Omaha housing affordability action plan seeks more diverse input

Planners say now, more than ever, residents have opportunity and resources to shape housing policy and options

By: - June 24, 2022 4:00 am

Omaha downtown skyline (Courtesy of RDG Planning & Design)

More than any other point that Derek Miller can remember, Omaha residents now have the opportune time and resources to help shape affordable housing options in the city.

But Miller, Omaha’s long range planning manager, is concerned that input received so far on what will be a major “housing affordability action plan” lacks enough sway from minority populations, disabled and lower income Omahans.

He wants the final product to reflect thoughts, gripes and wishes of all segments of the city, and he is urging broader participation in the “community vision survey” that will be available to take online through June 29. A Spanish version also is offered.

City planners and partner RDG Planning & Design will be looking at responses to that survey — along with previously held open houses, small group listening sessions and housing-related data — to create the city’s first affordable housing action plan mandated under a state law adopted in 2020.

To guide policy for years to come

The document is to be presented and approved by the City Council by the end of the year. It will guide housing policies for years to come, Miller said, with less comprehensive updates and reviews conducted subsequently. 

He said the public input process takes on added weight because findings also will shape the city’s federally mandated five-year plan used to allocate Community Development Block Grant and other federal housing-related programs.

Responses will influence other spending as well, Miller said, including the unprecedented amount of American Rescue Plan Act dollars available to the city for pandemic-related relief and community development.

Indeed, RDG’s Amy Haase says she’s been telling communities for two decades that they need to look for funding sources other than the federal government to carry out housing goals. 

“I’m eating those words right now,” she said. “We are in an unprecedented time that we have funding we can tap into that we haven’t had in more than 20 years.”

State law prompts review

Miller and Haase call the ongoing public input process a rare opportunity, in light of the various housing and funding pieces in play, for residents to influence policies and future real estate projects.

“It’s like the perfect storm,” Miller said. “Now’s a time to really help form our goals, priorities and strategies around housing.”

A primary driver behind creating the affordable housing action plan is Legislative Bill 866, which, in part, requires cities across the state to lay out goals including the number, style and geographic locations of newly constructed affordable units.

Lincoln, with the help of RDG, already has completed its affordable housing plan. 

The legislation also calls for governments to update zoning codes, ordinances and regulations — with an eye toward encouraging affordable housing and removing barriers, Haase said.

Currently, Omaha and its real estate developers lean heavily on public tax-increment financing as an incentive. Under that statewide tool, property taxes on new development can go toward paying off a developer’s loan, typically for 20 years.

Miller said incentives and subsidies, their pros and cons, have prompted lively discussion in the public opinion gathering process.

Building generational wealth

He said the city housing plan could look at modifying TIF or encourage new tools.

In developing the plan, Omaha also will consider gaps and solutions outlined in a 105-page needs assessment and solution-oriented report on affordable housing by Front Porch Investments.

Among the nonprofit’s findings was that one in four of the area’s households pay more than one-third of their income for housing.

According to federal standards, a household is considered housing cost-burdened if they pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs. That is the general threshold the city uses to define what is affordable.

Planners note that families who pay more in rent spend less on essentials such as food, education, health and child care, and have less to save for retirement or to buy a home and build generational wealth.

Other opportunities to provide input to the city plan include a virtual open house later this summer and an in-person community meeting in the fall.

The plan likely will go to the Planning Board for its approval in November and is expected to reach the City Council in December. Public hearings will be held during those meetings as well.

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.

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