chicken, the fantastic mix of flavor and heat hasn't changed. Their heat levels are not to be toyed with. They recently ratcheted up the heat (i think), and their XX Hot is a day-ruiner -- take my word for it. </li> </ol>