Hansen: OEA Apartments a homey place for teachers

Retired Omaha North teacher Ken Mahaffey takes in the view from the roof of the OEA Apartments, one of only a few co-op buildings in Omaha and home to several current and former educators. The building opened in 1952 as an affordable housing option for teachers, but today welcomes even those who would struggle on a math test.


It looks like any other apartment building, and then you walk inside and are seized by the sudden panicked feeling that there will be a pop quiz.

On the first floor of this 12-story building lives a retired science teacher from Omaha Northwest High School. On the second floor, a chemistry instructor at Metropolitan Community College.

You can find a former Omaha South librarian on three, an old kindergarten teacher on five and a sprinkling of high school teachers on seven, eight and nine.

If we could line up the residents of the OEA Apartments single-file, just as they lined up generations of schoolchildren, there is a decent chance that you would recognize one of your old teachers.

There is a decent chance someone who lives here gave you a detention.

“Education gives almost everyone who lives here a connection,” says Ken Mahaffey, a one-time teacher at Omaha North. “Kind of like being a Lutheran.”

The OEA Apartments is a nondescript beige building just south of 39th and Dodge Streets, but it turns out there is plenty of color camouflaged by that beige.

This is one of only a few remaining co-op buildings in Omaha, where incoming residents literally become shareholders in the building, attend regular meetings and vote on changes big and small.

This is a storied, 61-year-old structure, the brainchild of a longtime executive secretary of the Omaha Education Association, who worried that teachers didn't have enough affordable places to live. When it opened in 1952, it was the tallest apartment building in Omaha, and the first by-teachers, for-teachers co-op apartment building in the United States.

Today the building is still strikingly, almost criminally, cheap: Pay $21,000, and $300 or so a month in maintenance fees, and a one-bedroom apartment is forever yours. A spacious two-bedroom doesn't cost much more.

And, more interesting still, the OEA Apartments aren't just for teachers any longer.

Have a sudden urge to live next to the guy who taught shop or right above the young Papillion-La Vista art teacher?

You can. The co-op has accepted non-teachers for years, though most of the current residents are somehow tied to education.

Now that its waiting list has dwindled, the co-op is seeking high school principals — and people who once wore out the carpet on the way to the principal's office. Calculus teachers can apply, as well as people who can't divide without a calculator.

FROM THE NOTEBOOK
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

Now, it's not for everyone, the current residents warn.

No pets. No smoking. No loud parties.

Several 20- and 30-somethings live here, but many of the residents are senior citizens — including three who are pushing 90 — and the lobby features a 1,000-piece puzzle and occasional games of bridge.

“We don't have a hot tub,” Mahaffey said.

But if you can live with that, you can live in a building where you don't have — in fact, can't have — a mortgage. (Co-op rules say that you must pay for your apartment in cash, upfront.)

You can attend twice-a-year meetings during which residents vote on everything from setting the price on apartments to deciding the color of the hallway carpet. Individual floors actually got to vote on what carpet they wanted in their hallway. (Winners: Red, blue and green. Loser: Purple.)

And you can live in a place where everyone knows your name, like “Cheers,” with a laundry room and an underground parking garage.

Verla Hamilton, who moved here in 1997, says she makes small talk with every single one of the 60 residents she bumps into in the hallways.

There are once-a-month pizza parties in the winter, where everyone chips in $5 to pay for the pepperoni. There are informal gatherings on the patio in the summer.

A couple of years ago, Mahaffey left a briefcase containing $400 and a credit card in the lobby one morning as he rushed out of town to visit his ailing mother in Oklahoma.

Other residents left it completely alone until nightfall, when they got both concerned and curious and decided to open it. They immediately called Mahaffey to let him know that his briefcase was fine. They wired him the $400 the next day.

Just before Christmas, a couple with an apartment on the first floor called Pat Lundahl, a longtime resident who once served as the OPS superintendent's secretary.

“Can you think of any people here who might be alone on Christmas Day?” the wife asked. Pat threw out a few names.

“They wanted to include them in their Christmas plans,” Lundahl says. “Isn't that just so nice?”

Here is further evidence that it must be downright lovely to live at the OEA Apartments: I asked Mahaffey and Lundahl how many people have moved out voluntarily, for reasons other than health or death.

The answer: Two. Two in the past 30 years.

One resident moved for unknown reasons. The other moved because he was upset that there wasn't a bridge game in the lobby every night.

Others have lived here for three decades. Four decades. Thresa Clark moved in when the building opened in 1952 and lived here until her death in 2009.

“People just figure out that, 'Hey, this is where I want to be until they carry me out,'” Lundahl says.

So, yes, they may correct your grammar and frown upon Metallica at high volume after midnight. The trade-off is simple.

Teachers are generally good people. And who doesn't want to live surrounded by good people?

“It's the most honest group of residents who live here,” Ken Mahaffey says. “Probably more honest people here than in any church.”

Even the Lutheran Church.

Contact the writer: matthew.hansen@owh.com, 402-444-1064, @redcloud_scribe

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