Affording OmahaOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Omaha police officers played Cornhole with children as community members slurped fast-melting snow-cones in nearly 100-degree weather. Despite the heat, they’d joined for a block party at 10th and Park Avenue in celebration of the opening of two buildings: the former Hanscom Apartment building, a Spanish Colonial Revival that now contains 65 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments, and Georgia Row, an 1890 Queen Ann that offers 11 two-and-three-bedroom units. Each structure promises relief for low-income citizens.
Last year, The City of Omaha unveiled an Affordable Housing Plan toward addressing an ever-increasing need for affordable housing—the goal, to have households making less than $50,000 annually spend 30% or less on their dwellings. The study states that by 2030, nearly 30,000 housing units will be required in the city, and that 60% of those units need to be considered affordable.
Indeed, the issue of affordable housing has cast a wide, tangled web over the entire country. Popularly cited reasons for the soaring costs of housing include: rising inflation and mortgage rates, stagnant wages, less available land, and persistent zoning laws.
While these problems exist, other, often unspoken, reasons underlie the issue.
Rising Rents Create Crisis for many
The opening of Hanscom Apartment building and Georgia Row was a celebration of InCommon Community Development’s 12 years of framing and fully realizing a solution to a growing problem in South Omaha—ensuring affordable housing for the area’s residents among the new, upscale redevelopments at play. Apartments at the new “Little Bo” complex can cost over $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment; and $2,500 for a four-bedroom home for rent in Omaha’s Little Italy has become the average.
“We want to support human capital so everyone has the chance to live here,” said InCommon Co-Director Christian Gray.
According to several research outlets, the average rent on an apartment in Omaha is more than $1,000. Someone working 40 hours a week at minimum wage makes $1,680 per month (before taxes), or $21,840.00—well below the $40,000 per year that someone would need to earn to spend 30% of their annual income on $1,000 monthly rent.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed just over $27 as the average hourly wage in Omaha as of May 2022, many job postings not requiring any kind of higher education ranged from minimum wage to around $20 per hour. The Census Bureau further reported that approximately 32% of citizens over 25 years of age have a bachelor’s degree or higher—meaning that many Nebraskans are not qualified for jobs that make enough income to comfortably spend $1,000 on rent.
Even among those who have higher education qualifications, many positions, particularly starting positions, do not make $27 per hour. An ad for an early education teacher, for example, stated the salary at $13-$16 per hour and listed experience or college courses taken in order to qualify.
In the new InCommon-renovated apartments, one person will qualify by earning less than $28,200 ($13.56/hour) on the lowest income bracket, while a family of six could be eligible for a three-bedroom apartment with $70,140 (a combined $33.72/hour).
Rent is only one piece of the affordable housing crisis, and multiple organizations and companies around the metro are working to pave the way for affordable homeownership, from removing historic barriers to developing both new and aging areas of the community.
Creating Funding by Giving a Red Light to Redlining
In the 1930s, the feds offered government-insured mortgages to homeowners as a way to stave off foreclosures during the Great Depression, but service was denied to many Black residents who lived in what were deemed “redlined” or, in other words, “risky” areas. Omaha’s redlined districts were north and south along 24th street: the historically Black area in the north, and near the packinghouses and rail lines in the south that traditionally housed immigrants. That has led to generations of already-disadvantaged people being denied homeownership. One solution to affordable housing being presented by Front Porch Investments is the Greenlining Fund, which kicked off in 2023 with a pilot for 0% loans to be given for home repair, exterior improvements, home renovation, modifications for aging in place, and energy efficiency utilities.
“It has some potential to shift some things,” said Naomi Hattaway, communications consultant for Front Porch Investments. The fund is designed to reinvest in areas directly impacted by redlining, paving the way for more families to have quality affordable housing throughout the metro.
Constructing a Solution to Inflation
Ashley Freeman, owner of Blair Freeman Development, sees the problems inherent to affordable housing every day in her work, and said maintaining it is going to be difficult with the prices. However, on her end, she believes things are progressing.
“It’s definitely going to come down to construction prices,” she said. “The construction piece is going to be the piece we are always going to have to pay attention to. We will need better ways to prefabricate things.”
Still, she said, one aspect that excites her about affordable housing in the coming months (and years) is the collaboration underway. The industry hasn’t traditionally employed nor served people of color, but that’s beginning to change.
“Now, we’re starting to see some of those massive West Omaha builders come downtown,” Freeman said.”That’s the pivot we’ve seen the most.”
Creating Affordability in West Omaha
The affordable housing problem isn’t restricted to North and South Omaha. West Omaha is considered desirable for their school districts and larger, more luxurious houses. Still, the teachers in those school districts, as well as workers in other fields, are often unable to pay for housing in the community they serve.
Habitat for Humanity has been a stalwart in creating affordable housing for over 40 years, and CEO Amanda Brewer and her team have been at the forefront of innovation within the local chapter. This year has been no different with the start of their Capriana project—a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity and Apogee Professional Services. The nonprofit and for-profit builders are creating a mixed-income neighborhood in which the usual order of how people pay for housing is shored up. Apogee is building high-end rental units that are slated to range between $1,300 to $2,500 apiece while Habitat for Humanity will build 11 affordable homes on the site. At time of writing, those units are slated to sell for around $230,000 in market value.
Overcoming Fears of Real Estate Professionals
“I get a lot of people who say ‘I want a four-bedroom with an open concept and a garage,’” said Angel Starks, real estate agent and community activist.
As a member of several affordable housing boards, including the City of Omaha’s Housing and Affordable Action Plan Committee, she has seen firsthand the impact of declining affordability, and is working towards the solution on several fronts.
“It comes down to access to capital and equity and opportunity,” said Starks, who is currently helping create more inclusive organizations for real estate professionals. “I have never met a Black home inspector in Omaha. We don’t have a home lender who is Black or Brown. Unity Title is the only BIPOC-owned company in that field.”
Housing the Senior Population
While younger generations struggle to make the necessary income to afford housing, whether rented or owned, seniors, even those who currently own their homes, struggle with affordability, physical accessibility, and access to medical and other services inside and outside the home. Another nonprofit in the area working towards solutions to affordable housing is Holy Name Housing Corp., which works hard to help seniors, often on fixed incomes, reside in quality places that meet their unique needs.
“We do senior housing really well,” Executive Director Matthew Cavanaugh said. “We’ve done a great job financially and with the grounds.”
Holy Name is creating ‘111’ senior housing units in the form of 74 two-bedroom cottages built, an additional 25 cottages being constructed, and one 37-unit apartment building. Their requirements are that a senior’s income is a minimum of $16,094, but that it doesn’t exceed the 60% median income for the City of Omaha.
In August 2023, Habitat Omaha dedicated the first six of their 80-plus developments, called Bluestem Prairie, which includes 20 affordable homes geared toward seniors.
Front Porch Investments, Habitat Omaha, Holy Name, and InCommon Community Development all have advantages, and they each work to solve a multifaceted issue. It’s that unity, and that wide variety of services, that will ultimately bring relief.
“I feel strongly that its a complex problem,” Brewer said. “It’s a hard problem with a lot of layers and complexity. It’s going to take all of us coming together to overcome it.”