Across Nebraska, finding houses to live in has become a challenge. In rural and urban communities, the shortage is so severe that employers struggle to bring in prospective employees. This was one of the reasons several housing bills are being debated in the Nebraska Legislature.
In mid-February, Sen. Ben Hansen of Schuyler proposed LB940, a bill that would appropriate $200 million in the American Rescue Plan Act funds for affordable housing. Sen. Myron Dorn of Beatrice proposed to appropriate $10 million of the American Rescue Plan Act to develop affordable housing, including housing for vulnerable populations like refugees and immigrants last month in LB968.
The housing shortage has affected the workforce greatly in rural communities. Companies can get workers to come, but they don’t end up staying. Nebraska has not been able to keep up with building houses over the last 30 years, Dorn said. The rising costs of lumber, shortages of materials, and the cost of construction rising by at least 50% have been a factor, too.
“Not having the level of houses we need in rural communities is starting to show up negatively,” Dorn said. “If you don’t have a place for workers to stay, that’s one checkmark against you or your community.”
Dorn’s and Hansen’s bills are just two of several bills proposing appropriate funds for the American Rescue Plan Act to combat the housing shortage. The legislature hasn’t come to an agreement on which bills to pass yet, but Dorn said it is likely that there will be some kind of package in the ARPA funding for affordable housing.
Dorn’s proposed bill would fulfill the need to help refugees in Nebraska. Those populations have limited time to find a job and a house in already difficult circumstances. Generally, refugees have 90 days to find a job and a house to live in. The discussions between Dorn and nonprofit organizations on how much money to put in the bill were anywhere from $5 million to $40 million but settled on $10 million.
“Federal funds can’t do it all in helping refugees, and other vulnerable populations find housing and jobs,” Dorn said. “The bill will hopefully help them find a place to live, which is critical for them to get their feet on the ground and become a solid part of our workforce.”
One of the nonprofit organizations working to provide housing is Habitat for Humanity, which has many locations across Nebraska. In February, they opened up their homeownership program. They expected to receive about 40 calls to get into the program. They ended up receiving 3,500 calls in two days.
“That tells you the need for people to have affordable housing and what the landscape looks like for affordable housing in at least Omaha,” said Traci McPherson, director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for Habitat for Humanity in Omaha.
Habitat for Humanity builds 50 houses a year in Omaha. Organizers know that they can’t outbuild the shortage and to help more people, they started a pilot program two years ago. The program allows Habitat for Humanity to help at least 300 people by helping them become mortgage ready, which means they can qualify for a mortgage after completion. Habitat can supply the mortgage for people after they find a house or the people in the program can find a house through the market after qualifying for a traditional mortgage with a bank or a loan company.
Nonprofit organizations can only do such during the housing shortage. It is going to take nonprofit housing developers and for-profit housing developers to address the shortage across Nebraska, says McPherson. However, Habitat is encouraged by the several housing bills in the legislature currently, and feels like their advocacy for the bills is paying off.
“I feel like Nebraska is waking up to the fact that this is a state-wide issue,” McPherson said. “We are short on affordable housing across the state, and people are finding they don’t have a place to go.