This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
Three years ago, nine local philanthropic groups set out to get a better grip on affordable housing needs in the Omaha metro area.
The quest produced a 105-page report that identified gaps and solutions. Fundraising began. A management team was assembled.
Thus was born Front Porch Investments.
Now the Front Porch team is announcing its first round of funding to be distributed to nonprofits and developers who will help fill the metro area’s shortage of affordable places to live.
“We’re excited,” said executive director Meridith Dillon. “We’re looking for innovation.”
Launching the grant and loan process, she said, is a “pilot” round in which Front Porch anticipates awarding up to a total of $6 million to qualified and worthy projects.
Applications open in mid-March. Awards are to be announced in May, and eligible projects must be ready to begin yet this year.
That’s just the start, though — a precursor designed to get a feel for the field and prepare the nascent Front Porch for a bigger and more formal funding round this summer.
Dillon said the total amount of awards to be distributed will depend on the number and quality of project applications. Fundraising is ongoing, but the Front Porch housing development and preservation fund designed to boost affordable options is anticipated to grow to $200 million.
We have the data. We know where the problem is, so let’s go fix it.
– Meridith Dillon, Front Porch InvestmentsPreference will go to ventures that create affordable dwellings near job and transit centers or that support programs connecting families with housing opportunities.
Candidates could include apartments, single-family developments, mixed-income rental projects and other living options.
Backed by public and private sector entities, Front Porch’s efforts are guided by the study (the 2021 Housing Affordability in the Omaha and Council Bluffs Area) commissioned by the nine area philanthropic foundations.
Dillon said the foundations were driven by a barrage of requests and concerns believed to be rooted in housing needs.
The subsequent assessment found, for instance, 98,500 “housing cost burdened” households in an area with fewer than 20,000 dedicated affordable dwellings. And the gap was expected to grow.
The report said that one in four of the area’s households pay more than one-third of their income for housing. (According to the study and federal standards, a household is considered housing cost-burdened if they pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs. )
Those families then spend less on essentials like health care, food and education.
The report noted also that many “dedicated” affordable housing units, those set up to serve certain incomes, are reaching the end of compliance timelines, and owners could raise rents to cover costs no longer covered by a subsidy. They might also choose to convert the properties to market rate rents.
Keeping available such affordable options is part of the nonprofit Front Porch mission. According to the report, the Omaha region stands to lose over 3,000 units of affordable housing over a decade if preservation and reinvestment efforts don’t kick in.
Dillon said the broader community takes a hit when there’s a shortage of safe and accessible housing.
Pandemic shines a light
“We can’t attract businesses,” she said. Youth educational outcomes can suffer when a family is burdened by housing costs. Health is affected, both physical and mental.
Housing challenges can intensify racial inequities steeped in past development policies such as redlining, said Naomi Hattaway, director of communications and community initiatives. And COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people of color.
“Front Porch accepts the obligation to support equity, housing justice and accessibility best practices,” she said.
As the housing study was underway and the pandemic hit, home construction expenses jumped, as did costs to rent and buy.
Dillon said the attention locally as well as nationally brought Front Porch to the forefront. She believes there is now unprecedented interest among various entities to address housing gaps.
“We have the data,” she said. “We know where the problem is, so let’s go fix it.”