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Nebraska eyes pandemic money to ease housing shortage

February 15, 2022 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The push to build affordable new homes in Nebraska and ease the state’s chronic housing shortage could get a big boost this year.

Housing advocates and realtors implored state lawmakers on Tuesday to spend some of Nebraska’s $1.04 billion in federal pandemic assistance on affordable housing.

The housing shortage is a statewide problem, identified by business leaders and other organizations as a huge drag on the economy. Some companies have complained that the lack of housing makes it harder for new employees to find a place to live and adds to the challenges of recruiting in a state that already has major worker shortages.

In Omaha, the shortage is so severe that some companies have approached Habitat for Humanity of Omaha to try to find their employees a place to live, said Amanda Brewer, the group’s chief executive officer.

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“In my opinion, this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Brewer said in testimony to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers have introduced at least half a dozen bills this year to steer millions of federal dollars into housing grants and other programs. In his budget proposal to lawmakers, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts recommended spending $75 million on state workforce housing initiatives.

“It’s obvious, I think, that some money’s going to be appropriated for housing,” said Walt Radcliffe, a lobbyist for Nebraska realtors and Omaha- and Lincoln-area homebuilders. “Hopefully, it’s enough to move the needle.”

Wayne Mortensen, CEO of the group NeighborWorks Lincoln, said Lincoln had 56 single-family homes listed for sale last week. Of those, Mortensen said five were available for less than $150,000. Only one of those was in a livable condition, but it was located in a flood plain and needed exterior repairs.

Mortensen said another 24 houses were listed for less than $300,000, while the remaining 27 were all more expensive.

“Nebraska’s deficit of middle-income or workforce housing is its largest obstacle to long-term economic growth and job creation,” said Mortensen, whose group revitalizes neighborhoods.

Mortensen said the tighter housing market is driven largely by construction costs that have risen more than 30% in the last two years.

Some lawmakers signaled a willingness to spend the relief money on housing needs but said they wanted to know how much could be done in the next few years.

The American Rescue Plan, championed by Democrats and President Joe Biden, gives states until the end of 2024 to make spending commitments and the end of 2026 to spend their cut of the money. Any money not obligated or spent by those dates must be returned to the federal government.

“What can you execute in that time frame?” asked the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. John Stinner of Gering. “That’s what we need to be able to understand.”

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