In 10 years’ time, what news will shape your memory of 2022? Will you remember when you first heard Russia invaded Ukraine, or will you think of crowds gathered at Omaha City Hall to protest the Supreme Court’s leaked decision to overturn Roe v. Wade? Will advertisements from midterm election candidates play in your head?
2022 was filled with monumental decisions that forever changed Omaha’s landscape. As 2023 begins, take a look back at the moments that defined us in 2022 through the eyes and ears of The Reader’s reporters.
Affordable Housing and Bad Landlords
In January 2022, the city shut down an apartment complex near 25th and Jones streets due to excessive code violations, displacing dozens of people. The Reader’s Chris Bowling spoke with former residents of the condemned building and built a database that breaks down code violations in Omaha buildings. The database showed that in East Omaha, housing code violations run rampant and take longer than a year on average to fix.
The analysis found 40 individuals and companies, less than a percent of property owners cited, account for about 13% of Omaha’s code violation cases since 2015. The landlords with the most housing code violations in the city include companies with headquarters in the Bahamas and Switzerland, a person found guilty of sexually harassing tenants in 2004 who still owns properties, a former landlord with a reality show, and a company with a Westside address that owns 171 properties almost entirely in North Omaha.
Omaha’s 80,000-unit deficit of affordable housing means many are stuck in a tight rental market, paying too much for often substandard, unsafe housing concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. In another story, The Reader dug into the history of systemic racism that helped build Omaha’s housing crisis. Developers used sanitary improvement districts, or SIDs, taxpayer-subsidized development tools, to build profitable suburban developments out west with government-backed no-interest loans.
As 2022 came to a close, Omaha’s affordable housing crisis stayed front and center. Hours of debates and public comments for and against the city’s proposed Housing Affordability Action Plan, or HAAP, led the Omaha City Council meeting past sunset on Dec. 7, The Reader’s Anton Johnson reported. The HAAP was constructed by the city planning department with community partners and stakeholders as part of a state law that requires Omaha to address the crisis with an action plan. The following week, The Reader reported city council members voted to approve the plan with a 5-2 vote.
Nebraska Denies Needy Families TANF Funding
As gas and grocery prices rose and low-income families struggled to make ends meet in 2022, Nebraska’s denial rate for public benefits, such as cash assistance, continued at a rate of nearly 16 percentage points higher than the national average, surpassing all but three states in the nation. Our July cover story revealed how Nebraska isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, an annual federal block grant given to each state to support low-income families.
The Reader’s Leah Cates found that fewer than one out of every 10 Nebraskans who applied for direct cash assistance via TANF in 2020 received it. Instead, the money went to Nebraska’s rainy day fund. As of September 2021, that fund’s balance was more than $108 million, according to the state’s legislative fiscal office. The state fund topped $131 million in October 2022, reported the Omaha World-Herald.
“The fact that 90% of families are being turned away is also an active policy choice,” Aditi Shrivastava, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told The Reader. “Many more families [should be] served.”
White Flight From Public Schools Districts and Chronic Absenteeism
Fall 2022 marked the third school year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing continued disruptions to student learning. While public school enrollment dropped nationwide between the fall of 2019 and 2020, a Reader analysis of public school enrollment data showed white students are disproportionately leaving public schools in districts throughout Douglas County. Reporting from The Reader in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, an education newsroom focused on inequities and solutions, found this to be especially true in the Omaha Public Schools district.
Meanwhile, Black, Latino and Native American students in Omaha’s schools were chronically absent and suspended at higher rates than their white counterparts. More than 19,000 OPS students were chronically absent in 2020-2021, or missed 10% or more of the school year, according to The Reader’s analysis of Nebraska Department of Education data. Of those students, more than 8,000 missed 20% or more of the year. Professionals say students need more support that’s culturally resonant from providers who look like them. Community-based behavioral health programs, such as the Center for Holistic Development, and the GOALS Center, a nonprofit addressing attendance and truancy issues for students in metro schools, are critical solutions to giving youth the care they need.
City Changes on the Streets and in the Books
2022 put contentious city decisions on the streets and in the books — threatening the existence of Omaha’s first protected bike lane and demolishing the city’s central public library branch.
In late January 2022, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and officials from the insurance company Mutual of Omaha announced plans to move the company’s headquarters 1.5 miles down the road to 215 S. 15th St., home of the former W. Dale Clark Main Library. Community members pleaded in op eds, City Council meetings and protests at the gates of the central branch to save the building, which advocates said provided essential resources to East Omahans, and for the city to refrain from privatizing the library system.
Reporter Anton Johnson live-tweeted and reported on City Council meetings, documenting decisions to place a temporary library branch downtown and approve a design contract for a new central library at 72nd and Dodge streets. The central branch was demolished in October.
Meanwhile, on Harney Street, Omaha’s only protected bike lane looked like the next casualty for downtown Omaha’s infrastructure.
An evaluation of the Market-to-Midtown Bikeway, a nearly 2-mile long protected bike pilot project between the Midtown neighborhood and downtown, yielded good results in September. The report by advocacy group Bike Walk Nebraska showed that about 20,000 rides took place since the bike lane was established, contributing to a 30% growth in biking citywide from 2019 to 2022.
But despite City Council members’ unanimous support for the protected bike lane, the Metro Smart Cities advisory board, the organization tasked with piloting transit ideas and co-chaired by Stothert, decided in a Sept. 21 meeting not to permanently extend the protected bike lane, The Reader’s Arjav Rawal and Chris Bowling reported. Then, following a “bike-in” held by bike riders in protest of the lane removal, Stothert announced an anonymous donor had stepped in to fund the project until streetcar construction begins.
The Reader’s Election Issue was filled with news voters could use on the gubernatorial, congressional and sheriff’s races, along with ballot initiative information that nonpartisan canvassers used in their door-to-door voter outreach.
The Reader explores inequities and their solutions in (Dis)Invested.
Our year-long project dug into the pervasive systemic issues in housing, education, health and the criminal justice system, and solidified our commitment to community-engaged reporting as a newsroom. Explore the entire series here.
No matter what 2023 brings Omaha, our team at The Reader remains dedicated to equipping you with quality local news online and in print. We write for you — your story is our mission. Become a member today and support us in the long haul.