Hope. The word Habitat for Humanity Omaha is meant to evoke their new neighborhood of Bluestem Prairie. Before beginning construction on nearly 19 acres of derelict land in North Omaha, Habitat and its partners knew they wanted the residential community to promote healing as well as financial prosperity and affordable housing.
“[The project is] bring this area back, not just for new people, but for people who already live there,” said Precious McKesson, executive director of the North Omaha Neighborhood Association. “[It’s] for all the neighbors who have been there for many years. The value of their properties will increase. They will have a sense of beautification. Families will be able to build memories and generational wealth in this area. It’s no longer one-way, one-way.
The 85-home, $25 million project near 52nd Street and Sorensen Parkway was a dream come true for Habitat which hopes to provide affordable and equitable housing through the project. The City of Omaha sold the land for $1 to Habitat under Nebraska‘s Community Development Act, according to a city news release. Habitat homes will include three to five bedrooms with up to 1,800 square feet of space and valuations between $175,000 and $200,000. In partnership with State Senator Justin Wayne and the Omaha City Council, Habitat plans to complete all of Bluestem by 2025.
Habitat also agreed to reconnect neighborhoods to surrounding areas with better sidewalks and streets. The initial plan calls for connecting Mary Street and Newport Avenue to Forest Lawn Avenue, according to the city’s press release.
The Omaha City Council approved $3.44 million in tax funding for the $25 million project – a tool to spur development in economically distressed areas. The rest of the funding will come directly from Habitat and its philanthropists, according to Studnick.
Construction has already begun on the site, an area that previously housed Myott Park and the former Wintergreen Apartments. The latter complex fell into disrepair and was demolished by the city in 2006. It has stood vacant ever since.
McKesson said the community supports the development while acknowledging Wintergreen’s bittersweet past.
“[Wintergreen Apartments] definitely needed improvement,” McKesson said citing instances of crime and violence. “But it’s an area where people are raising their families. A lot of pain and suffering happened in that area, but people raised families there because that’s what they had.
With this history in mind, Habitat CEO Amanda Brewer has made it a priority to seek community support before innovating, according to Habitat program director Lacey Studnicka.
“We started doing[ing] sure that’s what the neighborhood wants and what the community is asking for,” Studnicka said. “So many people have mixed memories of this space like Wintergreen, like Myott Park. We took all this into account when designing.
Habitat held four focus groups, involving more than 100 community members in total to hear their opinions and concerns about the construction. A community suggestion that influenced the design was a desire for more modernized buildings, as well as front porches and back patios for empty-nest models.
Studnick and Mckesson agreed that neighborhood support behind a project like Bluestem is key to maximizing its impact.
“Without neighborhoods, you don’t have a city,” McKesson said. “Without quarters, you can’t make a plan like this. People go to their jobs, they come [back] home, and it is their sanctuary. This is where they raise their family. The fact that Amanda Brewer and Justin Wayne tapped us on the shoulder to talk to us shows that they understand the importance of neighborhoods.
The 85 homes will include villas for empty nests, multi-generational homes with adjoining units as well as homes for growing families. Habitat said these features along with the neighborhood’s affordability will create a diverse, multi-generational community in Bluestem. Furthermore, they predict that the collection of property taxes will stimulate financial growth in the region. Leaders hope the growth can improve nearby schools such as Nathan Hale and Wakonda Elementary, McKesson said.
Community leaders and lawmakers also anticipate that Bluestem Prairie will help ease Omaha’s affordable housing crisis. Citywide, Omaha needs 80,000 affordable homes and a quarter of citizens are paying too much for their homes, but those problems are exacerbated in North Omaha, according to a recent report by the Omaha Community Foundation. Studnick said this project can ensure equity and address wealth disparity by providing access to traditional housing and loan opportunities.
According to Habitat, those looking to buy must have been employed for at least two years, as well as have some savings while earning less than 80% of the region’s median income.
“It’s hope,” Studnicka said. “We are creating access to assets that people can pass on to the next generation. It is generating wealth and creating wealth for the community. It’s the antithesis of redlining. It’s the green line.
Still, McKesson and Studnick agree that the project plays a bigger role beyond generating profit. While Bluestem won’t completely erase Myott and Wintergreen’s sometimes painful history, it will fortify the foundations of the community and debunk the stigma in the process.
“You bring new hope, new joy, new memories,” McKesson said. “You can let this pain rest.”