The legislative chambers inside the Omaha City Hall. Photo by Chris Bowling.

The Omaha City Council approved multiple tax increment financing (TIF) loans for affordable housing projects during Tuesday’s meeting. Residents asked for information on the confusing and sometimes controversial incentive program to be given out in clear, simple language Tuesday.

TIF is a tool the city uses to help revitalize vacant or blighted areas. If approved by the city council, a developer will take out a loan to help cover some of the project’s costs. As the property’s value increases, so does the amount of tax money it brings in for the city. For up to 15 years, the developer will only pay the tax rate of the unimproved lot to the city, while the added tax dollars are used to pay back the loan. TIF can be used for many different kinds of projects, as long as they meet certain criteria

Cheryl Weston said she supported Highlander Phase IV, a $1.5 million TIF request to construct mixed income housing near Burdette and 30th streets, but she had questions. Weston said she represented North Omaha Betterment Group, a small grassroots organization seeking to get involved in government decisions.

“I do think that this will be a positive,” Weston said. “It’s just that we’re asking for you to look and ask questions on this.”

The plan would construct 20 residential buildings on a currently vacant lot, including 108 total residential units. Some of those units would qualify as affordable housing while others would be market rate.

One of the structures will be a mixed-use building with 49 residential units and commercial space. Weston said she wanted both the site’s residents and businesses to be from the community.

“It is going to bring a better looking area, but at what cost?” Weston said.

Weston also had questions about whether parking would be accessible and if people from the area would be considered for construction jobs. As Weston asked questions to the city council, the developer, Sydney Franklin, took notes.

Franklin said Weston’s concerns were warranted. She said because the project is being built on a vacant lot, it won’t displace any current residents. She also added that because they receive federal funding, they’re required to prioritize hiring low-income workers for construction jobs.

They’ve had discussions with multiple businesses about the commercial space, Franklin said. She said those businesses include banks, and locally owned small businesses and nonprofits. 

Councilmember Juanita Johnson, whose district encompasses the project site, asked Franklin to follow up with the city council on more details after the meeting. She called the project a win for District 2, but she just wanted more information for constituents.

“When I ran my campaign I talked a little bit about transparency,” Johnson said. “And real talk, real change.”

The city council approved another TIF plan in District 2 that received questions from Weston and Councilmember Johnson. 

The developer, Aaron Smith, requested $485,000 to construct 30 residential units at 1120 N. 20th Street, 24 of which would be affordable housing. 

Smith said he wanted to do this project because it’s hard to find affordable housing downtown for families. This project features three and four-bedroom units.

Weston asked similar questions about this project as she did about the new Highlander phase. And Smith gave similar answers, saying he would engage with the community more as the project progresses.

The city council also approved two other TIF projects Tuesday, including a $3.4 million request for single-family affordable housing units on the former Wintergreen Apartments site in northwest Omaha, and a $2.4 million request to rehabilitate buildings downtown for affordable housing.

Council President Pete Festersen said his father’s law office used to be in one of the buildings, at 19th and Farnam streets, that would be refurbished. The building will also include first-floor commercial space and a basement bar.

“It’s neat to see that building remain, it’s neat to see it converted to affordable housing,” Festersen said. “I think he’d probably appreciate the speakeasy on the bottom too.”

During Tuesday’s Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting, Douglas County Health Department director Lindsay Huse said  COVID-19 risk indicators have plateaued in recent weeks. Transmission and case rates have remained high, and Huse said it’s unclear if the wave will subside or start to rise again.
Hospital occupancy rates in Douglas County have also remained consistently high. Because of high hospitalizations statewide, Governor Pete Ricketts brought back the Nebraska COVID-19 Dashboard this week.

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