Nebraska State Capitol Building

Aerial view of the Nebraska State Capitol Building in Lincoln. 

It’s a lament found in rural communities across Nebraska: We’ve got the jobs to be filled — but not enough housing to meet workers’ needs.

Courtney Dentlinger, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, calls the housing shortage “a critical economic development issue in rural areas of our state.”

She wrote to a state legislative committee that “a lack of workforce housing impedes the ability of employers to attract talent to the state to fill thousands of open positions. In turn, employers are unable to fill necessary jobs.” Note the volume she cited: “thousands of open positions” unfilled across the state due to this problem.

The Legislature’s Business and Labor Committee has heard testimony about a proposal, Legislative Bill 518, to help address the problem. A range of Nebraskans testified about how a lack of adequate housing is hamstringing the ability of rural communities to attract and retain workers.

“Because of low-quality housing and less variety, it is very difficult to recruit professionals to North Platte,” Mel McNea, CEO of Great Plains Health, the local hospital, told the committee.

Richard Baier, with the Nebraska Bankers Association, said a recent workforce study in Hastings found the local economy had 501 active job openings, but only 30 houses were on the market.

Other testimony focused on people who earn too much for affordable housing assistance but still face difficulty in finding housing.

A young married couple with teaching jobs in Gothenburg, for example, couldn’t qualify for an adequate home loan because they carry too much student debt. In Schuyler, the rental housing market is so tight, lawmakers were told, that three couples who work different factory shifts take turns sleeping in the same bedroom.

A Nebraska Bankers Association task force lists various factors behind the shortage, including too few contractors and tradespeople; limited lot availability; escalating costs of new construction; and down payment shortfalls.

The proposal by Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, as amended, would make a one-time transfer of $10.3 million from the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund, administered by the state’s Department of Economic Development.

The state would award competitive housing-related grants to nonprofit development corporations in eligible communities. A one-to-one match in local funds would be required. Counties with a population below 100,000 would be eligible (all but Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties).

Grant awards would be decided competitively based on whether a proposed project meets one or more factors, including an ongoing housing need as shown through a significant study, a low unemployment rate, difficulty filling vacancies or potential projects that could be ready for occupancy within two years. No organization could receive more than $2.5 million over a two-year period, with a limit of $5 million through fiscal year 2020.

The Department of Economic Development has indicated that transferring $10.3 million from the trust fund wouldn’t harm any future projects for the fund, which was created in 1996 to encourage housing construction for low-income residents. It is funded by a portion of the transfer tax assessed on Nebraska real estate transactions.

LB 518 is intended to take a one-time withdrawal of unused funds to encourage housing for Nebraskans whose income is above the level considered for affordable housing assistance but who still run into roadblocks in trying to find housing.

Williams has put forward a worthy proposal that seeks to address a major economic development need in Nebraska. The Legislature can serve the public interest by passing it.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.