Omaha is a finalist for up to $30 million in federal grant funding, which would be used to tear down the Spencer Homes public housing apartments, erect mixed-income housing in their place, increase support services and otherwise improve challenged neighborhoods along 30th Street in north Omaha.
The money would help build more than 400 apartments, town houses and houses, according to the city’s grant application. It would boost the completion of the new Highlander mixed-use development. It would help connect the new developments and existing neighborhoods with such places as Howard Kennedy Elementary School, the Omaha Early Learning Center at Kennedy, the Charles Drew Health Center and the Highlander Accelerator Building, a commercial and community center.
The City of Omaha and Omaha Housing Authority applied for the funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city and housing authority would partner with 75 North Revitalization Corp., the Warren and Susie Buffett-backed nonprofit that’s developing Highlander; and with Brinshore Development, a national company whose past projects include redeveloping Chicago’s notorious Henry Horner Homes public housing project.
The funding is part of HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grants. The program aims to help communities redevelop neighborhoods, often in part by demolishing aging public housing complexes and replacing them with mixed-income housing.
In 2018, five cities won Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grants. Omaha is one of four finalists for 2019. The others are Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Newport News, Virginia; and Norfolk, Virginia. HUD is expected to do an on-site visit soon. The grant winners could be announced in March.
With the grants, HUD places a premium on comprehensive local planning through “neighborhood transformation plans,” improving the lives of people in public housing and other neighborhood residents and using the federal funds to leverage local investment.
The Omaha application includes a “North 30th Transformation Plan” for an area roughly between Interstate 480 and 33rd Street, from Cuming to Pinkney Streets. It builds on the momentum of the Highlander and Prospect Village redevelopment efforts.
The grant would leverage $157 million in other investment to transform the North 30th Street corridor, according to city officials. That includes philanthropic donations, bank financing, a variety of tax credits, city funds and other sources.
Some of the money has already been spent or pledged, for example on Highlander’s initial phase of housing, which is complete, and for construction and programming at the Omaha Early Learning Center at Kennedy, an early childhood education program for infants from low-income families. The learning center is being built across 30th Street from Spencer Homes; 75 North is planning senior housing in Highlander.
But other investments would follow the grant. For example, the Susie Buffett-backed Sherwood Foundation committed to provide $11 million to help pay for the construction of mixed-income housing, if Omaha wins the federal grant. Other entities pledge to increase educational, health care and job training services in the neighborhood.
The City of Omaha would work with nonprofit builders such as Habitat for Humanity and Gesu Housing to build 100 new single-family homes on vacant lots in the neighborhood. The city also would work with neighborhood organizations to help more people repair older homes in the area. The city would improve streets and make them more pedestrian-friendly, including making it easier for children to walk to school at Kennedy. Seventy-Five North and its supporters have been investing in school improvement at Kennedy as part of its Purpose Built Community program.
Some of the new housing at Highlander would be built before Spencer Homes would be torn down. People from Spencer Homes would be given vouchers and could move to Highlander or somewhere else of their choice. Once the new development, called Kennedy Square, is built, Spencer Homes residents would have priority to move back there.
Spencer Homes residents also would have priority for educational and supportive services at the Omaha Early Learning Center and Kennedy Elementary, according to the city’s executive summary.
“It’s going to help the residents of Spencer Homes have better living conditions and better opportunities,” said William Lukash, assistant director of the Omaha Planning Department.
Christine Johnson, interim CEO of the Omaha Housing Authority, said the plan takes into account needs expressed by residents of Spencer Homes and the surrounding neighborhood in 2018.
Terri Ferguson, who lives at Spencer Homes and volunteers two days a week at a study center for youths in the complex, attended those meetings. She said she liked what she saw.
“Some of the pictures they showed us of the apartments looked really pretty, with nice shiny hardwood floors, very nice,” Ferguson said. “And hopefully, the way they’ve been talking, it should lower the crime rate because they’re bringing in more mixed-income housing.”
She said she generally feels safe at Spencer, despite the bullet hole in her bedroom wall left from a fatal shooting outside her apartment several years ago. And while she takes pride in tidying up a reading room in the Spencer study center, she likes the idea of young people having access to more educational opportunities in their free time.
The Spencer Homes complex was built in the late 1940s. Currently, 312 people live in its 111 apartments, spread through 23 buildings. The apartments, barracks-style buildings and the complex’s layout are “not conducive for family life,” Johnson said.
An assessment from Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture said Spencer Homes buildings and apartments are substandard in design and in poor condition. The layout of the complex isolates it, marks it as public housing, stigmatizes the people who live there and raises security concerns.
City officials are hoping the development will further revitalize north Omaha neighborhoods that, the city’s grant application said, “have suffered through economic disenfranchisement, social isolation, and the indignity of a federal highway (75 North) splitting their community in half.”