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Diane Wanek: Action is needed on affordable housing, evictions

Diane Wanek: Action is needed on affordable housing, evictions

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The World-Herald is opening its editorial space to local essays exploring policy options on various issues. This essay is by Diane Wanek, communications director for the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities.

Affordable housing was a critical issue before the pandemic. Before COVID-19 found its way here, full-time minimum wage workers could not afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the U.S. In Nebraska, a two-bedroom rental unit requires wages of more than $16 per hour. Minimum wage here is $9 per hour. Median income in Nebraska has been dropping in recent years, while rental and real estate prices rise, and there’s a serious deficit in affordable housing inventory.

In addition, the floods that affected large swaths of the state last year have had a long-term effect on housing availability and stability.

Next, consider that only 20–25% of Americans who are eligible for some kind of federal rental assistance actually receive it, and now the administration is revoking some fair housing rules.

In Nebraska, no law assures fair housing to recipients of Social Security or other federal income. Sen. Tony Vargas has introduced Legislative Bill 1020 to ensure people’s sources of legal income cannot be used to discriminate against them, among other changes. But that bill seems unlikely to reach the floor.

The Unicameral on Monday voted down an eviction moratorium and so far refused consideration of LB 866 to provide incentives for rural and urban workforce and affordable housing as well as an amendment for urban infill “missing middle” housing.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is now refusing to track discrimination in the mortgage market, and Housing and Urban Development has made it easier for mortgage lenders and landlords to discriminate.

Sen. Kamala Harris has proposed the RELIEF Act in Congress, banning evictions, foreclosures, utility shutoffs, rent increases and negative credit reporting during this historic health and economic crisis, but the GOP-controlled Senate will likely not address it.

Now add to this toxic mixture these elements:

  • Flooding and COVID-19 disproportionately affect lower-income renters and homeowners.
  • More than 7% unemployment in Nebraska, which may increase.
  • Most unemployed are low-wage workers.
  • Official unemployment numbers exclude thousands who do not qualify for unemployment benefits because they work one or more part-time jobs, are caregivers, or exist at the fringes of the economy; actual numbers may be 10–20% higher than official numbers.
  • University of Chicago and Federal Reserve economists believe around 40% of jobs lost may be lost permanently.
  • The $600 unemployment “enhancement” expires this week, and unemployment benefits for thousands of Nebraskans will expire altogether in coming weeks.
  • In Nebraska, there was no eviction moratorium; Gov. Ricketts’ “order” that expired in June was not a mandate, and many counties ignored it. Indicators show substantial increases in evictions and foreclosures now.
  • Homeless facilities, stretched before the pandemic, are facing emergencies.
  • Because of the disastrously executed patchwork of pandemic responses across the country, the pandemic may worsen in fall and winter exponentially.
  • Economists at NYU, Harvard, Chicago, and Princeton predict a serious economic contraction, with perhaps 42% of all businesses closing permanently, affecting millions of workers.

Each of these elements has a multiplying effect and ripple effects throughout the state and nation.

When Nebraskans cannot access affordable housing, fair wages, healthcare, equal education, healthy foods and energy, all of us are affected negatively. We grow more and better economically, socially, creatively and health-wise when the least fortunate of us do better.

And we do better — become communities and a state of greater vitality — when we find collective ways of bringing our assets to bear in new ways to address tough issues. The double disasters of flooding and COVID-19, coupled with ongoing insecurities in housing, education, food, energy and jobs, provide us with the best opportunity we’ve had in ages to not only fix the structural/endemic problems that have led to these inequities but to envision a more vibrant, sustainable future through creative visioning, rethinking public policies, including housing, planning and zoning, and food, education and energy.

Every place is different with its own set of needs when it comes to these resources. But we can do a lot to more than mitigate these fundamental insecurities while we create a better future for next generations if we work together with these goals in mind.

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