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Editorial: Let's seize the opportunity to boost affordable housing in Nebraska

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The Nebraska State Capitol. The state’s rural workforce housing program, requiring local matches and leveraging private-sector investment, has resulted in construction of almost 800 housing units and substantial rehabilitation of about 32 units.

Several years ago, 400 business leaders met in Kearney as part of the Blueprint Nebraska economic planning process. They came from all over the state and represented 17 different industry councils. When they took a vote about Nebraska priorities, they found that one concern overshadowed all others.

Nebraska’s No. 1 concern, the tally said, was housing.

That’s no surprise. Nebraskans, whether they live in a metropolitan area or a rural community, see the overriding need to increase their supply of affordable housing.

During 2010-20, only five Nebraska counties grew their housing supply at a significant rate when measured against population growth, notes Valentine Mayor Kyle Arganbright. And 26 counties saw their housing supplies shrink.

Arganbright was one of the panelists on an informative webinar hosted this week by the Platte Institute think tank. The panelists explained how Nebraska’s housing challenge connects to a wide range of public needs:

Job opportunities. It’s a fundamental connection: If communities are going to attract workers, the local housing supply must met the need. Otherwise, economic opportunities are lost. “Housing is where jobs sleep,” said Kathy Mesner, with a Central City real estate development and property/asset management company. She has been involved for years in state government policy discussions on Nebraska housing needs.

Arganbright described housing as “a critical component of workforce attraction.”

Expansion of the local tax base. Increasing the housing supply means more taxpayers, which spreads the property tax base across more households.

Freeing up existing affordable housing. Senior-age residents occupy a large portion of current affordable housing stock, Mesner said. If a community provides more housing options for seniors — such as through duplex or multiplex senior housing — they can then sell their existing home, opening up affordable housing opportunities for others in the community.

“It’s like getting two for the price of one,” Mesner said.

Rural community viability. When a rural community’s supply of affordable housing dwindles, that threatens the town’s ability to survive.

A sense of community. Mesner cited a common pattern: 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. In many cases, the teacher will eventually leave for a teaching opportunity elsewhere.

No question, the challenges for boosting Nebraska’s affordable housing supply are significant. Market conditions must be right for construction to be profitable for the builder. Many parts of the state lack contractors and building workers. Inflation has boosted the cost of construction materials.

Boosting the “missing middle” housing options — duplexes, townhouses, accessory dwelling units — runs into complications involving zoning and other requirements, explained panelist Grace Thomas, senior associate with the Verdis Group and a leader with the Omaha Missing Middle Housing Campaign.

Still, Nebraska does have opportunities. Our editorial page’s ongoing series about civic vision in Nebraska communities recently provided details about housing initiatives underway in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Grand Island, Valentine, Laurel and Nebraska City. Valentine is using public-private partnerships and water/sewer extensions to create housing opportunities.

The Legislature created a rural workforce housing program several years ago by which the state provides housing construction money requiring a local match. A $7 million contribution from the state spurred $11 million in local matches plus $91 million in private money, Mesner said. The result was about 800 new housing units and substantive rehabilitation of about 32 units.

Scottsbluff provides an example. It received $350,000 from the state program and with local matches made $1.8 million available to local contractors.

The Legislature now requires an annual report from Nebraska’s largest cities about their strategies to expand affordable housing. The Omaha report notes that zoning currently allows construction of multifamily or “missing middle” housing in about 15% of the area currently zoned residential.

Nebraska has encouraging opportunities for consensus-building to address housing needs, the panelists agreed. The housing issue, Arganbright said, “is the last thing that should be political.” Making sure that communities are involved depoliticizes the issue and creates opportunities for agreement on strategies, he said.

Across Nebraska, there is “a real grassroots cry for addressing the housing issue,” Mesner said. “We need to use the momentum our local communities have created for us.”

Exactly so. Together, let’s seize this opportunity for statewide progress.

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