For homeless people in the late eighties, Nashville was a very different place than it is now. We had many of the same soup kitchens and overnight shelters, but there was no long-term, affordable place for a homeless person to call home.
If they didn’t want to listen to the evening sermon in exchange for a cot at the mission or didn’t have the money for a pay-by-the-night motel room, they found whatever warm place they could and hunkered down for the night. During the day they wandered the streets—infuriating downtown business owners by their mere presence and scaring their would-be customers. Something had to change, and an agency called the Council of Community Services got the ball rolling.
The Council of Community Services (CCS) acted much like the United Way--looking for gaps in critical services and then working to fill them. The CCS' Executive Director at the time was Rusty Lawrence. Rusty, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Vanderbilt graduate, knew that the homeless problem wouldn’t be solved by building more shelters or passing panhandling laws. In the late eighties, that need was permanent, affordable housing for the homeless, and the CCS went to work.
They found a place on Murfreesboro Road called the Mercury Motel. In its heyday, it had been a family motel that had been known to host a country music star or two. Now, however, drug dealers and prostitutes wandered its vast parking lot and its 173 rooms would have to be gutted. While most people saw an eyesore, the staff of the CCS envisioned a safe place for the people no one else seemed to want.
They wrote a $3,000,000 grant to HUD to get the rent subsidized, but they still needed $1,500,000 to purchase and renovate the project. Without a loan, the project wouldn’t happen. So Rusty did the only thing he knew to do—he started talking to loan officers. One by one, they shook their heads and said they couldn’t help him. The numbers just wouldn’t work.
What the loan officers didn’t know was that Rusty and the CCS had a friend—a prominent local businessman by the name of Ed Stohlman. Ed was telling the bank presidents that they had to make this deal happen because it was the right thing to do. And the strange thing was, it worked. The bank presidents leaned on their loan officers, and nine local banks came together to finance what would become Mercury Courts.
And then the CCS learned about NIMBY—Not in My Back Yard. Making the Mercury Motel into permanent housing meant that the zoning would have to be changed—something that could only be done if the area’s councilman approved it. Despite neighborhood opposition and their fear that the new owner could somehow make the property worse, the councilman—Charles French—approved the change. Councilman French had seen the need for the type of housing CCS was trying to develop, and he lost his council seat over it.
After extensive renovations, Mercury Courts opened its doors in 1992. Local churches and businesses sponsored rooms, and interior decorators painted and carpeted many of them. Over time, Rusty and the staff of the CCS learned the ins and outs of managing affordable rental housing. The CCS spun off a division called CCS Housing, and it became Urban Housing Solutions. We’ve added 27 other properties to our portfolio, and we’re able to offer special housing programs for people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, those living with HIV/AIDS, the mentally ill, and the chronically homeless. Today, Mercury Courts houses over 150 formerly homeless men and women. And the councilman who lost his re-election? He still serves on our board of directors.