Nebraska ‘housing council’ launches with plan for 35,000 new affordable dwellings

State is ‘at a crossroads,’ report says, with billions of dollars and talent at stake

By: - January 6, 2023 4:44 pm

An Omaha housing construction site (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Saying Nebraska’s economic future hinges on solving its “housing crisis,” dozens of statewide experts and policymakers have released a plan that calls for 35,000 new affordable dwellings in the state over the next five years. 

About a third of those apartments and owner-occupied homes are to be set aside for households making under $22,000 a year, including elderly and special needs residents.

Crane lifts material for apartment construction project
Crane lifts building material to an apartment complex in midtown Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

An overarching goal is to cut, by 2028, the share of low- to- moderate-income households paying more than 30% of earnings for rent from about 44% to less than 33%.

Nearly a year in the making

“If we don’t ensure enough affordable and attainable housing, Nebraska will not only lose billions of dollars, it will lose the people that call it home,” says the plan, which was made public Thursday after nearly a year in the making.

No price tag or dollar amount was provided by the new “housing council” assembled to help carry out goals of the “Nebraska Strategic Housing Framework.” 

But Shannon Harner of the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, which led the process, expects some necessary funding to be allocated during the just-launched legislative session.

Shannon Harner, executive director of the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (Courtesy of NIFA)

Other public and private funds already are dedicated to various groups for the purpose of spurring affordable housing and economic development. Harner said that in addition to identifying new funding streams, it’s a matter of aligning existing resources to maximize efficiency.

“Right now we have a variety of different organizations doing their own thing,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

‘All walks of life’

Gary Person, president of the North Platte Area Chamber, lauded the statewide approach, saying the study brought together housing advocates, including himself, from “all walks of life to address much needed policy changes.”

“Studies, however, are only as good as the effort to implement the recommendations,” said Person. “Much work is still ahead.”

Starting this month, committees will begin meeting monthly to work toward goals in four strategic areas, or pillars, outlined in the plan.

What is affordable housing?

Affordable housing is that in which the occupant is paying no more than 30% of gross income for housing costs, including utilities.

— U.S. Housing and Urban Development

Drawing also upon outside experts, those committees are to report to the larger 40-plus member “strategic council” that steered the plan. That larger council — which includes elected officials, chamber leaders and housing agency heads — is to gather three times a year to track progress.

Among other goals to be pursued:

  • Create incentives that increase flexibility and reduce financial risk for small or unique housing developments.
  • Consider state policy changes in areas such as: affordable housing tax deferral or abatement; broader limits for tax-increment financing; and a pilot program using “social impact bonds” to address homelessness.
  • Go on a “roadshow” that engages state decision-makers and promotes discussion of how to share risk in developing affordable and diverse housing projects.
  • Create a model “toolkit” that arms communities with steps and “best practices” on adding housing inventory accessible to lower- and moderate-income residents.
  • Develop a homebuilding academy that supports and increases the number of students in construction trades.
  • Expand the offering of low-cost mortgage rates, down payment assistance and other homebuyer support programs for Nebraska workers.
  • Develop ways to encourage manufactured housing.
  • Assemble a network of builders who work on a regional scale to maintain a housing construction pipeline insulated from boom-bust cycles.
  • Identify ways to incent businesses and employers to invest in employee housing and related economic development.

Shrinking, fragmented neighborhoods

Failure to act on the housing shortage portends shrinking and fragmented neighborhoods, a decline in health and education and a loss of workers, said the 57-page report, which was done in partnership with the Governor’s Office, Nebraska Department of Economic Development and consultants. Accompanying the report is a 48-page statewide needs assessment and other documents.

To help understand the challenges, authors note that nearly all Nebraska counties face a workforce housing crisis for people earning between 70% and 120% of the area’s median income.

Overall, the prevalence of vacant and aging housing inventory in Nebraska's rural regions points to a specific need for demolishing, improving and/or repurposing housing units in these areas.

– Nebraska housing needs assessment

Lack of housing within reach of low- and middle-income families often forces costly choices that leaves them with less money for food, transportation to work and funds to build personal wealth. All that constrains a state’s economy, the report said.

Economic benefits

On the flip side, the report notes, creating the amount of affordable housing urged in the plan can have significant economic benefits to communities.

Based on estimates from the National Association of Homebuilders in 2015, the creation of 100 single-family houses generates, on average in the first year, $28.7 million in local income, $3.6 million in local tax and other revenue, and supports 394 jobs.

For apartments, the report said, construction of 100 units on average the first year generates $11.7 million in local income, $2.2 million in local taxes and supports 161 jobs.

“In short,” said the plan, “If we do nothing, Nebraska and Nebraskans will suffer.” 

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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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