This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Keiria Lowe hunched over a table with a crayon in her hand. On a piece of paper she drew a bird’s eye view of her neighborhood in red, green and gray. Around her, a din echoed through the room as North Omaha residents and Omaha city staff talked in front of poster boards.
“What is the first thing we should do to make housing more affordable?” one read.
The open house, which took place May 3 at The Venue on N. 30th St. aimed to gather input from the community as the city works to build a new affordable housing plan.
Since a 2021 Omaha Community Foundation report showed the city has a 80,000-unit, $2.3 billion affordable housing problem to fix, a lot has happened. First, the problem worsened. The pandemic pushed many more people to housing instability and others to homelessness while rent, utilities and home prices soared. Then, an unprecedented amount of money became available: hundreds of millions of dollars to address affordable housing. It’s a huge opportunity for the city to solve an intractable problem. But many wonder who will decide how to spend the funds. Will the communities most impacted be heard? And will the city, philanthropists, nonprofits or whomever ends up in charge follow old formulas to tackle an old problem, or will they try something new?
Lowe, 36, a singer and an event planner at Spark CDI, pointed out an empty lot in her illustration of N. 24th St. She’d like to turn it into a store with apartments on top. People have great ideas too, she said, but ultimately it comes down to who’s in control.
“They always say things are gonna happen, and then it don’t,” Lowe said. “Or it takes forever for it to happen. Buildings on 24th Street are still boarded up from the ‘60s. So give us the funding. Give us the loans. Let them take away redlining or whatever it is that is blocking a lot of us people from getting the housing [we need].”
Omaha is sitting on the precipice of big change. The city is getting $112 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars. The Nebraska Legislature allocated an additional $335 million to North and South Omaha, much of it from ARPA. A major city plan aims to reinvent Omaha’s urban core. The funding and the plan have a significant emphasis on affordable housing.
“Five years ago, I was telling communities over and over again, you’re not going to see any federal or state dollars; you’ve got to figure out how to solve this housing problem yourself,” said Amy Haase, a planner with RDG Planning and Design, which is heading up research for the city’s Affordable Housing Action Plan, for which Lowe was sketching her ideas. “Now we’ve got all this money going out.”
How that money will be spent is still unknown. The city is reviewing applications to hire a planning manager to oversee affordable housing. Recovery money for North and South Omaha requires studies and a formal application process that begins in August, according to KETV, and the city’s plan for downtown revitalization offers a framework for solutions rather than direct action. Nonprofits such as Front Porch Investments, which announced $7.3 million in local housing grants on May 12, and Habitat for Humanity, which broke ground on an 85-home affordable housing project May 15, have got the ball rolling.
But for many, big dollar signs colliding with development in Omaha raises more concerns than it does excitement.
What’s the Catch?
Jenny Synowiecki spent a lot of her life in an area of South Omaha known as Sheelytown. Near Hanscom Park and bordered by S. 24th St. and S. 35th St., the community is filled with modest homes dating back to the 1800s, a scrapyard and an abandoned grain elevator with a chipped sign advertising a long-gone Salvation Army.
Late last year Synowiecki heard rumors a big development was coming. A week later, around Thanksgiving, the Omaha World-Herald reported on plans for a new health and wellness complex. To some residents who sold their properties to the developer, it sounded great. Community Health Development Partners, which is leading the project, has held multiple neighborhood meetings and spent more $6 million to purchase 22 properties in the area since last year — often multitudes higher than the homes’ valuations or previous sales price.
“We want the people to be excited about the project,” David Lutz, Community Health Development Partners’ principal and senior managing director, told Nebraska News Service. “We want the people to feel like they’re getting an amazing offer for their house, and it can help them go on to a better place.”
But Synowiecki doesn’t buy it.
“We have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “They haven’t spoken to this community. So I was upset. I was worried. Seeing my mom cry, I was worried for her.”
Transparency has become a tripwire for public opposition, most noticeably in the decision to demolish the W. Dale Clark Library and build a $600 million Mutual of Omaha skyscraper in its place.
“The wrecking ball’s coming,” Omaha City Councilmember Vinny Palermo said in February. “The library is going down. That didn’t come before us. That was decided before it came to us.”
The city’s planning board voted 6-1 to approve a major housing and transit redevelopment plan, which includes a proposed streetcar, despite not knowing most of its details.
“I just got a lot of this information today,” Greg Rosenbaum, planning board president, said in March. “My vote’s not going to change anything, but for that reason I’m voting no today… in the future I hope we can be included in large projects like this.”
Questions about what’s happening behind the curtains aren’t uncommon in Omaha. Politicians, community members and researchers have often criticized the more than half-a-billion dollars in tax breaks the city’s given developments in the last 15 years, saying the public has little say over the plans. Recently the Omaha City Council approved $3.8 million in tax-increment financing to demolish several homes near Blackstone and build a 130-unit apartment complex.
“There’s nothing wrong with these houses,” said historic preservationist Ryan Reed. “People are living in them. We have a whole lot of empty lots and surface parking lots in the city that should be built upon … Just focus on that before tearing down what we already have.”
In 2007, Patrick McNamara, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor of political science, then a Ph.D. candidate, compared the approach of Omaha and Portland, Oregon, to problem solving, specifically regarding homelessness. Omaha, he found, centers power in tight-knit groups of corporate executives.
“The elite may have different mechanisms for maintaining control, such as family connections, philanthropy and partnering with public sector officials when needed to do the work deemed ‘economic development,’” McNamara wrote.
A city like Portland is more fluid. People build connections across social circles, politicians come and go more easily, and there’s more trust in civic participation. Omahans, he found, often feel they only have control over decisions at lower levels, while big decisions like land-use planning, or as he calls it “the growth machine” are run “unfettered” by developers, builders, bankers and other businesses.
Alisa Luker experienced that when she tried to buy a small, vacant lot in North Omaha. For several years she asked to purchase it from the city but was told she couldn’t. A well-known philanthropy was interested in it. Eventually she did buy it but wondered why she had to take the back seat in her own neighborhood.
“I feel like if [North Omahans] are able to buy it before anybody that’s outside of the area, because that’s what happens, I just feel like we should get first dibs,” Luker said. “They might have a lot more money. But to me, to be fair, we should get first dibs.”
Hearing Out the Community
As the city builds its Affordable Housing Action Plan, Derek Miller, manager of long-range planning for the City of Omaha, said the city doesn’t want to ignore that past.
The plan will be a blueprint for future housing decisions — state law requires the city to present a draft to the Omaha City Council and mayor by the end of this year. As part of its creation the city is incorporating ideas from residents like Lowe as well as a wellspring of past studies on housing, including the Omaha Community Foundation study, the city’s 2018 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing study and Omaha’s own master plan. All point to a similar theme.
“Housing is a basic need,” Miller said. “And at the same time, we don’t have enough.”
But to solve that problem, the city is going to have to address some big structural questions, not least among them zoning.
Of the 103,481 acres within the city’s planning jurisdiction that permit residential development, only 11.6% can be used for anything besides a single-family home, according to a 2021 city report. The American Planning Association, which advocates for a “complete rethink” of zoning, said this limits choices, drives up costs and reinforces inequality.
A recent AARP code audit for Omaha read: “…those codes had the unintended consequence of rendering illegal the kind of vibrant, walkable streets and neighborhoods that are the most attractive and desirable, as well as financially beneficial to the city,”
The problem’s compounded by Omaha’s annexations creeping closer to county borders, which by state law it can’t cross. In 2002 the city had 66 square miles of new “greenfield” area to develop, about the size of Washington, D.C. By 2021 it had 40. In 25 to 30 years, there won’t be any left, according to Eric Englund, assistant director of Omaha’s planning department.
“For planners, that’s tomorrow,” he said.
If zoning codes were changed, the city could utilize new types of urban living, such as accessory dwelling units, which work by turning part of a single-family home into a separate living space.
While technically legal, these relatively low-cost, space-effective options come with so many requirements homeowners and developers generally avoid them. However, Habitat for Humanity is incorporating them into its new North Omaha housing project.
But there’s more to consider than just housing type. Asked what amenities people would like to live around, participants at the open house for Omaha’s Affordable Housing Action Plan wanted to be close to their jobs and a transit line. They wanted big yards, small yards and no yards at all. They wanted grocery stores, parks, good schools and fun things to do around them.
Linda McKleny knows the city can’t please everyone; she just hopes they’re listening. She said she’s heard promises all her life — living through riots and the construction of Kennedy Freeway, which split her neighborhood, watching suburbs swell as plans to save a declining inner city came and went. Now the city wants her opinion again, but she said it’s hard to take them seriously.
“It’s like the same old talking points,” she said. “You still see people struggling.”
On the Other Side of the Door
As the city finds ways to build new housing, it’s going to become just as important to keep people housed in what’s already available. In the past that hasn’t always been a priority.
Rick McDonald knows the prevailing philosophy when it comes to renting properties — treat it like a business. If tenants don’t pay, evict them.
McDonald, who said he’s rented homes in Omaha for about 30 years, said he never thought that was the right way to treat people. But it wasn’t until the pandemic, when eviction moratoriums set in and rent relief arrived, that new opportunities for solutions appeared.
“A lot of landlords turned around and had to help, whether they wanted to or not, because that was what was best for everybody” McDonald said. “Now the moratorium on evictions has expired, but there’s still help out there. So why not continue what already got started?”
That work is happening with the Metro Housing Collaborative, a grant-funded pilot program within the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless that started in April 2021. The group works with tenants, landlords and more than 40 local organizations to combine resources and find long-term solutions to help keep people in their homes.
“[Existing housing case workers] don’t have the capacity and time to ensure that every person is going to be successfully housed,” said Sarah Bartolomei, former program manager and current contractor with the collaborative. “They have to move on to the next one. It’s not malicious. It’s the system’s fault.”
Bartolomei said the Metro Housing Collaborative grew out of the Omaha area’s rent relief program when it became clear cash assistance alone couldn’t address housing instability. Its model provides financial assistance to landlords and tenants while connecting them with case workers, conflict resolution services and a database to match renters with trusted property owners.
The opportunity felt perfect for McDonald, who is president of the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association (MOPOA), the city’s largest landlord organization. Not only can he make more money, but he can avoid evictions and build better tenant relationships. It’s also a great way to show MOPOA is shifting its attitude from adversarial to collaborative, something McDonald said he’s prioritized since becoming president last year.
“We want to be more involved,” McDonald said. “We want to be this part of the solution.”
But interest has been tepid so far. Bartolomei said of about 3,000 property owners around the city, the housing collaborative has 70 on board. McDonald said he struggles to convince his 450 members there’s no catch to the money for repairs, down payments, early lease terminations and more.
But the challenge doesn’t phase Jeff Weaver, executive director of NebraskaBEST, which he said launched in January 2022 and provides year-long casework with tenants and landlords. By working with the collaborative, he said he avoids duplicating efforts and can assist the growing number of people who need help.
“Humbly speaking, we thought there was a great need,” he said. “But we didn’t realize how much of a need there was.”
For Bartolomei, what makes this program essential is its inclusivity. People may be chronically homeless, facing eviction, living out of their cars or bouncing from rental to rental. Depending on their circumstances, they receive different levels of support from other programs. But the collaborative is able to put those differences aside and make an impact immediately.
“There’s all sorts of complexities,” Bartolomei said. “So let’s step into the gray together and really work towards trying to find a better solution.”
In the center of the dioramas sat a posterboard asking people to write down the first thing the city could do to make housing more affordable. Participants at the open house plastered the board with pink, yellow and orange Post-it notes.
Get rid of security deposits and income requirements
Keiria Lowe doesn’t know what the answer is. She only hopes that whoever’s making the decision can get it right, because people need help.
“What’s affordable?” she asked. “There’s no such thing as that [right now]. I’m working just to live.”
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