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Nebraska legislative committee ponders the definition of ‘affordable housing’


Nebraska legislative committee ponders the definition of ‘affordable housing’

Sep 25, 2023 | 10:39 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
Nebraska legislative committee ponders the definition of ‘affordable housing’
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha leads an interim study into the meaning of affordable housing Sept. 25, 2023, in Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — A Nebraska legislative committee took its first steps Monday to address “affordable housing” in the next legislative session, first by learning how constituents define the term.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney, chair of Nebraska’s Urban Affairs Committee, hosted a hearing in North Omaha for Legislative Resolution 138 surrounding the “revolving definition” of affordable housing. The study is meant to help shape legislation for the 2024 legislative session.

More than three dozen people testified for over three hours on LR 138, rotating between developers and community members.

McKinney described affordable housing as a cost-effective way to reduce intergenerational poverty, increase economic mobility and foster community development. 

“In Nebraska, we need to ensure that we’re making strides to true affordable housing tailored to our state’s unique needs,” McKinney said. “We have to find creative solutions to solve this problem.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as 30% of gross income. This grew from 20% of income in the 1940s for federally subsidized housing to 25% in 1969 and later the 30% threshold in 1981.

‘Only affordable if you can afford it’

But for McKinney and his North Omaha community, which he said is the poorest in the state coupled with the highest rate of evictions and outdated amenities and accessibility issues, there is “no real affordable housing.”

“Affordable is only affordable if you can afford it,” McKinney said.

Buey Ray Tut, CEO of the Omaha nonprofit Spark, which promotes holistic community development, said thousands of households are “cost-burdened,” or paying more than 30% of their gross income in monthly payments plus utilities.

For the state’s two largest cities, 21,000 households in Lincoln and 55,000 households in Omaha are cost-burdened, according to Tut.

“They have less money to spend on other necessities such as groceries, health care, child care and transportation,” Tut testified. “That also means saving is virtually impossible for these families.”

Alec Gorynski, president and CEO of the Lincoln Community Foundation, said there is a common gap between the cost needed to build a home and affordability. This must be filled with some form of subsidy, he said.

Part of the challenge, multiple testifiers said, is that higher income families are buying or renting homes that otherwise could go to families of lesser incomes.

Decades of struggles

Kimara Snipes, executive director of One Omaha, a nonprofit working to develop thriving neighborhoods, told the committee she had to give up her seat on the Omaha Public Schools Board because of a lack of quality affordable housing.

Snipes testified that in 2021 while a member of the school board, she got to a point where she had to move and give up her seat on the board because she could not find any affordable, quality homes in her district.

“I think often times we’re talking about affordable housing, we have this idea, this picture of the people that we’re talking about, so I just want to humanize it a little bit,” Snipes said.

“There are people who are dealing with this every single day and they have for decades, and it’s unfair,” Snipes continued. “I need everyone to figure this out.”

Gwen Easter of Omaha said the definition of affordable housing doesn’t make sense to her as families are living in cars and can’t feed their babies.

Easter followed a string of testimony on a different resolution offered by McKinney to examine housing reports by some of the state’s largest cities. She noted gentrification continues and has aided in lining the pockets of some developers, yet city planners and developers continue to talk about how they’re working to bring homes into existence.

“Yet people, the average Joe person, can’t afford to move in there,” Easter said. “We have families that are struggling like this and it’s not right.”

‘We’re past a crisis’

Dan Curry, a developer in North Omaha, said he is the product of affordable housing. He said there’s a “blatant” imbalance of capitalism, not a mix with socialism in giving back to the community, especially in North Omaha. 

Curry said one possible solution is creating a greater emphasis on skilled labor, such as vocational schools. 

Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, said the Legislature could offer tuition waivers for jobs such as electrical work or plumbing and build a “group of folks that can go out and actually build these homes.” Similar waivers have been offered in the past two years to police officers and firefighters.

Erin Feichtinger, policy director for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, said she thinks “we’re past a crisis” as there is almost no available housing assistance remaining and eviction filings are set to surpass numbers before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women, she added, are disproportionately more represented in housing instability and homelessness.

There is also a need to focus on domestic violence support, according to Lee Heflebower, of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Looking ahead to 2024

McKinney said affordable housing needs to be a priority for the state and the next steps will be getting legislation drafted in the next three months to work toward some solutions in 2024. 

What stood out, he told the Nebraska Examiner after the meeting, is that there are layers of issues to address and money, while often seen as a possible solution, will not solve all the challenges.

Multiple testifiers indicated they’ll advocate for housing justice measures introduced but stalled this year, many intersecting with the Judiciary Committee. They will also advocate for $40 million in rural workforce housing and middle-income housing funds that Gov. Jim Pillen vetoed earlier this year.

Pillen said then that his veto would protect the state’s cash reserves, the source of the housing funds, and that the state had funds that could carry over to next year. Senators voted 25-23 to override the veto, falling short of 30 needed votes.

McKinney told the Urban Affairs Committee he’s hopeful for continued conversations with those who testified so the Legislature can work to make development of affordable housing easier.

“I think it’s a goal that might be lofty or some might say it’s unattainable,” McKinney said. “But I think it’s something we should try to tackle if we’re going to go around and say it’s the number one crisis in our state.”