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Editorial: In seeking areas of nonpartisan agreement, housing rises to the top

Editorial: In seeking areas of nonpartisan agreement, housing rises to the top

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As the Legislature convenes at the dawn of a year in which Nebraska will elect a new governor, The World-Herald is launching an occasional series of editorials examining important issues for the state that we believe transcend the partisan bog where so much of politics is stuck.

Until the Legislature adjourns in April and primary election votes are cast in May, we’ll hear a lot about social issues. These make lively debates and help fire up the electoral bases as an age-old, inevitable part of politics.

In the big scheme of things, though, lasting changes that influence the quality of life in Nebraska are more difficult and less lively. Improving housing access, broadband or tourism, for example, would make more long-term difference to more people than anything related to so-called culture wars. We are more concerned about creating a state that can attract new residents to address our critical worker shortage, which would benefit all of us economically and enable businesses to grow, than we are about hot buttons on the left and right. The latter will always be fought; the former must be solved.

So a critical question, then, is what we can agree is an important challenge.

We believe improving the state’s housing stock and affordability belongs at the top of this list, and can have important impact across the state, from North Omaha to the Sandhills. So we’ll start there, and in coming weeks will discuss a range of other issues.

We have editorialized recently about the need for fresh and affordable housing stock.

This challenge runs hand-in-glove with the state’s worker shortage — to attract more workers to Omaha or Hastings or anywhere else, people must be able to find suitable housing.

“Housing is where jobs sleep,” Kathy Mesner, with a Central City real estate development and property management company, has said.

One example of the squeeze that Mesner has offered: A new arrival, such as a first-year teacher, works in the community but, due to the lack of housing, must live outside the district in a larger community. This situation hinders the teacher’s ability to develop a strong sense of the community being served. On its face, that situation makes it more likely the teacher will move on. We must retain talent.

We believe the Legislature should find, as it debates how to spend $1 billion of federal COVID relief money, ways to bolster existing programs and create new ones to tackle this issue.

That could include, for example, one-time support for a new Omaha nonprofit coalition working to reduce starter home costs and increase housing stock.

The Welcome Home coalition seeks to partner with local officials to review and reduce zoning and permitting regulations and fees pertaining to home lot development and construction. A report by the National Association of Home Builders estimated that, on average, 23.8% of the final price of a new house is due to regulations imposed by government at all levels: city, state and federal.

The Legislature can review its part in that to find ways to trim those costs.

One intriguing possibility was put forward by Valentine Mayor Kyle Arganbright in one of his recent World-Herald columns: “Let’s seed new regional home factories strategically throughout the state to build quality, affordable housing for area communities. Many Nebraska-based companies are successfully building homes off-site and leveraging the advantages of bulk pricing, temperature-controlled environments and an assembly line approach to home construction. Expanding this concept throughout Nebraska would create more affordable housing (and likely fill an Alco or Shopko building that’s still sitting empty). Team up with community colleges and the high school shop class, and we’re on our way to creating a sustainable workforce for the industry.”

That’s one of many ideas to make a dent in this foundational challenge to help Nebraska grow that affects both cities and small towns across the state.

We believe our leaders can find agreement here and make significant strides. We urge and look forward to leadership over partisanship.

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