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Local View: COVID a chance to create

Local View: COVID a chance to create

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New Housing Construction

The city is looking to expand affordable housing options in Lincoln such as a subdivision under construction near 14th and Superior streets.

Affordable housing was a critical issue before COVID-19 found its way here: Full-time minimum wage workers could not afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the U.S. In Nebraska, a two-bedroom rental unit requires wages of more than $16 per hour. Minimum wage here is $9 per hour.

Median income in Nebraska has been dropping in recent years, while rental and real estate prices rise, and there’s a serious deficit in affordable housing inventory.

In addition, the floods that affected large swaths of the state last year have had a long-term effect on housing availability and stability.

Next, consider that only 20 to 25% of Americans who are eligible for some kind of federal rental assistance actually receive it, and now the administration is revoking some fair housing rules.

In Nebraska, no law assures fair housing to recipients of Social Security or other federal income. Sen. Tony Vargas has introduced LB 1020 to ensure people’s sources of legal income cannot be used to discriminate against them, among other changes. But that bill seems unlikely to reach the floor. The Legislature on Monday voted down an eviction moratorium.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is now refusing to track discrimination in the mortgage market, and HUD has made it easier for mortgage lenders and landlords to discriminate.

Sen. Kamala Harris has proposed the RELIEF Act in Congress, banning evictions, foreclosures, utility shutoffs, rent increases and negative credit reporting during this historic health and economic crisis, but the Senate will likely not address it.

Now add to this toxic mixture these elements:

* Flooding and COVID-19 disproportionately affect lower-income renters and homeowners;

* More than 7% unemployment in Nebraska, which may increase;

* Most unemployed are low-wage workers;

* Official unemployment numbers exclude thousands who do not qualify for unemployment benefits because they work one or more part-time jobs, are caregivers or exist at the fringes of the economy; actual numbers may be 10% to 20% higher than official numbers;

* University of Chicago and Federal Reserve economists believe around 40% of jobs lost may be lost permanently;

* The $600 unemployment “enhancement” expires this week, and unemployment benefits for thousands of Nebraskans will expire altogether in coming weeks;

* In Nebraska, there was no eviction moratorium; Gov. Pete Ricketts' “order” that expired in June was not a mandate, and many counties ignored it. Indicators show substantial increases in evictions and foreclosures now;

* Homeless facilities, stretched before the pandemic, are facing emergencies;

* Because of the disastrously-executed patchwork of pandemic responses across the country, the pandemic may worsen in fall and winter exponentially;

* Economists at New York University, Harvard, Chicago and Princeton predict a serious economic contraction, with perhaps 42% of all businesses closing permanently, affecting millions of workers.

Each of these elements has a multiplying effect and ripple effects throughout the state and nation.

When Nebraskans cannot access affordable housing, fair wages, healthcare, equal education, healthy foods and energy, all of us are affected negatively. We grow more and better economically, socially, creatively and health-wise when the least fortunate of us do better.

We do better — become communities and a state of greater vitality — when we find collective ways of bringing our assets to bear in new ways to address tough issues. The double disasters of flooding and COVID-19, coupled with ongoing insecurities in housing, education, food, energy and jobs, provide us with a great opportunity to not only fix the structural/endemic problems that have led to these inequities, but to envision a more vibrant, sustainable future through creative visioning and rethinking public policies, including housing, planning and zoning, and food, education and energy.

We’ve been noting on our social media pages some creative approaches to homelessness, housing instability, lack of broadband, climate change (which feeds pandemics), equitable access to food and education, energy and school health and safety around the world.

Some innovative ideas include using empty hotels and motels to house homeless; some suggest mandating every empty apartment be occupied by a newly evicted family; some suggest newly empty retail or office space be converted to and zoned for housing. Some cities are buying empty properties, converting them to use for housing, classrooms or food supply chain links.

Every place is different with its own set of needs when it comes to these resources. But we can do more than mitigate these fundamental insecurities while we create a better future for next generations if we work together with these goals in mind.

Diane Wanek is with the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities.

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