Five of the six major candidates for Tennessee governor appeared at a forum on housing Tuesday in Williamson County, each making the case for how their candidacy connects with housing issues in the state.
And the most common refrain was that creating jobs can solve problems in housing.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, an auctioneer, explained that his experience related to the real estate market and housing goes way back. He learned about construction and worked in the homebuilding industry, he said. His business background in surveying and auctions put him in position to understand housing issues.
“I’ve been around the housing industry all my life,” Ramsey said. “I believe we’re on the cusp of that shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan talked about. I believe in Tennessee we can be an island of sanity in a nation gone amok.
“There will be states nobody wants to be living in. We need to be a state where people will want to bring jobs and bring their families. I understand completely you are the force that drives our economy, and I’ll be very supportive of your industry.”
Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said he knew what it was like to lose a home from his childhood, when his father left the family. He also noted that his father became homeless, and he sees how many factors are involved in housing issues.
Homelessness, Gibbons pointed out, can be the result of mental illness.
“The largest mental health institution in my community today is the Shelby County jail,” he said.
Gibbons said there were good intentions in trying to deinstitutionalize people who had mental illness, but that there wasn’t enough follow-through to provide community support to make that policy work.
Gibbons said the key on housing is to have good-paying jobs and safe neighborhoods. He emphasized his job as a prosecutor in fighting crime, which is important to stable housing, he said.
Congressman Zach Wamp, who had to leave the forum halfway through to go back to Washington, explained he worked in the commercial real estate sector.
“I know your industry,” he said. “I loved it. I was the first to get there in the morning and the last to leave.”
Wamp said new investments are going to come south and that the state needs a dynamic governor to help make that happen. Wamp, too, pointed to the link between mental illness and homelessness from his experience in working on a subcommittee in Congress that deals with veterans.
Democrat Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, said that when he says he has traveled to all 95 counties, it doesn’t mean just going to lunch with four or five people.
“You have to understand what the infrastructure is and what the assets are,” McWherter said. “We need a governor who will focus on the retention of jobs. The bottom line is we need jobs.”
The candidates expressed their support for the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, established in 1973 to support the production of affordable housing.
They also expressed support for regional mass transit. But as in other areas, candidates quickly added that the next governor has to be careful about making promises that can’t be kept due to severe budget restraints.
Democrat Kim McMillan said the state needs to be smart on how it goes about mass transit.
“Sometimes we veer off course without the proper planning,” she said. “This is a reason why our roads system is recognized so well. Planning is what made our road system what it is today.”
The one major candidate who did not appear was Republican Bill Haslam, mayor of Knoxville. But Mike McGuffin, managing director of the retail division of Eakin Partners Commercial Real Estate, spoke on Haslam’s behalf.
Much of the forum’s discussion was about foreclosures, which were the first domino to fall leading to the credit crisis that drove the nation into recession.
“We need foreclosure counseling,” McMillan said. “When you actually educate people on how to buy a home, to service a mortgage, it makes a difference in their ability to stay away from foreclosure.”
“Let’s be honest. We knew this couldn’t last,” Ramsey said of practices that were going on that led to foreclosures.
He recalled how people used to have to verify they were making enough money to afford the homes they bought.
“It was lax regulation, and it was speculation that got us to this point,” he said, in a comment that drew some applause in agreement.
“That doesn’t deserve a clap,” he said. “It deserves a boo.”