The World-Herald asked incumbent Mayor Jean Stothert and challenger RJ Neary to weigh in several key issues ahead of Omaha's May 11 general election.
Affordable housing, brain drain, equity and inclusion, post-pandemic recovery and transportation were among the issues identified by civic leaders interviewed by The World-Herald.
We posed each issue to the incumbent and the challenger. Here's Stothert and Neary in their own words on the key issues facing Omaha:
What is city government's role in increasing the availability of affordable housing in Omaha?
Jean Stothert: The city’s role is to identify and remove barriers associated with the construction of affordable housing units and bridge the gap between rising construction costs and affordability to buyers and renters by providing incentives and subsidies when appropriate.
My administration has a strong record of action in removing barriers and expanding subsidies. Examples include Transit Oriented Development, using the extra blighted designation, and our TIF and new micro-TIF programs. Affordable housing can mean subsidized, low-income or middle income housing. The definition depends on your needs, lifestyle, employment status and income, family size — all are relevant to the definition.
RJ Neary: 76% of those living in poverty live in poor quality housing or pay more than 30% of their income towards housing. Priority needs to be on reconnecting Omaha's neighborhoods and investing in and improving North and South Omaha.
This plan will work to eliminate substandard housing, create affordable housing at a faster pace, rebuild neighborhoods that are blighted, measure neighborhoods before they are dilapidated and make sure that neighborhood associations in our diverse communities have more of a voice in proposals. As mayor I will commit to building at least 1,600 new units of affordable housing within four years.
How will you make Omaha a place where more young people want to either stay or move to?
Jean Stothert: I prefer a positive approach, brain gain rather than brain drain. Young professionals tell me they want an exciting, safe and inclusive urban city that offers entertainment, retail, social and recreation spaces, connected with mobility. They need affordable housing and meaningful employment where they can make a difference and advance their careers, and a low cost of living.
Omaha’s urban core and neighborhoods are developing into livable, walkable centers for residential, leisure and employment that attract young professionals and young families to live here and stay here. Yahoo Finance ranks Omaha fifth on the “Best Cities for Young Professionals” list.
RJ Neary: The City of Omaha is a great place to live and to raise a family, with numerous amenities and a good quality of life. However, Omaha has struggled to attract and retain young people, especially young professionals.
While many mid-size cities have successfully drawn talent from bigger coastal cities, under the current mayor Omaha has unfortunately not kept pace with places like Milwaukee, Cleveland or even Kansas City in the competition for the next generation. I am committed to reversing brain drain and will work tirelessly to improve our city so that it attracts and retains new talent.
EQUITY AND INCLUSION
What does it mean to be a city that is equitable and inclusive?
Jean Stothert: Diversity, equity and inclusion is a priority of my administration. Equity is fair opportunity and access to essential needs and services including employment, education, housing and transit.
Inclusive cities offer an environment that welcomes all, solicits engagement and recognizes that the best ideas come from diverse opinions. It is important that the city is a leader in equity and inclusion, which is why we are developing a strategic plan that can be a model for others. Our goal is to be one city, a home for all to raise families, train for good jobs and enjoy Omaha’s quality of life.
RJ Neary: An inclusive and equitable city demonstrates behaviors — in all areas, especially in public safety, housing and economic development — that value and respect individuals and groups with different backgrounds, as well as recognizing the specific challenges and circumstances experienced by these different groups.
Omaha is a great city, but it struggles with racial inequity. Redlining, racialized zoning, segregation, predatory lending and exclusions in federal programs are examples of public policies that have produced the racial disparities that permeate housing and economic policy today. Omaha can do better, and I am committed to meaningful racial equity as your next mayor.
What steps will you take to make Omaha more equitable and inclusive?
Jean Stothert: Public input is critical. Our strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, recommended by a citizen advisory board, will outline actions to provide opportunities and access to city government, building a model for others. I hired the city’s first diversity, equity and inclusion manager.
We are hiring a diverse workforce and appointing diverse volunteers to city boards. Advisory groups offer input on city policies and initiatives, including the LGBTQ+ Advisory, Native American, Millennial and the Youth Advisory. We have successful Small and Emerging Business and REACH programs for small business, and our development and employment partners create jobs, training and housing.
RJ Neary: Develop a four-year plan to expand and correct city services so that they are equitably distributed and accessible to all parts of Omaha. Elevate the diversity, equity and inclusion manager to a cabinet position. This will ensure all major decisions are made through the lens of equity and help build a more diverse City Hall.
Produce a report card on the city’s progress toward equity. Address the impact of redlining through targeted housing programs and incentives that provide a pathway to homeownership and rebuild neighborhoods. Commit to bi-monthly community conversations throughout the city. Work to remedy inequities in public health.
If you could make one change to help Omaha heal and recover after the pandemic, what would it be?
Jean Stothert: As we emerge from the pandemic, public safety remains our highest priority. COVID restrictions changed police operations and impacted the high levels of intervention, prevention and community engagement between officers and community members that result in lower crime rates.
A police recruit class will bring the Omaha Police Department to full budgeted and sworn strength and position the department for the full and safe re-engagement of all crime prevention and intervention activities, including expansion of the successful mental health co-responder program that offers professional services and support to individuals and families in crisis.
RJ Neary: The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated even more clearly the direct relationship between economic and public health in Omaha. We need a plan that includes future stimulus packages and funding, and we need Greater Omaha Chamber and city-led partnerships between Omaha financial institutions and small business owners.
This targeted reset plan does just that and will ensure that Omaha’s economy bounces back faster, stronger, fairer and healthier. We need a pandemic manager in my cabinet who will lead the city’s response to ensuring that all Omahans heal and recover after the pandemic, not just the rich and powerful.
What does the transportation system of Omaha's future look like to you?
Jean Stothert: Omaha will have a safe, modern, reliable and equitable transportation system, one with many options to suit a variety of users and user needs. As our metropolitan area grows, a unified, regional transportation system includes multi-modal options focused on neighborhood connectivity and walkability, commuter travel, commerce and recreation, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Before we expand transportation options, our roadway infrastructure must be reliable and safe. The 2020 voter-approved $200 million bond issue provides the funding necessary to rapidly increase our street maintenance and repair program making long-term improvements that support all modes of transit.
RJ Neary: It’s time that Omaha’s transportation system reflects the city we want to be — a city that is greener, healthier, more efficient, with reconnected neighborhoods. We need to invest in and prioritize multi-modal transportation options for our city.
As we reset from COVID, we need to focus on how our transportation system can better serve the physical and mental health of Omahans. By integrating walking, public transit and bicycling into our transportation system, we will drive down costs to individuals and families while also improving our well-being and environment. I will work with partners to make multi-modal transportation a reality.
What steps will you take to carry this out?
Jean Stothert: We will collaborate with our partners on transit options that address the needs and priorities of our residents and businesses.
Together with the Greater Omaha Chamber, the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, Metro Smart Cities and Metro transit, we are collectively creating the regional transportation plan to expand the ORBT bus rapid transit system, increase funding in the Capital Improvement Plan to expand the commuter and recreational trail systems, approve E-Scooter contracts and execute the traffic signal master plan to reduce travel delays, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, as needed, seek voter approval to continue the Street Preservation Bond program.
RJ Neary: As mayor I will: Work to create safe routes to schools. Make sure that our city’s sidewalks are repaired, widened where possible and immediately cleared of snow. Focus on filling in unoccupied spaces and plan transportation around that infill to counteract sprawl and reduce driving. Crank up our investment in trails. Greatly increase bike lanes. De-emphasize highways in favor of boulevards and local streets.
Work to ensure that public transit reaches all locations equally. Study how economically disadvantaged people access public services, education and employment. Ensure our multi-modal transportation system is accessible to people with disabilities.