The Millennial Metric Q&A: Alfred Degrafinreid II (Nashville, TN)

Alfred Degrafinreid II is the associate vice chancellor for community relations for Vanderbilt University. A native Tennessean, Degrafinreid most recently served as the chief administrative officer for the Office of the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk. Prior to serving the Metro Nashville government, he was counsel to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-05) and coordinated community outreach for Davidson, Dickson and Cheatham counties. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NewCities: Nashville, like other millennial magnets Austin, Columbus, and Minneapolis, is a midsize state capital with a prominent research university — in this case Vanderbilt. How does the university see its role in the city’s success?

Alfred Degrafinreid: Nashville has been hot for quite some time — I think that it was kept a secret from the masses for a while. But one thing that’s remained constant is the number of higher education institutions — the reason we’re known as the Athens of the South. Vanderbilt has benefited from the success of Nashville and Nashville, in turn, has benefited from having Vanderbilt. When someone or some entity wants to come here, one of their first stops is Vanderbilt — just to meet us, learn our best practices, and to see our resources, whether academic or our students.

NewCities: What is Vanderbilt’s relationship with its neighbors like? Nashville has gentrified at a blistering pace over the last decade as became known as “the bachelorette party capital of America.” What was the university’s role in that process?

Alfred Degrafinreid: Vanderbilt works hard to maintain a good relationship with our neighbors. Our campus is located off West End Avenue and sits in an economically advantaged area of the city. The Edgehill Community is one of the closest neighborhoods to our campus and it has been slowly gentrifying over the years. Some parts of Edgehill have experienced the change that everyone is talking about, but others have not. Most recently we partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee to help provide meals to school-aged children and families in this community due to the recent tornadoes and effects of Covid-19. We are committed to engaging and listening to our neighbors and we will continue to work with faith-based, civic- and social organizations to share our resources with that area, because it’s important.

One of the biggest drivers of change in the housing market over the last 10 years or so was the invention of “tall and skinnies.” We’ve seen throughout the city where there was once a home on one lot, and now they’ve taken that lot and put two “tall and skinnies” on it. A lot that was once worth $100,000 now has two $500,000 homes on it. How do we address affordability so people in these communities are not pushed out so far into the periphery they’re no longer a part of our community?

Of course, dealing with housing is like dealing with homelessness, with education. You can’t just take a cookie cutter approach and fix it overnight. But if you break it down into small pieces and then work within each system, you can get positive results over time.

NewCities: In addition to gentrification, many cities popular with millennials have also experienced “youthification,” i.e. they’ve been remade as permanent playgrounds for young adults. Has Nashville experienced this too?

Alfred Degrafinreid: Certainly. Every city across the nation that continues to see growth is experiencing “youthification”. Neighborhoods are getting younger in some communities throughout Nashville. I think what happens is that a lot of people from the coasts sell their homes and move to Nashville, where they can purchase a home outright and still have additional money to supplement their incomes.

Nashville has become a place where the jobs you’d find on the coasts are now here in Nashville, so employees can work remotely. And a lot of companies are just relocating here, like we’ve seen with AllianceBernstein and Amazon opening its new headquarters here. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen people from New York City moving to Nashville. That was just unheard of.

NewCities: But that kind of growth creates problems as well. At one point during the boom, Nashville had the fastest-shrinking million-dollar home in the United States, because housing prices were rising so quickly — and that was at the top of the market. Part of your community engagement portfolio at Vanderbilt includes the university’s community impact fund, which grapples with some of these affordability issues. What’s your strategy? Because Sun Belt cities traditionally build at the edges, trading affordability for traffic. And it would appear Nashville is perhaps reaching the limits of that.

Alfred Degrafinreid: The community impact fund was created to offer grant opportunities for nonprofits focused on a number of areas, one of which is affordable housing. Again, housing is just a huge topic to tackle, but there are opportunities to help. Let me give you an example. We’re about to embark on the graduate and professional student housing village, which will provide housing near the Vanderbilt campus at below-market rates. This project will offer a mix of unit types, a public courtyard, group and private study spaces, and a fitness center. Institutions like Vanderbilt can play a major role in resolving the housing crisis that we have. We’re going to create an opportunity for students, and what that does is free up opportunities for others.

NewCities: A lot of assumptions — about housing, higher education, remote work, and the future of cities in general — have been thrown into doubt by COVID-19. While the pandemic is nowhere near over, how might it change Nashville? And what changes have you already seen?

Alfred Degrafinreid: When I watched Mayor Cooper’s State of the Metro address this spring, it was interesting. There were only three people in the Metro Council Chamber, and it was broadcast live. That’s an event I’ve looked forward to attending for over a decade, a time you get to see all of your major players — department heads, elected officials, and community leaders — because they want to hear what the Mayor has to say about the budget and future of Nashville. To watch it on TV and see just him, the vice mayor, and the chairman pro tempore of the Metro Council was just very odd.

Beyond local government, nonprofits also have been unable to meet in person. Vanderbilt provides grants to between 75 and 80 nonprofits each fiscal year. I’ve participated in a lot of Zoom calls, but everything has been torn down — “We’re not having this fundraising event; we’re not having this grand opening; we’re not going to do thig because of COVID-19.”

But the Zoom meetings and being on the phone have been helpful to me. I talked to more people in the first few weeks of quarantine than I had in the entire year to date. My team and I began to brainstorm: “What can we do now that we couldn’t do before? How can we take this lemon and create some lemonade?” Because eventually we’re going to get beyond this and be able to go back to work, but how we can use these tools in conjunction with our in-person work going forward?

NewCities: The trends you described — the overnight switch from live meetings and events to virtual communication — has some questioning the need for cities at all. How does that, coupled with unemployment rates around 10% for the foreseeable future, threaten Nashville’s growth model for the last decade? What does post-COVID Nashville look like?

Alfred Degrafinreid: That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. I can tell you that only a couple of months ago I read a report that Millennials were moving here without jobs. They just said to themselves, “Hey, I’m going to move to Nashville and figure it out.” I anticipate that won’t continue until COVID-19 is behind us.

Speaking as an original millennial, a lot of my peers are not purchasing homes right now. They’re waiting to get married later in life. And student loans are just as expensive as a mortgage. I’ve seen an alarming report that ours will be the first modern generation to have less wealth than previous ones. So, to bring this back to your original question, if there are massive layoffs, I think millennials may see this as an opportunity to move here and make less money at jobs that were paying more.

I’ve seen that happen in my own career, taking a job where the person before me was making double what I made. They cut the position’s salary in half and hired me straight out of law school. But I understood that taking the job would lead me to one like this one at Vanderbilt or one running a city department or managing a statewide campaign.

That’s the kind of thing where millennials are best suited to this environment, more so than Gen Xers, more so than Boomers. We’ve been told to go after jobs that bring satisfaction and to not just take one because it’s there. I think we’ll benefit from that.

But I don’t think Nashville will become a city people don’t want to come to. I think when people visit, they envision cowboy hats and boots and people riding horses down Broadway. But when they get here and see what the city really is, they see it reminds them of LA or New York, DC or Chicago. Maybe COVID will reduce the number of people coming from 100 people a day to maybe 50. But it’s not going to stop them from wanting to come.

Featured photo by Tanner Boriack on Unsplash.