No Single “Answer” To Gentrification
By Lynn Sanchez
GENTRIFICATION: “The process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” –Merriam Webster Dictionary
Omaha is wrestling with the same city planning and economic issues that confound and divide metropolitan areas across the country; Affordable housing. Gentrification. Racial segregation. Wealth inequality.
Depending your zip code, the impact of these problems can range from vague awareness to seeing a weedy, vacant lot out your front door every day.
“The Answer” doesn’t exist, but workable solutions do.
That is the belief of a core group of people across the city committed to fighting against displacement, for the culture, the history and families of North Omaha. They are down for the cause, committed to the long haul, forging relationships and thinking holistically.
Grassroots Connections and Community Investment
Since 2006, the Empowerment Network, led by Willie Barney, has been perhaps the single most powerful force for civic engagement that has emerged out of North Omaha. Before the term gentrification entered the zeitgeist, the Network had already invested sustained time and energy collecting input from over 8,000 residents and hundreds of collaborative organizations to create a roadmap to what the community wanted and needed.
“We can’t do it all at once,” Barney said. “But we can do it if we work together.” What began with a simple neighborhood cleanup in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is now an inclusive organization that stays true to its original principal of listening to residents first.
The network has set benchmarks through 2025 to meet specific goals wealth building, entrepreneurship, high quality childhood education, boosting home ownership, revitalizing neighborhoods, poverty alleviation, family support and physical and mental health.
The latest report was largely good. Presenters at the Empowerment Network’s “13th Annual State of North Omaha” meeting in January 2020 included updates from elected officials, representatives of business, religious, neighborhood, health and social service organizations, giving the community a snapshot of “the best information we have right now,” said Barney.
UNO Public Affairs Researcher David Drozd detailed census data over the past 14 years specifically about Omaha’s African American community. There has been clear progress in obtaining bachelor degrees, gainful employment, rising household incomes, and number of homes with vehicles and health insurance.
Of ongoing concern is the decrease in home ownership, a national trend across race.
“Builders groups like building high price-point homes that have a lot of margin,” said Drozd. “There is a market for lower square footage, more affordable homes, I’m just not quite sure how we get there.” He expressed hope the trend will reverse soon.” It takes a few years of those higher earnings to be saved up for that down payment to get going on that homeownership path. This is the next thing we hope will turn around.”
Just a few miles across town from the 24th and Lake neighborhood, InCommon is a nonprofit group working in the Park Avenue neighborhood, the sight of a whirlwind of development. They recently added District 2’s Walnut Hill neighborhood to their network. “Our mission is to eliminate poverty at a root level by uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods,” said Executive Director Christian Gray. He said they specifically chose to work in Walnut Hill because it seems to be “on the cusp of some significant changes.”
One of InCommon’s primary objectives is “collective efficacy,” said Gray, “Bringing community members together so they are organized and have a voice toward how their community changes, how it forms. We’re doing that currently through developing resident-led plans.” He said they will present the Park Avenue plan before the City Council in March, with hopes it would be adopted as a resolution and used as a reference for any neighborhood planning decisions.
“There’s a lot more power in coming up with a shared plan where you can say this is what WE have put together,” Gray said. “So I’m not just speaking on my behalf, but in terms of our larger community, this is what we’ve agreed upon.”
Gray said he looks for the good that could come out of gentrification. “I think there’s a lot of hope and opportunity, but it’s going to require intentionality and strategy. Obviously, this idea of civic power is huge, actively participating in the changes. What a plan does is it creates room for being proactive, saying, ‘This is the type of stuff we ARE looking for, Mr Developer, is this the kind of project you can help us achieve?’ So you can begin to shop opportunities as opposed to reactively be defensive about them.”
Education, Wellness, Mixed Incomes
The big, shiny Highlander Neighborhood Revitalization is impossible to miss at the corner of 30th and Parker. It is one of 25 “Purpose Built Communities” nationwide, aiming to holistically combat gentrification and generational poverty with mixed income housing, a “cradle to college” educational pipeline and community health and wellness.
75 North, a privately funded nonprofit, purchased the land about nine years ago. The neighborhood had been left semi-abandoned by Omaha Housing Authority’s demolition of several housing projects. Until 75 North was created, no single organization existed with the sole purpose of implementing the findings the many surveys, studies and meetings about North Omaha development.
“There’s the misconception that (75 North) set out to invest in and stabilize all of North Omaha. That would be impossible for any one institution,” said Chief Operating Officer Cydney Franklin. “We’re hoping to make a footprint and serve as a catalyst by investing in this one neighborhood and helping to attract the right partners to maintain affordability in housing that’s also high quality.” Other priorities include bringing resources and amenities to the community and increasing rates of employment, job creation and entrepreneurship.
When complete, Highlander will offer 280 units of mixed-income housing for sale or rent with 60 percent dedicated to low and moderate income residents. On equal footing with the housing are community partnerships, notably Howard Kennedy Elementary school. According to a 2016 overview article in Forbes looking at the impact of early childhood education,”(T)he evidence is overwhelming that the social and economic benefits of high-quality early education for children are both substantial and lasting. And they benefit not just the children who participate, but also our society as a whole.”
“People ask all the time is 75 North protecting or contributing to potential gentrification in this one neighborhood in North Omaha?'” said Franklin. “We feel like we’re a barrier against it. Displacement is not something that we want to see. We want to hold on to the people, the history, the culture and we do that by literally weaving affordability into our housing strategy.”
CEO Othello Meadows said, “We think of that 30th Street corridor as a potential place for a really thriving and active business community. We have lots of entrepreneurs in that area (and) we are trying to actively figure out how do we support them.” The recently opened dining area in the Accelerator was built by North Omaha entrepreneurs, Meadows said. “We partnered with Blair Freedman on two relatively large projects, one about a million dollars to build out the dining room…These young women built it and they are North Omaha residents, black female entrepreneurs. They knocked it out of the park. So that’s a role that we can play, empowering entrepreneurship and black business ownership on the North side.”
Franklin echoed the idea of proactivity. “We love to talk about ‘our community, our community.’ We have to do the things that are going to position us and our families to have a say in what happens in our community,” she said. “We have to start encouraging that, as opposed to being in a constant position of reaction. That could be legislation, that could be policy changes, or that could just be understanding what your rights are, understanding the value of what home ownership means.”
Stability and Resources
As the Highlander was taking shape, the City and Omaha Housing Authority received a $25 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from HUD. The funds will be used to demolish the existing 111 Spencer Homes beginning in 2022 and build new mixed-income replacement housing called “Kennedy Square I and II.”
In February 2020, OHA began formally meeting with Spencer Homes residents to begin the relocation process. OHA staff and case managers are working to ensure successful relocation of original residents, helping them evaluate their choice of housing options and whether they will return to the revitalized site or relocate elsewhere permanently.
According to the grant’s Project Overview, the new housing development will include 120 new public housing replacement units, 172 new workforce housing units, and 133 new market rate units. Spencer residents will be given priority to relocate within the Kennedy Square housing.
Franklin explained that 75 North acts as a partner and not a lead with Kennedy Square. “We are intimately involved in the project,” she said. “This is an extension of what we’re doing at Highlander in terms of facilitating and implementing programs, bringing services to people who are looking to increase their employability. This is an opportunity to create some stability for these families in a neighborhood that’s well-resourced.”
Listening In Action
The Forever North Study for North 24th St. conducted by Metro Area Planning Association (MAPA) and the Omaha Planning Department remains a work in progress. Find updated information on the Planning Department’s web page.
Omaha Neighborhood Planner Manuel Cook said Forever North used The Empowerment Network’s Village Revitalization plan for North Omaha as a reference in the neighborhood plan. His department added “some of the technical work, like zoning changes. Along 24th Street, we’re proposing a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) zoning overlay which would allow mixed use development.” Existing buildings could then be used for both housing and commercial use.
Cook said, “I’m going to do more workshops so people can look at that and come back and tell me their ideas. People want to see things happen and are excited to see things happen, but it’s going to take effort on multiple parts.”
According to a recap of findings provided by the Planning Department, “The market area will need between 90 and 195 new housing units per year over the next 10 to 20 years to accommodate population and household growth and replace demolished units.”
That could be anywhere between 1800 and 3,900 new homes over 20 years. Because 90 percent of North Omaha’s recent home sales were below $90,000, the report said it is often difficult for buyers to obtain mortgages.
At a separate Town Hall meeting in Miller Park, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers told neighbors that based on a the Assessor’s most recent history of sales in the neighborhood, which has been “hot,” they should expect the Assessor to raise North Omaha’s property values this year.
“Some people see it as a minus but this might catch them back up to where they were in 2008 and a little bit above when the market went bad,” he said. Although the higher valuations translate into higher property taxes, they also mean increased equity for homeowners.
Room for Improvement
One area that might be a potential game changer for Omaha is reconsidering long-standing processes about how the community and the city interact around issues of development.
Creighton professor Palma Joy Strand, JD specializes in studying local governments, and has written extensively about both civic engagement and Omaha’s unique history of annexation-based development. The city has expanded by annexing upscale White suburban neighborhoods that originated as Sanitary Improvement Districts (SIDs) built by private developers, she said. SIDs are quasi-governmental agencies, and so are able use municipal bonds to build, but are unimpeded by public oversight that might require, for example, including affordable housing in new developments.
Looking at Omaha’s system, she wondered, “Where is the conversation between the city, the people, the residents and potentially outside investors? The city is supposed to be the political forum for people to have discussions about the future of the community. Where’s that conversation?”
By not engaging in truly collaborative governance, Omaha is behind the times, she said. “Over the past four decades there’s been a huge shift particularly on the part of local government to collaborative decision-making with citizens.” This may sound like a familiar refrain.
As local governments reach out to residents they are able to consequently come up with policies and practices that are much more representative of the whole community, said Strand. “They get better decisions, more buy-in, and really engaging the city’s population — what do we want our city to be like? Where do we want to go? Who are we and what are we?” She added, “As far as I can tell, this is something that has not set foot in Omaha, the consciousness on the part of the city.”
Omaha’s culture is non-confrontational, she said, and development brings up “huge racial issues.”
“It’s hard everywhere for people to talk about racial issues, but I think it’s particularly hard in Omaha because there’s really not a lot of practice and this whole thing of ‘Nebraska Nice’ is very passive-aggressive/avoidant of issues that are uncomfortable,” she said.
Strand suggests Omaha could start by creating connections across its disconnected areas. “We’ve got North Omaha, we’ve got South Omaha, we’ve got West Omaha, maybe we’ve got Midtown. And this weakens our city, to have these communities that are not very well connected to each other.” The city could tap into schools and faith communities to build “cross-cutting, bridging connections,” Strand said.
“It’s not like everybody in West Omaha needs to know everybody in North Omaha, but if there’s this whole sense of cross-cutting relationships, then the whole community is stronger. And then it becomes harder for the political representatives to cater to, ‘We’re going to do this for West Omaha, South Omaha, North Omaha’ if people start to have a sense that we’re all one Omaha.”
“The way these connections get built, people are invited and they show up. To me, that’s where you start.”