Rising rents, limited supply — Why renting in Omaha is precarious for many
By Aaron Bonderson , Report for America Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
June 5, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
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Worrying about paying bills and potential eviction are just two of the many stressors that come with renting on a low income in Omaha, where affordable housing is in short supply.
Amanda Sliefert works part-time at an Italian restaurant and earns the state’s minimum wage.
She and her six-year-old son moved into their two-bedroom apartment off of 48th Avenue and Hamilton Street in Northwest Omaha in June 2021. She recently saw her rent go up.
“When I moved in, it was $640. They raised the rent to $850,” Sliefert said.
Sliefert, 29, said federal and state benefits for food help relieve some financial stress. But she said she doesn’t receive any housing or child care assistance.
On top of her financial struggles, Sliefert cares for her son who has a condition called encopresis that requires close attention. She said the lack of upkeep with the complex made it difficult to care for him.
Plumbing problems, uncollected trash and general cleanliness all became a problem at one time or another, she said.
“The price would’ve been fine if they would have taken care of the property,” Sliefert said.
Even after she put in numerous work orders, she said nothing was fixed.
By December 2022, Sliefert and her son were evicted from the two-bedroom apartment for not making rent on time. Now, they're forced to roam. At 18 weeks pregnant, she said, shelters are less than ideal.
“I've been homeless. In and out of two different shelters,” Sliefert said. “In and out of friends' and family members’ houses and hotels.”
After months of applying for apartments, Sliefert hasn’t secured a place close to her job.
“I can't find a two-bedroom for under $1,200 per month,” Sliefert said. “And, I can't find a three-bedroom for under $1,500.”
Sliefert is not alone in having a hard time finding an affordable place to live in Omaha.
Between 2010 and 2020, Omaha lost 7,000 affordable dwellings for people making low incomes, according to a City Planning Department report called the Housing Affordability Action Plan (HAAP).
The U.S. Census defines affordable housing as any home where the residents pay less than 30% of their total income to live. Anyone paying more than that is considered “housing cost burdened.”
Renters in Omaha’s Douglas County are one of the most housing cost burdened across the state.
The dwindling supply of affordable housing is an issue around the country. The lasting impact of redlining and persistent inflation make renovating and building a challenge in low-to-middle-income neighborhoods.
And in Omaha, affordable housing development projects lag behind population growth. According to the U.S. Census, the city’s population grew by more than 75,000 between 2010 and 2020.
Across all development types, new construction is slowing down dramatically, according to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office.
For the last 15 years, Omaha has not had one year in which more than 500 residential properties were built.
John Hargraves rents a small, one-bedroom unit in a complex on 21st Street and Leavenworth Street near the edge of downtown Omaha.
Hargraves lives with bipolar disorder and receives disability and SNAP benefits. Medicaid pays for his medication. A Section 8 federal housing voucher, administered by the Omaha Housing Authority, covers most of his rent.
For nine years, his rent was $625 a month. With Section 8 assistance, it’s $270 out of pocket. But that will change come July when his rent will increase by $100.
He likes his apartment because the complex is clean and the landlords are easy to work with.
Now, he worries how the rent increase might affect his Section 8 voucher.
“I don't want to have to move. It's just, with things up in the air, I don't know what to expect,” Hargraves said.
In the meantime, he’s looking elsewhere but without much luck.
“I will have to stay here and hope that financially, if it becomes too much of a burden, that they're willing to reduce the parking, rent, or something to make things possible to stay,” Hargraves said.
The vacancy rate for houses and apartments in Omaha is extremely low. Fewer vacant homes means there aren’t many options for people to move, said Ron Price, vice president of the Apartment Association of Nebraska.
That leaves the option of new construction.
“Generally, a lot of the housing product that's getting built is a higher-end product,” said Greg Paskach, the city’s housing manager whose department helped develop the HAAP.
Research shows that building high-end, luxury homes doesn't help with supply and affordability but adding market rate housing can. And Omaha is struggling with this balance right now, Paskach said.
“There's a challenge to be able to provide the quantity of affordable units — whether that’s subsidized or unsubsidized housing — that the market needs,” Paskach said.
Families making less than $25,000 a year are the most impacted by the lack of affordable housing, he said.
There are tax credits for affordable projects from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and state government, Price said. But there’s a lot of time-consuming paperwork and red tape.
District 3 City Councilman Danny Begley said $60 million is budgeted for new affordable housing in selected Omaha neighborhoods. Some of the funds would go to his district, which consists of central Omaha and parts of downtown.
Federal COVID relief accounts for $20 million of the funds and another $20 million was awarded through a HUD grant. The remainder was donated by the local nonprofit, Front Porch Investments.
Begley said new development in North and South Omaha has been absent for too long. The budgeted dollars can help change that, he said.
“There is a lot of money that is going to be applied for and fought over by great organizations that want to improve housing, specifically in North and South Omaha,” Begley said.
About $11 million of those funds were awarded to 14 different organizations in November 2022. Federal COVID relief dollars must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
Evicted and out of luck
Renters in low-income housing, like Sliefert and Hargraves, often face eviction threats while trying to keep up with rent.
Sometimes, those low-income tenants don’t have options, said Nick Graetz, a researcher at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
This leaves tenants with financial pressure living in subpar conditions. All told, many renters determine that it’s better to put those last few dollars toward other necessities like food, health care or transportation.
And eventually, missing rent leads to eviction.
But many big property owners are planning for that — creating business models and budgets around eviction filing, Graetz said.
“Despite its really dramatic consequences — if it results in a judgment, we make eviction filings so cheap and fast and easy for landlords to do,” Graetz said.
Once evicted, where does a resident with limited means turn?
“With such a low supply of affordable housing, people really don't have a choice. Shelter is a basic necessity,” Graetz said. “And so, the terrible choice becomes what to sacrifice in order to pay that raised rent which is often things like food and health care.”
A zoning fix
In Omaha, there’s another hurdle to building more affordable housing: Zoning. Paskach said new zoning codes could allow for more multi-family structures and alleviate the affordable housing crunch.
“Reducing the amount of land zoned exclusively for single family residential housing (could help),” Paskach said. “So that way, you can actually have more transit-oriented, mixed-use communities.”
Mixed-use apartments typically have businesses at ground level with a variety of unit prices and sizes above. This allows for more efficient use of space while also dispersing the burden of rent.
Begley said these homes will offer more economic opportunities all around. Mixed-use apartment complexes, duplexes and townhouses would more appropriately meet the city’s needs, Paskach said.
Many mixed-use complexes are located near work, stores, and other necessities. This allows people to save on transportation costs by walking or using public transit — leaving more money for housing in the process, according to EPA research.
“Connecting housing and connecting transportation and connecting employment opportunities for people is an important thing for Omaha,” Begley said.
Begley said zoning changes are on the city’s agenda.
“There are some things that are being looked at and going through that plan (HAAP) going into 2023 to maybe do some modification of the zoning ordinances,” Begley said. “That can maybe give some additional residential use types, like triplex or quadplexes — some smaller scale family living.”
For other home types, more duplexes and townhouses could be approved through conditional use permitting, Begley said.
Conditional use applications go through the City Planning Department and plans are approved by the City Council. Developers must prove a special exemption to build outside of the zoning regulations in their plans.
Begley said the city will look at approving more of those permits in the next year.
Move, rent or buy: For some, it’s not a question
Even if Amanda Sliefert wanted to purchase a home, it would be tough.
A down payment is out of reach for many younger people making minimum wage and even moderate incomes today.
According to Pew Research, “a rising share of Americans say the availability of affordable housing is a major problem in their local community.” In October 2021, data shows, about half of Americans said this was a major problem where they live, up 10 percentage points from early 2018. In the same 2021 survey, 70% of Americans said young adults today have a harder time buying a home than their parents’ generation did, says Pew Research.
“That cost increment is just too much. And so, that's a struggle for those folks,” Paskach said. “But then, that also impacts others, in terms of that housing isn't becoming available for other people to move into.”
So more people are renting — creating significant demand for a very limited number of affordable rental homes in Omaha.
COVID relief dollars will help cover costs for builders to create affordable housing in Omaha. But it could take until the end of 2026 before all of that money is spent. Sliefert doesn’t want to stay homeless that long.
“I'm honestly looking at going to Iowa because I have found numerous houses and apartments,” Sliefert said. “It's the problem of no workplaces nearby.”
Sliefert said her situation doesn’t feel stable enough to land a full-time job that she wants.
“Because moving around and losing everything, I mean, it’s just gonna [make me] jump from job to job then.”
Correction: We removed an inaccurate statement regarding tax credits and upfront costs for affordable housing.
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