Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Housing costs are climbing in Omaha and Lincoln. Can the Cornhusker State legalize “missing middle” housing when coastal states have failed?
On February 4, the battle over single-family homes came to Nebraska. A state legislative committee heard arguments about a number of bills designed to lower housing costs by lifting local bans on duplex homes, triplexes, townhouses and other options in cities across the state.
This upzoning push looks similar to both the Virginia proposal that died in committee in January, and California’s State Bill 50, which has been defeated several times in Sacramento. Officials in Maryland, Washington, and other states are currently weighing similar zoning reforms. The efforts thus far have tended to trigger pitched battles between affordability advocates and status-quo-defenders over the prospect of gentrification, the perils of density and other hot-button housing issues.
But things are different in Nebraska. So far, the debate around the Missing Middle Housing Act hasn’t generated anywhere near the same heat as corresponding laws in other states. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Matt Hansen, says that the hearing of the Urban Affairs Committee saw 14 people testify about the bill: 10 in support, one in opposition, and three neutral. “We’ve been reaching out to housing groups, renters groups, cities and municipalities,” says Hansen, who represents the state’s 26th District, in northeast Lincoln. “I’ve not had very much negative feedback.”
In a sense, the Nebraska legislature is looking to win the battle before the war begins. State lawmakers are now tackling zoning and density as well as parking minimums, mixed-use developments, and low-income housing units—divisive issues that often lead to organized resistance campaigns at the neighborhood, city and state levels. The same conflicts are present in Nebraska, but lawmakers hope that action now can stave off the entrenched politics that frame the crisis in rental affordability on the coasts.
Nebraska could very well become the second state in the nation, after Oregon, to pass some kind of statewide law on zoning. The stakes are no less critical for the Cornhusker State, lawmakers say: Single-family homes predominate in Nebraska’s largest cities, and local rules that prohibit the production of more housing are leading to rising costs. It doesn’t look like the affordability crunch in gentrifying Oakland or the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., perhaps—but those are fates that Nebraska lawmakers hope to avoid.
“We need more of it, whether you call it affordable housing or workforce housing,” Hansen says. “We’re growing all across the state at a rate where we’re having trouble keeping up with the number of [housing] units needed.”
Historically low-cost cities in the South and the Midwest are starting to look like the latest front in the national fight for affordable housing. In Omaha, the price of single-family homes shot up 41 percent from 2012 to 2019; in Lincoln, the increase was 34 percent. Smaller towns have also witnessed appreciable gains in housing costs, according to Emily Hamilton and Salim Furth, research fellows at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who provided written testimony in the hearing before the Nebraska Unicameral legislature.
Apartments are hard to come by in Lincoln, according to Cassey Lottman, a software engineer and organizer with the local tenant advocacy group Renters Together who ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat last year on an affordable housing platform. But single-family homes are hard to come by, too, she says. In desirable neighborhoods near the jobs that make Lincoln an attractive place to live, construction is rare, limited to the occasional infill project. Instead, growth in Lincoln (and other Nebraska cities) tends to happen on the outskirts, contributing to sprawl.
Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha, is marked by sharp contrasts. Its central neighborhoods of Dundee and Fairacres are home to billionaire Warren Buffett and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, whose father founded TD Ameritrade. North Omaha and South Omaha feature pockets of concentrated poverty. The city is growing—the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area expects to reach a population of 1 million by 2023—but it is not growing equitably. State Senator Megan Hunt, who represents Nebraska's 8th District, says the city lacks townhomes, duplexes and other density-increasing housing options. “We know this kind of housing is really popular,” Hunt says. “We just don’t have enough of it.”
Hamilton at the Mercatus Center describes the Missing Middle Housing Act as a preemption bill, like the one attempted recently in Virginia. Nebraska’s bill would not strip local municipalities of their zoning authority; it would instead compel cities with a population of 5,000 or more to update their zoning codes to allow duplex, triplex, and quadplex homes and rowhouses. The bill doesn’t ban single-family homes, and it doesn’t prevent local authorities from writing building codes that regulate the size and siting of homes.
Another proposal, the Density Bonus and Inclusionary Housing Act, would authorize more-dense housing in developments that set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income and very-low-income households. The bill, from Nebraska State Senator Justin Wayne, also prevents cities from setting higher mandatory parking requirements from developments that receive a density bonus. And developments that include child-care facilities or commercial uses are eligible for even greater density bonuses under the bill.
Several senators were unable to attend the February 4 hearing, so the committee didn’t convene an executive session; movement on the bills could be coming as soon as this month. Maybe it’s the fact that the Nebraska legislature is unicameral or that its largest cities are still relatively small. Or it could be that median home values haven’t crested $200,000 in Omaha or Lincoln. Whatever the reason, these bills might pass without the protests, op-eds, and the rest of the circus that housing proposals often summon. Nebraska urbanists are eager to see that happen.
“What I want for Lincoln is more choice,” Lottman says. “If you want to rent, there should be a place for you.”