Grand Island is best example of statewide housing shortage

A growing number of families in Nebraska can't find affordable housing. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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December 10, 2014 - 6:30am

Civic leaders from across Nebraska are coming to grips with a growing problem. They say a lack of affordable housing for low and moderate-income workers is holding back economic growth.


The City of Grand Island is growing. Fast. The Economic Development Corporation reported over the last decade, 36 percent of Nebraska’s economic growth has been in Grand Island. Put another way—more than a third of all the new business in Nebraska is happening in Grand Island.

This fast-paced expansion is also bringing the city to the forefront of a statewide problem—a lack of affordable housing.

Mary Belie is the executive assistant with the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corporation. Her organization recently completed the Community Housing Study which highlighted the area's need for more affordable housing. In addition to needing 1,700 new homes by 2019, the study also found 2,200 homes need moderate rehabilitation, 437 need substantial rehabilitation, and another 228 homes need to be demolished. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Mary Berlie with the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corporation said like many communities with low unemployment rates, there is plenty of available work in Grand Island. The problem is there aren’t enough places for people to live.

“We need 1,700 homes by 2019. So we have five years in order to get 1,700 new homes to be at the level where we’re considered to be a healthy housing community,” Berlie said.

She added when new workers can’t find a place to live; businesses have a hard time expanding.

“Those individuals are in limbo, waiting for a place where they can live before they can start working and living in our community,” Belie said. “It hurts our property tax value. It hurts our sales tax. It hurts our school system when those individuals can’t easily transition into our community because of those barriers.”

Berlie said building the 1,700 new homes would add another $331 million to the city’s property tax levy.

Grand Island may be the largest community in Nebraska’s 3rd district, but it’s hardly alone when it comes to a lack of housing.

An hour and a half west, Jen Wolf with the Dawson Area Development in Lexington said she also sees a lack of housing as the biggest barrier to growth.

“It’s a chicken and an egg thing. We probably have 10 different manufacturers that would like to grow or would like to bring new investment into the county, but that investment is probably going to go elsewhere because of the lack of people, lack of workforce. And you can’t get the workforce without the housing,” Wolf said.

While the lack of housing holds back economic expansion, some said it’s holding people down as well.

Rick Ruzicka works for housing authorities in Hall County, Adams County and Custer County. He said his offices operate mostly on federally-funded programs. However, Ruzicka said because of decreasing federal dollars, he's had to tap into reserve funds to keep day-to-day operations afloat. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Rick Ruzicka works for several housing authorities in the state, including the one that serves Grand Island. Ruzicka described himself as the guy you talk to when you’re down on your luck and need help paying for the roof over your head.

He said when middle class workers can’t find a place to live, there’s a definite ripple effect.

“I think you have a lot of folks living in units that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise choose, because that’s all they have to choose from. And that puts a lot of strain on the market,” Ruzicka said.

According to Ruzicka, the people getting hit the hardest by the shortage are low-income families with kids.

Angela Nunez and her four children—ages 12, 10, 5 and 4—fit that description. Angela does work, but she doesn’t make enough to make ends meet. She had to move into a small three-bedroom public housing unit in Grand Island. That was five years ago.

While Angela and her four-year-old daughter each have their own rooms, the three boys share a bedroom.

Nunez does qualify for a federal housing voucher, but she hasn’t been able to find a bigger place that would fit her budget and work for her family.

“I got a voucher, but I could never find anything in my price range to suit our needs. If it’s a two bedroom, I can’t do it because of the basement windows and same with a three bedroom. It’s really hard to find a three bedroom in my price range. It’s just impossible,” Nunez said.

Nunez would like to move into a four-bedroom public housing unit next year, but she’s on a waiting list, and doesn’t hold out much hope for her chances of getting in. Depending on the type of housing, waiting lists in Hall County range from 47 to 503 families.

Jeremy Jensen, Grand Island's new mayor, said he's spoken with Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts about the housing shortage facing the state and said, "[the housing shortage] is completely statewide in terms of these problems. I don't think Grand Island is unique in any way." (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Grand Island’s new mayor, Jeremy Jensen, said he’s committed to helping improve the housing situation for people like Angela Nunez and her kids. Unlike those who think the city needs to build hundreds of new homes, however, Jensen said it’s best to focus on what they already have to work with.

“I don’t believe you always have to expand in order to grow. When you start looking at the expansion of the sheer property of 1,700 homes, you’re looking at a lot of additional space in terms of infrastructure to build out and additional space for the fire and police to have to patrol and those kinds of things,” Jensen said.

Jensen added he’s in favor of revamping Grand Island’s downtown area and turning old buildings into apartments. He’s also in favor of increasing the number of senior living and retirement communities in the area, like the one he helped his mom move into.

“What that does is it allows the home that she lived in to come into the inventory for the community. I think those types of homes are really attractive targets to younger families; somebody who wants to buy a home but can’t afford brand new construction but can get a decent home and then gradually fix it up,” Jensen said.

Jensen, who is a financial advisor, explained in the future, he thinks the middle class will work for a scaled-down version of the American dream—opting for affordability and location over a white picket fence and big yard.

Because in his words, “It doesn’t do any good to build something that people can’t afford to come and purchase.”

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