Owning a home is one of the best ways for North Omahans to build generational wealth, said an Omaha real estate agent at a wide-ranging housing town hall held Thursday night.
But it’s not easy to buy a home in North Omaha – or anywhere in the city – right now, said Angel Starks. Demand is high. Supply is low. And now buyers have new competition: Out-of-state corporations rapidly buying up hundreds of homes in the area.
“Unfortunately, when someone comes to take up a lot of the properties, that takes a lot of opportunity for others to even consider,” Starks said. “We have so many people that want to buy homes, but there’s not enough…If there’s not a home there for them or they’re getting outbid by cash, then they’re already at a disadvantage because there is nothing out there.”
The town hall, held at Fabric Lab at 24th and Lake Streets, touched on gentrification, displacement and affordable housing in North Omaha. Hosted by Flatwater Free Press in partnership with Fabric Lab and 4Urban.org, the panel featured urban planner Manuel Cook, Sen. Justin Wayne, who represents Northeast Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature, real estate agent Starks and Matt Wynn, executive director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which publishes the Flatwater Free Press. The event was moderated by Preston Love Jr., executive director of 4Urban.org.
“It’s important that the community is engaged, is aware, and quite frankly, poised to act. But before you act, before we act, we need to be informed,” said Love, a longtime North Omaha activist, in his opening remarks.
At the event, panelists and approximately 60 audience members discussed the loss of affordable housing and the economic impacts of development. They talked about the historic effects of redlining in North Omaha – the racist practice that barred Black Omahans from buying a home anywhere but North Omaha. And they talked about the growing presence of out-of-state real estate investment companies, such as Vinebrook Homes.
A recent investigation by Flatwater Free Press and KETV Channel 7 uncovered the quick growth of Vinebrook, which has been the largest buyer of single-family homes in Douglas County over the past two years and is now the third-largest landlord in the city.
The vast majority of Vinebrook’s home purchases have come in North Omaha. Vinebrook and national real estate companies like it are often backed by massive amounts of private equity investment. These national companies bought nearly one of every five homes sold in the United States during the fourth quarter of 2021.
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Starks, the local real estate agent, emphasized the importance of homeownership, arguing that it allows North Omaha residents to build generational wealth.
“There are certain things that need to be in place to empower individuals to know what it takes not only to acquire a home, but to maintain the home and then to know what it really looks like to appreciate the neighborhood as a whole,” Starks said.
Conversation between attendees and panelists flowed for nearly two hours, with young and old discussing affordability and incoming development for North Omaha. Attendees had questions about how to maintain their homes and compete in the market against new homes built on their street, along with concerns about the use of new state funding. Wayne focused on LB 1024, a bill passed this April to send $370 million in federal and state funding for economic development in North and South Omaha. Wayne said the funding is to create jobs and businesses. It’s also to fund measures that support market-rate housing such as pre-inspection costs, he said.
Nonprofit involvement was central to the discussion as well, especially in light of the recently announced Habitat for Humanity development at 52nd Street and Sorenson Parkway. Mitch Strong, an outreach coordinator for Habitat for Humanity, spoke about his intention to create affordable housing that doesn’t negatively impact surrounding homes.
“I want to put people in their first homes,” Strong said. “I want to build communities, I want to empower people. Because if we have homes there, if we put homes up, there could be homes across the street coming down. And it’s important for us to build those homes up too.”
Nonprofit-owned housing was a prominent topic of discussion throughout the town hall, with attendees asking questions about how nonprofit developments impact their current home values. One attendee shared her experience living in nonprofit housing and being unable to buy that home at the end of her lease. Others, like Wayne, compared the rise in nonprofit property investment to the home purchases by private companies. Both, Wayne said, could be impacting locals’ ability to purchase North Omaha real estate.
“Everybody’s worried about the private companies now, but nonprofits have been buying land in North Omaha for the last five years and nobody said anything,” the state senator said after the event. “To me it doesn’t matter if it’s a nonprofit or a private person, private equity firm, something like that, they’re still buying up the land, so the issues are the same.”
Despite differences about where and how incoming funds should be invested in North Omaha, both panelists and attendees of the town hall were clear that now is the time for action. The ability to buy a home is a large part of potential growth, one piece in the movement towards a more equitable city.
“What I see in the community is we’ve gone from redlining, all this disinvestment. And now we’re hitting a point where things are going in the other direction really fast,” Cook said. “We have a lot of interest, a lot of investment, but on top of that we have a lack of housing generally. …Really, we’ve gone from the freezer to the frying pan in a lot of ways. Right now is a ‘now or never’ type of moment, where we have a lot of resources…but we have to be really intentional about how we do it.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.