EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a series of articles giving an in-depth look at the state of affordable housing in Greater Omaha.
While construction costs continue to rise, nonprofits are utilizing their knowledge of funding to bring much needed affordable housing units online.
In May, Front Porch Investments announced the recipients of its $7.3 million Innovation Round to fund affordable housing developments, preservation projects and supportive programs.
While $7.3 million is an incredible feat for a first round, Front Porch Investments Director of Strategy and Policy Eva Roberts noted requested funds topped $49 million.
“During the Innovation Round, we gathered more information about how many mixed-income housing and affordable housing projects, or programs to provide access to housing were simply waiting for low-interest capital or grant funding,” she said.
Of the 37 applications, Front Porch was able to funnel capital to 13 nonprofits focused on: increasing access to affordable housing; gap funding for developments; capacity building for housing workforce and/or pilot projects.
Project Houseworks was one nonprofit that received a grant from the Innovation Round. It will use the $273,800 grant for adding staff to build out its Home Affordability Program, which kicked off only a few years ago.
So far, the organization has used the grant to add one staff member, as well as three construction interns to help continue to build the program. The interns are part of a collaboration with the Latino Center of the Midlands.
The idea for the Home Affordability Program sprouted in 2019 when Project Houseworks began exploring the idea of purchasing homes it could rehabilitate, and sell to low-income families.
Project Houseworks has 27 years of experience in making home repairs and modifications for elderly homeowners. In 2021, Project Houseworks aided 168 persons — 99 of which were disabled and 29 of which were veterans, or spouses of veterans —at an average cost of $10,459 per house.
Executive Director Jim Clements said this felt like a natural next step to helping solve a critical community issue.
In 2020 the program started with four houses. Last year it repeated the process with eight houses, and this year the organization is set to do 10-12 houses.
“There’s multiple solutions to get to where we need to be to have enough affordable housing,” Clements said. “There’s a lot of good affordable housing but they’re in need of some rehab to keep it affordable and safe.”
The organization works with Omaha 100 for financial education and home mortgages.
“That’s the focus right now,” Clements said. “It’s creating more home opportunities and putting money into the homes so that they are quality, safe homes that are available for families.”
Making sure that existing housing is also modified for several life stages and situations will also help keep housing sustainable. Houses that are suitable and safe for individuals with disabilities, in addition to older adults, is currently limited and lacking.
“Look around your neighborhood and think about how many of those homes would be accessible to persons with physical disabilities,” said Baird Holm Partner Scott P. Moore.
“There is no requirement that a detached single-family home, duplex, or triplex, has any level of accessibility.”
Moore said that if more builders considered universal design for their projects, it would open the field to those who are otherwise excluded. Some hallmarks of universal design include things like zero-point entry, levers instead of doorknobs, and cabinets with removable faces.
For example, Moore described how replacing doorknobs with levers would be beneficial for everyone.
“Doorknobs don’t make much sense because it’s just as hard for someone with limited dexterity to [use the doorknob] as it is for a person carrying groceries, or a child,” he said.
“When you’re talking about accessibility and making something accessible, you’re not excluding non-disabled persons. By creating that baseline, you’re not excluding anyone, it’s always going to be inclusive.”
With affordable housing already scarce, universal design and accessibility is sometimes overlooked. Matt Cavanaugh, executive director of Holy Name Housing Corp., said its mission is to revitalize neighborhoods by replacing unsafe housing or placing safe housing where none exists.
“That’s really difficult from an economic perspective. Infill development is really expensive,” he said. “So having that being done by a developer who can utilize development incentives to help underwrite the cost of infill development, that’s a good spot for us.”
Aware of the general economic challenge and lack of resources for overlooked populations — city, state, and federal governments have begun targeting these populations when it comes to funding.
Holy Name Housing Corp. and Habitat for Humanity of Omaha are two legacy organizations in Omaha utilizing city, state, and federal incentives to increase availability for disabled and elderly people.
For example, Holy Name Housing, which began in Omaha in 1983, utilized the Nebraska Investment Financing Authority’s (NIFA) Collaborative Resource Allocation for Nebraska (CRANE) program to develop a two-site project known as the Eastside Bungalows.
Cavanaugh said that competition for traditional aid, such as Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), is extremely competitive. Going through the CRANE program helped Holy Name develop a project that will allocate 30% of the units to people with disabilities first, followed by older adults.
That guarantees a minimum of seven housing units out of 25 that are 100% accessible to those with disabilities.
“We’re building this whole project as these townhome bungalows with no basements, no stairs, everything’s sort of zero entry,” he said. “So all of them are certainly handicap visible, but then a number of them are 100% accessible.”
The project is receiving both LIHTC and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for this project.
Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, which has been in the community since 1984, made headlines last year when it worked with the city of Omaha to purchase the former Wintergreen Apartments at 51st Street and Sorensen Parkway. In addition to utilizing the Nebraska Community Development Law to purchase the 19 acres of abandoned land for $1, it is also utilizing the city’s TIF program.
The project will produce between 85-88 units and is being billed as a multigenerational development with a mix of options: three to five bedroom homes, attached accessory dwelling units, and empty nester villas.
Nineteen of the units, which is about 20%, will be empty nester villas based on universal design principles.
“They’re designed for the spectrum of accessibility, from wheelchairs to walkers,” said Lacey Studnicka, homeownership and volunteer services program director.
Both Habitat for Humanity of Omaha and Holy Name Housing go beyond providing units; they also provide a clear pathway to successful homeownership through education and financial assistance.
For Habitat, the pandemic created space to redesign its homeownership program to be more proactive. Previously, Studnicka said that interested parties could fill out an application, but a lot of applications got rejected due to bad credit.
“We redesigned our program and now everyone who comes into Habitat goes through our counseling program first,” she said.
“We pull their credit, we look at their finances from A to Z, we create an action plan with them of the things they need to do to become mortgage ready. Then once they’re mortgage ready, depending on their income, we have three pathways to homeownership.”
The program skyrocketed when it launched in February. Studnicka said Habitat had trained 10 staff members to answer phone calls, but within 48 hours they had received over 3,000 calls.
“It was heartbreaking. We ended up booking 389 appointments all the way through July,” Studnicka said. “The people that we’re seeing from those phone calls, a lot of them are paying over 60% of their income to rent.”
Once the homeowner is approved for a mortgage, they go through the Sweat Equity Program where they work side-by-side with volunteers to build their home; and the education classes that teach them how to be a successful homeowner.
“So everything from maintaining a home to escrow, taxes, insurance, all of the things you need to know. We do those in-person and multiple languages,” Studnicka said.
She said one of the biggest challenges they’ve heard is how difficult saving for a down payment is right now.
Holy Name’s CROWN program is designed to help with that issue. Each month, a portion of the rent a participant makes is saved for future home buying expenses, such as a down payment or closing costs.
“We’re really trying to intervene early and take them along the development process to get them to homeownership,” Cavanaugh said.
Participants also go through educational classes so that when they eventually purchase a home they are prepared.
Still, the biggest obstacle to homeownership is the lack of available affordable housing. Both Project Houseworks and Habitat for Humanity emphasized that they are actively looking to buy homes.
“We will purchase your home for the appraised value, and it’ll go to a family who has worked really, really hard for a home instead of an out-of-state investor or landlord,” Studnicka said.
She also noted that Habitat is working with a variety of local companies and organizations to provide employees with financial counseling. Notables include Tyson Foods, Beardmore Chevrolet, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and Nelson Mandela Elementary School.
“If a business is interested in creating stability and access to homeownership for their staff, we would love to partner with them,” she said.
Clements said Project Houseworks’ annual volunteer event, Brush Up, will take place Aug. 20. Last year over 700 volunteers helped refresh 36 homes with a fresh coat of paint.
“The more people that are willing to reach out to organizations to get involved in some way or provide support, that’s one more person or one more business, that’s a part of the solution,” Clements said. “Right now we need all hands on deck.”
Front Porch Investments Announces Innovation Round Awards
Front Porch Investments announced over $7.3 million in awards for its Innovation Round.
Funded projects include historic preservation and adaptive reuse of a residential building to house seniors, multi-family, mixed income and mixed-use workforce housing along Omaha’s 24th Street transit corridor, and acquisition and repair of dilapidated homes for low-to-moderate income buyers in Council Bluffs.
“The Innovation Round was hugely successful, providing important information about the number of mixed income and affordable projects or housing supportive programs waiting for low interest capital or grant funding to fully implement,” said Meridith Dillon, executive director of Front Porch Investments.
Front Porch Investments received 37 applications, totaling $49.6 million in requests. This round of funding served as the pilot for the Development and Preservation Fund, launching later this summer.
“Applications were reviewed through our strategic priorities lens, including creation of greater opportunity for BIPOC residents, promoting housing stability for families, testing new approaches like language access and physical accessibility, and supporting diverse and emerging developers,” said Naomi Hattaway, director of communications and community initiatives.
A scoring committee reviewed applications based on a range of criteria. Loan funding applications went through rigorous underwriting by a funds management partner.
“We are encouraged by the number and variety of responses,” said Eva Roberts, director of policy and strategy. ”What we learned will assist the team in further developing sound strategies for future funding rounds.”
Projects and programs awarded will catalyze 738 units of affordable housing, initiate three pilots or new programs, launch three capacity building grants for affordable housing supportive programming, support three inaugural projects led by Black developers in North Omaha, and support public private partnership for mixed income housing in South Omaha.
“We so appreciate the organizations tackling and prioritizing affordable housing,” Dillon said. “We look forward to expanding our partnerships as we continue leveraging funding for long-term, sustainable success. This Innovation Round is just the beginning for the Greater Omaha area. As we welcome additional funding partners and financial resources, we can truly begin taking these and other solutions to scale.”
712 Initiative – $150,000 Program Grant
Canopy South- $50,000 Planning Grant
Forever North Real Estate- $1,000,000 Pre-Development Loan
Habitat for Humanity of Omaha- $210,000 Program Grant
HELP Foundation of Omaha- $500,000 Pre-Development Loan
Hoppe & Son/ Hoppe Development- $1,400,000 Acquisition Loan
InCOMMON Community Development- $145,000 Program & Capacity Building Grant
NOC Redevelopment Group- $700,000 Construction Loan/Mini Perm Loan
Omaha Economic Development Corporation- $552,615 Pre-Development Loan
Project Houseworks- $273,800 Program & Capacity Building Grant
Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp- $1,050,000 Construction Loan; $557,620 Construction Grant
Spark- $149,275 Program & Capacity Building Grant
Talented Tenth Group- $600,000 Construction/Mini Perm Loan; $132,423 Construction Loan