Flood comes as one more blow for working class

Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 11:45pm

Nobody said things would be easy.

Holding jobs in generally low-paying fields like retail and hospitality, owning homes that come in near the bottom of the local price range — these are not the characteristics of privileged lives.

For plenty of people in Nashville who consider themselves to be in the middle class, or at least to be striving toward middle-class status, hard work and thin wealth are a way of life. Many have spent years on the economic precipice, vulnerable to financial ruin in the event of any major disruption to their lives. And then came the rains of May 2010.

A City Paper analysis of recent economic data indicates that the misery inflicted by the recession, the foreclosure crisis and other recent economic shocks was already hitting lower-income working people in Nashville disproportionately, even before the flooding. Job losses due to the floods, however temporary, are causing further suffering in this beleaguered part of the community.

One mother’s choice

Tricia Peterson had a difficult choice: show up at the Opry Mills retail store where she was manager and help a restoration crew hired to begin cleanup after the flood, or go to Fort Campbell to see off her son, who was being deployed to Afghanistan.

She went to work.

In the wake of Nashville’s most devastating flood, Peterson spent seven days in a dank, musty store, combing through inventory damaged by floodwaters and assisting workers doing the same.

“A lot of us, too, we were in there with no air conditioning,” she said. “I had one light bulb in the whole store. I had to be in there for the salvage company. That took a day. Then the restoration people were there for two days.”

It was already a busy time for Peterson, who moved from Texas to Nashville three years ago for this job. Along with the historic flood and her son’s deployment, Peterson was just about to close on a townhouse. She’d been choosing colors and carpet just before the flood.

Peterson kept going to work, despite mounting uncertainty about her future at the store. The more questions she asked, it seemed, the more confusing the situation became: No one knew when Opry Mills might reopen. No one could even say whether her store would still be there.

On Friday, May 14, she got her answer: laid off. When she asked, Peterson was told she could reapply for her job when the mall reopens — whenever that is. Meanwhile, the townhouse is off the agenda, she’s already given up her apartment (for which $275 weekly unemployment checks will not pay) and is living with her daughter-in-law in Clarksville. And she’s looking for work in Texas again.

Peterson is one of hundreds — possibly thousands — of retail employees who were laid off by Opry Mills stores after the flood. By all accounts, former employees have been offered few details aside from the fact that their jobs are not being held for them. Roughly 3,000 people were employed there.

“It breaks my heart that they didn’t try harder to keep me,” Peterson said, adding that she has offered to transfer. “It feels like I’ve done something wrong.”

‘Starting from scratch’

Two weeks after the flood, Brandon Rarig’s manager at the Opry Mills Rainforest Cafe called to tell him he’d been laid off. The 24-year-old husband, who recently graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University, had been splitting time between his serving job and a supervisory position at a local library. With two jobs, Rarig had been the breadwinner while his wife finished college.

Luckily for the couple, Rarig’s wife wrapped up her classes just before the flood hit. That means more money will begin flowing into their household, and at just the right time: Like many Opry Mills stores, Rainforest Cafe laid off its employees — of which there were about 25, Rarig said — and told them, without explanation, that there would not be spots for them upon reopening, but they could reapply.

Rarig’s manager told him they’re “starting from scratch” and “treating it as a grand opening,” he told The City Paper.

According to information gathered from laid-off employees, other stores that have let employees go without any promise of rehire include Barnes and Noble, Dave and Buster’s, the Liz Claiborne Outlet and the Lucky Brand Jeans Outlet. TGI Friday’s has offered to hold its employees’ jobs. And Famous Footwear, Bed Bath and Beyond, Bass Pro Shops, Clarks and Old Navy have transferred employees to other Nashville locations.

Rarig said a couple of former Rainforest employees have been transferred to the company’s Orlando location. He doesn’t blame Rainforest Cafe, or the company’s corporate owner, Landry’s Restaurants Inc., for letting employees go in the wake of the flood. He said he expects the servers would have simply found other work in the interim anyway.

Rehab work at Opry Mills has been under way for some weeks, but there has been no word on when the mega-mall will reopen. “Our number one goal at this time is to get Opry Mills back open for business as soon as possible,” Lynn Kittel, director of marketing and business development for Opry Mills, wrote on the mall’s website. “We have a dedicated team mobilized as we begin the restoration process.”

Losing the house

Even in 1994, $75,000 was not an extravagant sum to spend on a little house in Hermitage. The owners, whom we’ll call the Doe family to protect their privacy, took on a mortgage of $772 a month, including escrow.

For a decade, they kept up their payments. By 2004, the husband was making about $23,000 a year working for a major hardware retailer. The wife was on a Metro government disability pension that paid about $27,000 annually.

That year, they filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganization. They lost a car and other property, but they were able to keep the house. Last month, however, an out-of-state bank foreclosed on the property after the couple defaulted on $63,000 in debt. The Does have moved out. Their whereabouts are unknown.

That foreclosure was among many in May that involved sums of less than $100,000. Spot-checks of the 213 foreclosure transactions recorded in Davidson County during the month suggest that more than half involved sale prices under $100,000.

The trend appears to be continuing this month.

A few representative foreclosures from the first days of June include homes on Porter Avenue and Riverside Drive in East Nashville that sold for $80,000 and $69,000, respectively, as well as a $60,000 transaction off Dickerson Road and one near Brick Church Pike priced at $45,000. In each of those instances, as in most foreclosure sales, the lender holding the mortgage took title to the property for the amount of the note.

Metro Nashville’s overall tally of foreclosures, meanwhile, has been running at record levels for the past year. Last month, for instance, saw a 48 percent increase over May 2009’s total of 144 foreclosure deeds recorded. For the one-year period ending May 31, 2010, 2,580 homes went under the foreclosure gavel, up from 2,034 a year earlier.

Searching for signs

The hard times for working people in Nashville’s post-flood economy are happening in the context of uncertain indicators concerning the broader economic picture.

Case in point: The state counted 73,760 unemployed people in the 13-county Nashville metropolitan area as of the end of April. The area’s unemployment rate fell from 9.5 percent in March to 9.2 percent in April. But that news looks good only until the number of unemployed workers is compared with April 2009’s figure: Some 3,000 more people were out of work in April 2010 than in the same month of 2009.

The 1,341 new bankruptcy filings registered in March 2010, the most recent month for which Middle Tennessee’s U.S. Bankruptcy Court has official statistics, represent the second-highest monthly total ever for the district. Lower numbers in the preceding months, however, leave open the possibility that March was an aberration. Close examination of bankruptcies filed since the flooding of early May has so far turned up no indication the storm damage has forced individuals or businesses into insolvency.

Those on the hunt for positive signals may be heartened by an apparent break in Nashville’s foreclosure fever, as suggested by data so far this month. Only 84 foreclosure sales took place in the first 15 days of June, indicating a likely month-end result well under the 216 recorded in June 2009.

If any bright spot is to emerge from the current numbers for those hit in the wallet by the floods, it will probably come from developments like an easing of the foreclosure crisis that would reflect an improvement in the broad economy’s conditions as the slow recovery from recession continues. It’s not much of a lifeline, but it may be the only thing to hold onto.