Photos and Story by Chris Bowling
Marissa Wright flicks the lights on in the apartment. In a flash it’s there. Slate grey walls she was happy to see weren’t brown when she moved in. The spices lined atop the new stove.
Work clutter on a breakfast nook. Two boxes of Cheerios on the kitchen island.
When she moved into this apartment, a one-bedroom slice of Omaha, it was hard for the 38-year-old to believe it was truly hers.
“I would just sit here and say, ‘I can’t believe I have this place,’” Wright said. “It just feels good.”
At the top of the Eagle Heights apartment complex, Donna Polk gazes eastward. From the third floor, she sees city blocks melt into browns and grays as they sag and stretch toward the Missouri River. But to Polk, who’s directed the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition since 1991, which built this 44-unit complex on 23rd and N streets, the city blocks explode with color. Across the street, she imagines a rooftop garden. Her organization is planning to refurbish the 26,000-square-foot building into a space that includes, among other things, a clinic, computer lab and community areas.
“I mean how often do your dreams become reality?” Polk said. “And I really used to have dreams about how I could do this, so people could have a decent place to live.”
But, for many, that’s a dream they’re still chasing.
In Omaha, access to safe and affordable housing is not equal.
While thousands are evicted every year in Douglas County, according to a recent study from Creighton University and Family Housing Advisory Services, Inc., more people live in homes with code violations that take longer than a year on average to fix. In Omaha, nearly four out of five people living in poverty have jobs but lack the income to secure life’s necessities. The cost of living is rising, but 43% of Omaha’s residents are already paying more than 30% of their income on rent, according to Landscape Omaha. They’re also competing in a market that one 2017 Housing and Urban Development study said is offering 10,000 fewer homes — for sale or rent — than what the city needs.
“We continue to make excuses for our inability to increase access to low-income housing,” said Erin Feichtinger, community outreach and advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit Together Inc. “And we do it knowing full well that we have a crisis on our hands in affordable housing. And I don’t understand it.”
The areas where the problem is most severe are the same places where substantial numbers of new homes haven’t been built since the 1930s.
They also have poorer educational outcomes, more poverty and lower median incomes. And they’re the city’s most racially diverse neighborhoods, concentrated largely east of 42nd Street.
A century ago a federal agency marked them as “hazardous” zones to curb bank lending there. That practice, called redlining, was outlawed in 1968, but a review of lending data since 2007 shows there has been little substantive change.
Majority-white census tracts in Douglas County received more than 45 times the amount of private bank loans to buy homes. They received $12 billion while census tracts with more minority residents received just $275 million.
Teresa Hunter, executive director of Family Housing Advisory Services, said these areas have a dependency on social services that do more to help people eke by and little to substantially boost people out of poverty.
“It has a crippling effect on people that are trying to get away from the system,” Hunter said. “Those kinds of policies that don’t allow for growth, don’t allow for people to advance. People get stuck.”
Meanwhile, more public dollars go toward renovating and rebuilding areas like downtown, Aksarben and Midtown where projects have out-earned competitors in North and South Omaha by tens of millions of dollars since 2000, according to city data.
“[Public spending in poor communities] is not happening enough right now,” said state Senator Tony Vargas, who represents District 7 in South Omaha. “That’s something most people I’ve talked to can accept. Is the system broken? I don’t think it’s broken. Is the system meeting the needs of the community? I don’t think we can say that either.”
But there are glimmers of hope.
Longtime advocates are hearing more calls to invest in underfunded areas of the city after protests over racial inequality broke out in late May. There are opportunities for people to educate themselves about building wealth or a healthy credit score. Nonprofits, public-private partnerships and others have chipped away at the problem by building new single-family homes and apartment complexes. Local and state legislation has added measures of accountability to maintain safe housing while making construction more accessible and non-cost-prohibitive for average citizens.
But most agree the journey is far from over.
“I think it’s good that we’re starting to have a conversation about housing equity,” Feichtinger said, “but we are not close to doing anything meaningful.”
Piece by Piece
Cheryl Janis moved to Omaha in 2018 to start a new life. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, in the southwest corner of South Dakota, she witnessed a murder. The longer she stayed among the plains and pine-studded bluffs she’d known all her life, the stronger the trauma became.
But when she got to Omaha, the disabled Lakota woman ran into problems with housing. Having spent her life on the reservation and living on her family’s land, she didn’t have prior landlords to put on applications. She didn’t have much credit.
“When I lived in South Dakota, we lived on our land and we had our own houses,” Janis said. “We never had to pay rent or nothing. That’s why it’s hard when they ask you, ‘Well, what was your rent before? We need your landlord’s name.’”
Janis ended up living in two homeless shelters and waiting a year to get an apartment with the Omaha Housing Authority, which is backlogged with low-income applicants waiting six months to two years to access some of the 7,000 different housing options in the city. That’s not unusual in Omaha, which has low vacancy rates and too few housing options.
The Eagle Heights apartment complex, where Janis lives now, took years to actualize with a combination of donations and public funding, amounting to an $8 million project, Polk said. And in the effort to keep it as affordable as possible, the apartments rent for well under market rate — a three bedroom that rents for $800 could probably cost double that, said June Bear-Noonan, community relations coordinator of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition.
And while it only has 44 units, a small dent in the overall need, it’s an important step in the right direction.
“It’s amazing to be where we’re at right now,” Bear-Noonan said. “Helping people that need help. That’s the bottom line. We’re just doing the little bitty part that we can.”
While living in public housing, the loud noises coming from other apartments as well as gunshots Janis occasionally heard outside flared symptoms of her post-traumatic stress disorder. She wrote poetry to keep her mind at ease.
Eventually her case manager told her about Eagle Heights. After moving into the apartment in August, Janis finally feels like she’s found a place to call home.
“I’m at peace,” she said.
Holy Name Housing has been building and renovating homes largely in North Omaha since 1983. Right now they’re renting about 200 single-family homes and 100 senior-living units. Mike Gawley, executive director of the organization, said about three-quarters of that housing, which typically rents between $600 and $800 for a four-bedroom home, is reserved for families making between $26,000 and $50,000 per year.
Every year Holy Name Housing builds about 30 more homes, Gawley said, and every year, about 10 people in the program become homebuyers.
But the work comes at a steep cost.
“New homes in North Omaha do not appraise for what it costs to build a new home,” Gawley said. “There’s about a $100,000 per house gap.”
The organization also has limited space. The next people in line to rent a home signed up at least two years ago, Gawley said.
When Marissa Wright was on the waitlist to get into Eagle Heights, she looked around at other apartments as a backup plan. Despite working full-time as a case manager at the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and part-time phone banking, she couldn’t find many places she could afford.
“It’s hard to find affordable housing,” she said, “especially if you only make a living wage.”
And when people do find housing, it can be unsafe and subject to slow code enforcement. In the last five years, residents have reported 7,161 code violations to the city’s Planning Department Code Enforcement, according to City of Omaha data. These can range from reporting mold and deteriorating structures to problems with fences and suspicion of vacant buildings.
The average code violation is left unfixed for 381 days, according to analysis from The Reader. Of all code violations reported, about one in six is still open and 352 homes had to be vacated due to immediate danger to the residents.
Meanwhile, Feichtinger said according to Together Inc’s analysis of eviction and code violation records, 44% of evictions filed between June-August 2020 had an active code violation case between 2017-2020.
And there’s little impetus to change that.
“What we’re finding is that there’s really no reason for landlords to resolve code violations because there’s always going to be another person or family who will rent that unit,” Feichtinger said. “No matter the condition.”
What worries Vargas the most about that reality is that home is almost everyone’s symbol of security and respite. When that’s interrupted, it challenges everything.
“When a home is literally hurting a child’s health or hurting their education, leading to mental delay or special education needs potentially, when it’s disrupting people’s sleep or people’s health or people’s work,” Vargas said, “that means we can connect issues with code violations in residentials or rentals with people’s long-term health and long-term educational outcomes.”
Vargas said when he talks about these issues in the Nebraska Legislature, one of the biggest obstacles he runs into is the idea that if someone is living in poverty or substandard housing, they haven’t tried hard enough to climb out.
In fact 75.4% of people living in poverty in Omaha are employed, which is slightly above the national average. The problem is the disparity in income. The average household in a racially diverse area is making $41,340 less annually than the average household in a white-majority neighborhood.
And now the nation is seeing what happens when people living paycheck to paycheck have to deal with interruptions in work or additional expenses.
“We’re seeing it more and more now [with COVID-19] where people, as a result of losing their jobs for a month, two months or three months, are finding it incredibly difficult to keep a roof over their heads,” Feichtinger said. “People should live somewhere and they should find it easy to afford their homes.”
In July, researchers released a report called “Understanding Evictions in Omaha,” which visualized how housing stability has a ripple effect across a family’s welfare. The study, a joint effort between Pierce Greenberg of Creighton University and Gary Fischer, former legal advisor for Family Housing Advisory Services, showed evictions are concentrated in East Omaha, particularly in impoverished, racially diverse communities.
That wasn’t surprising to Fisher. What was surprising was how glaring the connections were between areas with high evictions and kids missing school. Or evictions and COVID-19 infections.
“The sheer numbers are really shocking,” Fischer said. “Because when you look at this as a component of racial injustice issues and even health issues around COVID, you realize that this is an interconnected web of causation and impacts.”
And what’s more these maps line up perfectly with the original zones deemed unworthy of investment in the 1930s. It’s a clear reminder that redlining and other racist policies are not a thing of the past.
“It’s taken years for these things to happen,” Hunter said. “And it’s going to take years and years to get out of them, but I do believe we must be intentional. When we see something, we have to do something.”
Solutions Come Up Short
Since the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, reinvestment has been the subject of countless initiatives, politicians’ platforms and nonprofits’ missions. And half a century later, the fruits of that labor, even recently, aren’t too hard to find.
Projects like Seventy Five North have brought tens of millions worth of commercial and residential property to N. 30th Street. A newly organized business improvement district is building on efforts to revitalize the N. 24th Street corridor.
Along L Street, OneWorld Community Health Centers service patients in the renovated Livestock Exchange Building with apartments and ballrooms on the upper floors. A Metro Community College Campus opened in South Omaha in 2007 with a new library opening nearby in 2008. Even further south, a new development is underway to revitalize some of the city’s oldest housing projects.
But these haven’t gotten the city to the equitable solution it needs.
“The bottom line is more affordable housing is needed in our community,” said Bear-Noonan.
One of the biggest hurdles that still needs to be crossed is increasing access to funding and opportunities to build up. And while private investment has lagged by tens of billions of dollars, others look to public dollars.
Whether it’s tax increment financing, community development block grants, the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund or funding through the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, there are millions and millions of dollars available to people and organizations. But whether those dollars are getting where they need to is a different story.
Tony Vargas said there needs to be more education about these funds. And they should be directed at Nebraskans who might not be looking to build an apartment complex, but want to seriously renovate their aging homes.
Because one of the largest issues is that pockets of Omaha’s infrastructure have remained largely unchanged for nearly a century. In one-fifth of Douglas County’s census tracts, concentrated in East Omaha, half of the buildings were built before World War II. Even more census tracts show less than 20% of their development took place after 1979, one year after the federal government outlawed the use of toxic lead-based paint.
“If you are in the working class, the options that are available to you [are limited],” Vargas said. “There’s newer homes being built in Gretna, there’s newer homes being built in West Omaha, and while that’s fine that they’re being built out there, we don’t have those developments in my community.”
Another solution to increase that access is through making it easier to build multiple types of housing. The Nebraska Legislature recently passed the Missing Middle Housing Act, a bill sponsored by Matt Hansen, a state senator from Lincoln. The bill would require areas to rezone residential properties so that people can easily modify their existing homes or build new ones that don’t fit in the mold of a traditional single-family home. Examples of missing middle housing include duplexes, townhomes and homes modified with additional rooms that could be made into separate apartments.
The bill was added as an amendment to another from Senator Justin Wayne that would require cities larger than 50,000 residents to submit affordable housing action plans by Jan. 1, 2023. Cities between 20,000 and 50,000 residents would have until Jan. 1, 2024.
For the Missing Middle Housing Act, cities larger than 20,000 residents must submit reports on what they’re doing to increase access to affordable housing starting on July 1, 2021, and every two years thereafter.
By incorporating rezoning efforts, Hansen hopes this will do away with Nebraska’s rigid fixation on what housing means.
“It’s really kind recognizing the fact that we’ve distorted the market such that we only really allow new construction to be the large, multi-story, 100-unit apartment complexes or single-family homes, and maybe some duplexes,” he said. “We’re really building from scratch these days.”
One of the most promising solutions is providing education to renters on everything from how to be a good tenant to building credit.
Those courses are available through organizations like Family Housing Advisory Services, which routinely help people get out of predatory payday loans and on a path to homeownership.
Cheryl Janis took a similar course through the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition. She didn’t realize how important things like writing checks or paying off old debts were to insure her ability to keep a home in the future.
Teresa Hunter wants more money to advertise these classes, which are free, or find a way to expand them.
“We need to share this information; people don’t understand unless we share it,” she said.
But even if renters do all the right things, other obstacles still exist. Application and credit check fees can be financially stifling. A criminal background can follow some people for years and keep them out of good housing. It’s frustrating for some of the people Marissa Wright knows.
“They feel like maybe they’d paid their debt to society, they’d righted the wrongs they’d done,” she said. “But that kind of stuff sticks with them.”
Other solutions have taken aim at fixing some of the institutional gaps in code enforcement, evictions and landlord accountability.
Last year, the city of Omaha enacted a rental registry to be able to contact property owners when violations occur. The registry will also help the city easily identify repeat offenders. Eventually they can instigate their own code evaluations, which right now have to be brought on by resident complaints. Advocates like Feichtinger have also been part of the push to install more code enforcers and cut down on the length of active violations.
But the process is slow-going.
Feichtinger said 39% of evictions from June-August of 2020 came from unregistered properties, according to Together Inc’s data.
It goes back to the fundamental idea of what kind of city Omaha wants to be. That philosophical argument was on full display in August as the Omaha City Council debated holding the Omaha Police Department’s budget static and reinvesting what would have been a $2 million increase into community programs to address poverty.
The initiative was dead on arrival, with city council members citing the need to continue investing in a diverse police force, or simply the need to fund what they characterized as an already-lean department, despite the fact OPD’s now $161.3 million budget is by far the city’s largest expense.
“A budget is a moral document,” Feichtinger said. “It says what we prioritize. It says who we prioritize. It says how we feel about our past and what we think is important in our future.”
Looking For Answers
The dry bundle of sage cracks and releases its earthy perfume as Marissa Wright pinches the leaves.
She holds a lighter to the greenish grey clump. The smoke rises in her new apartment on 23rd and N streets. She prays for her body, mind and spirit, part of a daily ritual.
Wright came to Omaha in 2018 struggling with addiction. Since then she’s rebuilt her life piece by piece. She’s holding down jobs, helping to lead Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, getting involved in her church and leading a good life.
She doesn’t know where she’d be if it weren’t for this apartment with the spacious closets she loves to fill with her favorite dresses and shoes. She’d probably still be in transitional housing, trying to save up for a place.
But Wright’s one of the lucky ones. Not because she didn’t work for the life she had, but because her journey led her here, unlike many of the people she knows still struggling.
But how do we make it better so people don’t have to live on the edge?
Wright doesn’t have an answer for that. She wishes someone did.
“I can’t take on all the baggage of everybody, you know?” she said. “I’m trying to get my life together. But what I can do is live my life in a good way and be of service to others. If they see this Native woman doing the right things, they’ll think, ‘Oh maybe I can do that someday, too.’”
Additional reporting by Kaitlynn Johnson. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org