This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN — Nebraska’s billion-dollar onslaught of federal pandemic funds lit a fire of sorts last year under nonprofits that deal with affordable housing.
They came to this year’s legislative session more organized as a coalition, said Wayne Mortensen of NeighborhoodWorks Lincoln.
And on Tuesday, dozens of housing advocates from various parts of Nebraska converged at the State Capitol for the coalition’s first legislative rally — raising their collective voice in support of bills that together would direct more than $600 million to various housing programs.
Several other measures backed by the coalition ask not for dollars but for various tenant protections.
‘Time for action’
“When it comes to housing affordability and justice, the stakes really can’t be overstated,” said Brianna Full, advocacy coordinator of Spark CDI. “The time for action is now.”
Along with the coalition members stood multiple state senators, some of whom already had met with members of the group during the Collaborative Housing Affordable and Justice Lobby Day, an event that members said is likely to be repeated next year.
Among the lawmakers who spoke were Sens. Tom Briese of Albion and Tony Vargas of Omaha. Each has introduced legislation related to housing.
Each reflects different parts of Nebraska and political persuasions, but they noted the bipartisan as well as urban and rural support behind expanding affordable housing in the state.
“Unfortunately this task has never been so expensive,” Mortensen said, saying that factors such as supply chain problems and labor shortages have driven up housing costs.
Said Full: “We are currently experiencing the perfect storm in the housing market, with increases in building costs and interest rates increasing the gap between what it costs to build housing and what consumers can afford.”
Augment existing funds
She said that the state appears in a financial position to invest in housing and that coalition members will continue to lobby and testify in support of fund-seeking measures that include Legislative Bills 249, 504, 741, 629 and 801.
While new pandemic-related American Rescue Plan Act funds are not in play this year, the state budget director recently said the state has about $2 billion in excess funds to spend, on top of a projected $1.6 billion in cash reserves that could be tapped under certain circumstances.
Vargas said Nebraska stands out in that it already has established housing programs “that are working,” and the additional funding requested in key bills would augment funds such as the Middle Income Workforce Housing Fund and the Rural Workforce Housing Fund.
The coalition also voiced support for eight other housing development bills and 10 tenant rights bills.
Among other nonprofits represented at the rally and lobby day were Front Porch Investments of Omaha, Collective Impact Lincoln, Habitat for Humanity Nebraska affiliates, Nebraska Appleseed, Together and the Women’s Fund of Omaha.
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