AARP pitches in to help Omaha’s affordable housing plight

The national advocacy network awards funds to six entities across Nebraska

By: - July 14, 2023 5:00 am

Omaha has loosened restrictions in certain areas, but advocates say more flexibility is needed citywide, to encourage more ADUs as local affordable housing options. An ADU is a smaller, secondary home on the same property as a single-family residence. They can take a variety of forms, including a detached smaller home such as the one pictured here. (Courtesy of RL Mace Universal Design Institute)

OMAHA — A national organization aimed at making life easier for the 50-and-older crowd has jumped in to do its part for Omaha’s affordable housing crunch.

AARP’s Nebraska chapter recognizes that different residential options and designs can lighten the load for all ages, including those in or nearing retirement, said state director Todd Stubbendieck.

A converted garage that is a self-contained home on the same property as a primary residence can be an example of an “accessory dwelling unit.” (Courtesy of RL Mace Universal Design Institute)

He said “accessory dwelling units” — a second, smaller home on the same lot as a primary house — offer an underused alternative for seniors to live independently as they age. However, AARP says not enough people are aware of recent zoning changes, and others in the works, that open the door to creating more so-called ADUs in Nebraska’s biggest city.

Thus, AARP Nebraska has awarded a $30,000 grant to the Omaha Planning Department to help spark more ADU interest and support. The funds are to be used to develop a how-to guidebook, a web page and an outreach program. 

“We’ve been talking about ADUs for a number of years,” Stubbendieck said. “It’s not the only solution — it is an age-friendly, family-friendly solution.”

Granny flats, garage lofts …

AARP, the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization advocating for Americans 50 and older, has published its own national primer on accessory dwellings, as the growing population of older adults has exacerbated the shortage of financially-accessible housing in the U.S.

Who designs it best?

AARP Nebraska has launched a design competition to gain local momentum in the national trend to build “accessory dwelling units.”

Goals include raising awareness of how self-contained ADUs might be used to help meet local housing needs, including for older adults. AARP hopes to challenge professional designers and builders to come up with styles that are viable in Omaha and Nebraska, said state director Todd Stubbendieck.

Forms can vary from detached tiny houses in a backyard to a self-contained suite within a larger residence. Winning entries will be featured at a November event in Omaha and earn eligibility for the City of Omaha’s new “fast-track” permitting program. An Aug. 16 webinar is to provide guidance for those interested.

The “ADU for U” competition will be judged by a panel of experts. Designs are to be submitted by Oct. 13.

Besides the City of Omaha, other local partners include Front Porch Investments, Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, Omaha by Design and Spark CDI. North Carolina-based RL Mace Universal Design Institute is also a co-sponsor.

The nonprofit’s grant to the City of Omaha will be used to develop an Omaha-specific guidebook, which reinforces one of the recommendations in the city’s Housing Affordability Action Plan: to expand the use of ADUs.

Assistant Planning Director Eric Englund said city planners also recognize that ADUs — think granny flats, carriage houses, in-law suites, garage conversions — can help the local housing crisis that has become an amplified conversation in recent months.

Some housing advocates, including members of the Omaha Missing Middle Housing Campaign, for years pushed for relaxation of standards that created barriers to development of certain more affordable residences. Resistance typically comes, the AARP says, from neighbors who fear depression of property values.

While ADUs have existed for generations in Omaha’s older neighborhoods, and essentially are grandfathered in legally, restrictions and barriers remain, especially for new construction.

Updates to zoning policies in 2020 did ease ADU creation near new transit lines in Omaha’s urban core. But those revisions, aimed at increasing housing density, applied only to areas around the Omaha Rapid Bus Transit route (ORBT), Englund said.

He said city planners hope to build upon those changes by expanding flexibility to newer and other areas citywide. That was a goal prompted by residents and community leaders during a series of public meetings for the housing affordability plan, though details have yet to be defined and officially approved.

Competitive process

Meanwhile, Omaha planners sought the AARP “community challenge” grant to help generate interest in the ADU movement.

While ADUs typically are more manageable and cheaper to live in than traditional single-family houses, development costs per square foot can get pricey, AARP representatives say. How-to guidebooks such as the one envisioned with the grant funding help avoid financial pitfalls and navigate local regulations.

Omaha’s award is the largest of six separate grants that went to organizations statewide. Englund said the city plans to bring on a consultant to assist with its effort.

Guidelines call for the Nebraska projects to be implemented before the year’s end and to help communities improve public places, transportation, housing, digital connections and diversity-equity-inclusion efforts, with an emphasis on older adults.

The Nebraska awards are part of AARP community grants going to projects throughout the U.S. that were chosen in a competitive process.

 “AARP Nebraska is committed to working with local leaders to improve residents’ quality of life through tangible changes,” Stubbendieck said. “We are proud to collaborate with this year’s grantees as they make immediate improvements in their communities to jumpstart long term change, especially for Nebraskans 50 and over.”

Other AARP Nebraska grants 

The Nebraska AARP chapter has awarded grants to six organizations across the state to boost the “livability” factor for people age 50 and older.

Funds went to select nonprofits and governments, and ranged from new computers to gardens to picnic shelters. In addition to the City of Omaha’s grant to raise awareness of accessory dwellings, recipients are:

  • City of Fairbury, $6,000, for community center upgrades such as walking track, internet connectivity and wireless devices.
  • Seven Valleys Senior Center in Callaway, $2,933, for wireless service and a desktop computer and projector to support digital inclusion.
  • City of Chappell, $10,000, for upgrades to Chappell Lake recreation area including picnic shelters, restrooms and parking.
  • Fremont Area Habitat for Humanity, $2,500, to expand a community garden in part with raised beds and walkways. 
  • Civic Nebraska in Lincoln, $2,500, to conduct “walk audits” along a busy street that identify ways to calm traffic and improve walkability. 


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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.