Colleen Brennan walked to the front of the half-filled legislative chambers, members of the Omaha City Council seated behind their desks.
In a floral face mask, she swore to uphold the law and do her duty as the newly appointed coucilmember for District 5 in southwest Omaha.
“I just want to thank everybody for their support, this is such an honor,” Brennan said after taking her seat. “And I look forward to working with everyone and solving whatever problems that come along. And I’m just very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to serve our great city.”
The final step in confirming Brennan came after weeks of controversy and recent questions about the legality of her appointment on Dec. 22. But blog posts penning the sides of a conversation between white and Black people, issues with the transparency of the appointment process and whether outgoing councilmember Rich Pahls had the ability to vote for his predecessor were not discussed Tuesday night. Instead council members agreed it’s best just to move forward.
“If I looked at the blog, I still would have chose her,” said councilmember Ben Gray, District 2, who said he chose Brennan because of her legislative experience and ability to represent a female voice on council. “The blog was taken out of context.”
Gray said stories about her blog have been “race baiting.” But if people want to have a conversation about how to make the selection process more transparent, which in the past has included public interviews of candidates, he’s willing to have that conversation.
Brennan said again that her blog posts were not her opinions. They were thoughts she heard from others that could help people better understand institutional racism.
“I simply want to start a conversation so we solve problems and come together as a community,” she said.
What did take center stage at Tuesday night’s city council meeting was zoning and a debate over what kind of development best fits the city’s growth.
Sophia Smith lives in one of two tri-plexes near 33rd and Jones streets, just southwest of Dewey Park. Her home is set to be demolished to make way for a 55-apartment complex being built by developer Greenslate for $10 million. $1.4 million of that is coming from the city in the form of tax increment financing after the Omaha City Council greenlit the project with a unanimous vote over Smith’s objections.
Arguing on behalf of the project was Brent Beller, an attorney for Greenslate. He said the project is the type the city needs if it wants to continue building up its urban core. As a transit oriented development, it has limited parking. Instead it prioritizes tenets who’d rather take the bus or walk. While it’ll be tearing down two complexes built in the 1930s, Greenslate which has developed and bought up properties across midtown in recent years, imagines monochromatic Tudor style facades to fit in with the neighborhood’s existing architecture.
It all fits into the city’s master plan of building more high density housing, Beller and representatives from the City of Omaha Planning Department said, and will go a long way to serve a growing central Omaha.
But Smith said it’s doing the exact opposite for people like her.
“Greenslate likes to push this idea that they’re one of the reasons that midtown is a booming place to live, but that’s just not true,” she said. “It’s us, the actual lower income working class people who’ve lived here and built these communities that make it place where people want to live. And Greenslate has proven time and time again that they do not have our best interests in mind by continuously bulldozing and eliminating housing that’s affordable to us.”
Beller acknowledged that it comes at a cost like displacing people like Smith, but said Greenslate isn’t trying to “price out” existing neighbors like Smith and many have accused them.
“We truly don’t have a definition of what is affordable,” he said. “We have market rate and we have low-income housing…we think this is affordable because we look at market rates and… $950 a month is the median, the average, that apartment payers are paying.”
Apartments at the Dewey Apartments Complex will range from $850 to $1,100 per month, Beller said, which includes studios and multi-bedroom units. He said that will actually be an improvement on the existing tri-plexes which cost $1,200 per month.
Smith corrected him that her rent is actually $900 per month and those rents will not be affordable to many of the working class people who live in these neighborhoods.
Councilmembers agreed that these projects are necessary to increase and update housing stock. Council President Jerram, District 3, said a constituent had asked him if some units in this complex could be dedicated to low-income housing, but that as he understood it the financials and logistics of this project wouldn’t allow it.
Councilmember Pete Festersen said he and others on the city’s planning committee are looking at how they can increase the stock of truly affordable, good housing in the city. The city is about 80,000 units short of where it needs to be.
In some cities, a certain portion of tax increment financing is set aside for low-income housing projects, which is something to consider here. Festersen, District 1, said the planning committee has requested the city’s legal department analyze whether that can be required or at the very least having building low-income housing incentivized.
“The planning committee is very attuned to this issue and we’re working on it every month and I think we all agree that is a big issue in our city,” Festersen said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
But the time to draw that line in the sand was not in the discussion on these new apartments, said councilmember Brinker Harding, District 6. One 55 apartment complex is a drop in the bucket of the overall discussion on housing in Omaha, he said. And even just working through that project takes heavy lifting.
“Even if all 55 units were required to be low-income or missing middle income housing, 55 out of 80,000, that highlights or illustrates the challenge we have as we’re looking through this,” he said. “How do we move toward supplying more of that housing product?”