“Affordable” To Whom? To US!
By Dawaune Lamont Hayes
Affordable housing is more than just building new, partially-subsidized single family homes. There must be a variety of housing types across different income levels to ensure people can find adequate shelter to meet their needs.
Omaha is seeing a massive boom in luxury rental development in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Blackstone and Little Bohemia, but as the word “luxury” suggests, these new units aren’t for everyone.
Income, location, housing quality, and type (single family, duplex, apartment, etc.) play a major role a neighborhood’s affordability. As new luxury construction continues to rise, older housing stock continues to degrade, widening the gap of affordability which can ultimately lead to displacement and that forlorn word “gentrification.”
In response to these alarming trends, community groups and neighbors are gathering to share their experiences with housing and devise collective solutions that can address many different needs simultaneously.
Policy Research and Innovation (PRI), a local non-profit think tank, hosted “Gentrification, Affordable Housing, and Race” at Augustana Lutheran Church, 36th and Lafayette, in November. Residents of all ages and backgrounds attended from surrounding neighborhoods, mostly located in North Omaha.
“One of the challenges we face in this community is that housing is not fair,” said A’Jamal Byndon, PRI board member. He went on to list numerous barriers including: lack of racial diversity on Omaha Municipal Land Bank board, entrenched segregation in housing policies, lack of equity for low-income residents, and need for stronger enforcement against housing discrimination. Byndon also spoke in favor of term limits, “Because at the end of the day, if the people we elect don’t help transform our community, then why should we have them elected?”
The meeting featured a panel of representatives from various housing advocacy organizations including Together Inc., Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), and Missing Middle Housing Campaign. Panelists introduced their organizations and explained their focus.
OTOC is community group actively working with religious and secular groups to build local power and advocacy. The group has six action teams, one of which is Housing and Revitalization. They work to enact city policy change, most notably the current, complaint-driven rental housing inspection policy. Unless a formal complaint is filed with the city inspections office, a rental unit will not be inspected.
After much effort from OTOC and community members, an ordinance was passed to place Omaha rentals into a proactive 10-year inspection cycle beginning in 2022. Advocates would like to further reduce this to a three-year cycle, as conditions can degrade severely over a decade.
More regular inspections mean that landlords will be held accountable for maintaining properties. This can ensure healthier housing conditions for renters and extend the life of affordable housing stock. Insect and rodent infestation, lead contamination, high moisture from poor ventilation, and faulty wiring are among the most concerning conditions for OTOC.
Erin Feichtinger of Together Inc., believes a stringent review of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) regulations is needed to prevent the City of Omaha from subsidizing luxury development over more affordable options. TIF caps property taxes for a period of time to encourage development in “blighted” areas otherwise seen as undesirable by private investors. The definition of “blight” has taken on a broad inclusion of nearly every type of land including farmland. She believes housing comes down to fundamental values. “We are not at a place where our city leaders believe that housing is a human right,” said Feichtinger.
“We have two competing theories of change in this city,” said Feichtinger. One, she explained, focuses on supporting people within their neighborhoods in order to stabilize rising costs including healthcare, transportation, and community involvement. The second theory, which she believes is dominant, focuses on changing neighborhoods to appeal to a new type of resident who can afford high-end luxury costs of living. There is no proactive regard for those who have lower incomes or are living in substandard environments.
Patrick Leahy of the Missing Middle Housing Campaign advocated for changes in City Municipal Code that would allow different housing types in more areas. For example, duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs), like converting a garage into an apartment or building a “mother-in-law cottage” on a property. Leahy calls these changes “low hanging fruit” and a way to create more housing options, increase neighborhood density and keep overall costs low. In 2018, the city of Minneapolis abolished single family zoning to allow for more diverse housing types in residential areas in an effort to address segregation, high housing costs, and sprawl.
Supportive financing for affordable housing can be difficult to access. One of Omaha’s current means of incentivizing new construction is Tax Increment Financing (TIF). To date, the city has approved over $37 million in TIF for mostly luxury or market-rate housing. Meanwhile, the average wage in Omaha has not increased. Residents suggested tying TIF to affordable housing policy.
When asked about whether gentrification was already occurring in Omaha, Byndon responded, “There are things that are happening right in front of us and we really have not even learned how to articulate it to deal with it. We know something bad is happening. I saw it when I went to Brooklyn, New York, I saw it in Chicago, and even here. There are some of us in positions of leadership who won’t call it out because there are deals that have already been made. Some of it is pure economics, some of it race.”
During the lengthy panel discussion, a resident who grew up in the Logan Fontenelle/”Vietnam Projects” addressed the room. “We have a horrific history in this city of unaffordable housing and terrible living conditions for people….You have to have economic stability to even afford ‘affordable housing.’” Many attendees nodded in agreement.
Once the panel concluded, audience participants were invited to work together to propose solutions and action items to address the overarching issues. Resident Melissa Polendo, founder of “Black Wall Street,” a directory of local Black-owned business, thinks change begins with ourselves. “We can go on about redlining, the issues, and come to these meetings but change is not going to happen until we start looking within and start shopping amongst our family members and putting our money where our mouth is, buying those lands.”