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Fall is nearly here and with that comes cooler weather, turning leaves, Husker football, and – for senators – public hearings on interim studies and legislative resolutions. The Nebraska Health Care Cash Fund, rate increases for behavioral health providers and funding options for global water management research by the University of Nebraska are just some of the topics the Appropriations Committee will study this fall.
These hearings are not always for specific pieces of legislation. Instead, they are meant to create a better understanding of certain topics that senators feel the need to address. These studies may be a key part of new legislation introduced next session. While other committees are already underway with hearings, the Appropriations Committee began hearings on September 20th.
One of those interim study resolutions is LR210. This is meant to analyze the programs and agencies involved in addressing workforce and talent shortages across the state. Hopefully, the study will help the committee come up with better options to help us fill vacant positions all across our state. The hearing will take place on Friday, September 27.
A key part of this workforce shortage is housing. As I addressed in my last article, job-seekers should know that they have housing available when they search for employment in Nebraska.
Lack of affordable housing is hurting Nebraska’s chances of filling jobs in both large and small communities. On the urban side, the Omaha World Herald found that mortgage payments in Omaha “ha(ve) increased 23 percent” since 2011 on a four-bedroom, 2,400 sq. ft. home. Newer two-bedroom apartment units have risen in cost by an average of 61%.
On the rural side, openings for workers and houses to put them in is at a high disparity. In Hastings for example, a workforce study showed over 500 job openings… but only 30 houses available on the market. This issue affects both urban and rural districts, so every senator in the Legislature has a stake in solving this issue.
Why are prices higher? For many communities in Nebraska, it’s because these towns and villages are so far away from construction hubs. Equipment (and labor) must be shipped in from a distance, and that costs money. Additionally, many of these projects are not done in bulk, making equipment even more expensive at a per-unit basis.
Nebraska has attempted to help in the past, and it has helped to an extent. The Legislature passed LB 518 in 2018 which provides $7.3 million in grants to nonprofit development organizations to build housing in rural communities with a proven need. These grants must be matched at a 1:1 ratio. An update in the Columbus Telegram nearly a year ago pointed out that it helped Columbus increase its new build rate by 350%. Additionally, I was pleased to see my bill, LB 496, passed in 2018. This bill amended the definition of ‘redevelopment plan’ to include projects that increase available workforce housing. Those projects now have a path to become eligible for tax increment financing.
While LR210 will help us define even more options, I believe that we have two immediate, tangible items we can pass to bring workers into these communities. The first is LB720, also known as the ImagiNE Act. This is something I will discuss in further detail in my next article. But the second option before us in the next session is LB 424 – colloquially known as the Land Bank Bill.
The Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act was created in 2013 to allow municipalities in Douglas or Sarpy County (containing the cities of Omaha and Bellevue) to create a Land Bank. These banks are independent entities (either government or non-profit) that help transform dilapidated or abandoned properties. LB 424 (introduced by Senator Quick) would allow every municipality that opportunity. This bill remains on General File after failing to invoke cloture.
I’ve gone into this bill in further detail in a previous article, and the irony in our current situation is that rural areas would seem to need this tool as much (if not more) as Douglas and Sarpy Counties. This bill could be a mechanism not just to restore housing physically, but restore them to the tax rolls and add workforce housing to the communities that need it most.