Affordable housing has long been a top issue for Omaha’s advocates and residents dealing with housing instability. But until recently we didn’t know how bad the problem was.

Now we do. And it’s serious.

Earlier this year a coalition of philanthropies (including The Sherwood Foundation, Omaha Community Foundation, Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation, Lozier Foundation, Mutual of Omaha Foundation, William and Ruth Scott Foundation, Peter Kiewit Foundation, Dorothy B Davis Family Foundation and Iowa West Foundation) funded a report showing, among many things, Omaha is about 80,000 units of affordable housing short of where we need to be.

Out of the report also came solutions and a new organization to address them — Front Porch Investments. The Reader sat down with executive director Meridith Dillon.

(This interview has been edited for brevity.)

The Reader: When did housing become a key issue for you?

Meridith Dillon: I had experienced what it was like to be a single parent with children who didn’t have housing stability and moved multiple times because of situations with property owners, or having a house sold from underneath you because your landlord put the house on the market while you’re living there. I also understand what it’s like when you have to move and then your kids have to change schools. Housing stability allows folks to show up as their best parent, employee, student or whatever. It’s really difficult to do that if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep.

TR: If we have so many people who’ve dealt with these issues for years, why do you think we’re just now listening?

MD: I think sometimes it takes either experiencing it yourself or knowing someone who’s experiencing it. Affordability is one of the most attractive qualities of living in Omaha and Nebraska. The more that slips away, the more people are aware of the need for it.

What we also continue to hear from the community [about the study] is, “Oh my gosh, I was surprised by the number of units we need.” The housing wage issue [or the wage needed to afford a fair-market rent with 30% of your income] is something we keep hearing over and over again. People were surprised by the affordable housing production. About 300 dedicated affordable units are created every year [in the area]. And knowing the [need] is much greater than what we’re producing, that means something has to change.

TR: What really surprised me from the report was that over the next 20 years we’re projected to need $2.3 billion of investment in affordable housing. Do you really think we can meet that?

MD: $2.3 billion looks like a huge number. But when we’re talking about what the current subsidized housing need is, it’s about $204 million [annually]. That seems humongous until we look at where we’re prioritizing or spending other dollars. Education, food security, health, we know that all of those are social determinants around housing, right? Investing in housing will actually, over time, decrease the need to invest in some of these other areas.

TR: What is Front Porch Investments working on right now?

Our four key focus areas are:

– affordable housing preservation and development;

– racial equity and housing justice;

– ending homelessness and housing instability;

– and then looking at housing policy and advocacy to support the investment.

Right now, it’s our job to get these things implemented. So we are in the process of tightening up all of the parameters around our development and preservation fund, and that will be the first fund to launch. You should see that launch by the second quarter of 2022.

TR: What work will you be doing around racial equity?

MD: We’ve looked at examples of funds in different cities where they are offering down payment assistance and home equity loans in areas where that market valuation makes it difficult to take out a home equity loan. Another example we’ve looked at is a property tax relief fund, which would help longtime residents of a community by ensuring that if their property taxes go up because of investment in their community, that they have some insurance to be supported through that.

TR: It seems like there’s more potential to address affordable housing than ever, but that’s still a very tall order. How do you feel about where we are now?

The greater public, residents, everyday people are talking about affordable housing. Government, community leaders, the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits, they’re all talking about affordable housing. Now we have the data to support it.

What we envision at Front Porch is having a community where housing is reflected as a human right. That’s a huge calling. But I really think Omaha can be an example for what can happen if you work together and show your priorities with your time and your investments, that this can be accomplished and we can find a way to house folks.

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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