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Photo: NHR development Hub Hall Heights in 2018. 

 

When it comes to economic development — building vibrant communities where families can find opportunity and a high quality of life — few ingredients are a bigger part of the recipe than quality, affordable homes.

Steve Peregrine has been executive director of Nebraska Housing Resource (NHR) since 2015. A nonprofit based in Lincoln, NHR is on a mission to develop affordable homes and serve first-time homebuyers throughout its service area. With four decades in the economic development arena, Peregrine knows firsthand about the link between housing availability and community well-being. Communities that are willing to invest in growing their housing inventory, he says — whether urban or rural — will be in a better position to thrive.

“You can’t fully support economic development unless you have a full range of housing, from affordable rental stock that’s decently maintained to custom high-end homes,” Peregrine said. “That requires leadership at multiple levels who understand the importance of housing and are willing to make an investment.”

Peregrine started his career in the early 1980’s. By the end of the decade, the ag crisis had put many banks and homebuilders out of business. It was a time when inflation was also widening the gap between the cost to build and what many homebuyers could afford. That led the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) to begin using programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME Investment Partnerships Fund (HOME) to help fill the cost-to-value gap.

“Affordable housing has always been partly an issue of cost. Even today, the CDBG and HOME programs continue to play a major role in growing our communities,” said Peregrine.

The early 1990’s saw the establishment of the Nebraska Affordable Housing Commission, which became the catalyst in 1996 for the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund (NAHTF) — a program that has since supported the development of literally thousands of rentals and new homeowner units in communities across the state.

“The Trust Fund has evolved into one of the single most important tools for affordable housing development in Nebraska,” said Peregrine.

NHR came along in 1998, hoping to leverage resources like the NAHTF, CDBG and HOME programs for local housing development and to support first-time homebuyers. One of the nonprofit’s first and largest projects — Old Mill Village, in Lincoln — hinged on a $300,000 CDBG loan from the City that allowed NHR to purchase vacant ground from the Nebraska Department of Roads (now the Department of Transportation). At that time, the agency was in the planning phases of the Homestead Expressway. NHR purchased the ground on the condition that much of the dirt would be contributed to supply the grading needs for the nearby highway project.

“That’s one example of the way we try to forge partnerships and make efficient use of resources to achieve our goals within the community,” said Peregrine, describing other NHR activities, like purchasing land to sell at a discount to developers who agree to build in an affordable price range. “It’s about closing that gap between the buyer’s income and the cost to build the final product.”

But building homes is only part of the housing equation, he said. A big component of NHR’s mission involves working with new homeowners to turn their dreams into reality. With recent help from a $120,000 award from the NAHTF, for example, NHR was able to supply down payment assistance to about 10 financially qualified families, on the condition that the no-interest loans would be repaid when the homes are sold.

“Our approach has always been that we’re more than happy to invest in the first-time homebuyer because we know that through the market these homeowners will eventually be able to pay us back and we’ll be able to reinvest in another area. Growing the housing inventory is only successful if those homes are accessible to the families who need them.”

This wasn’t the first time NHR has leveraged the Trust Fund to serve families, Peregrine said, and it won’t be the last. It’s also not the only State resource that is helping NHR achieve its goals. Most recently, the agency was awarded a grant under the newly established Middle Income Workforce Housing Investment Fund, which it will help it rehabilitate aging owner-occupied homes or build new owner-occupied townhomes in low-to-moderate income Lincoln neighborhoods.

“We’re excited about the Middle-Income program and the impact it will have on creating more affordable, high-quality options in the city of Lincoln. It’s not always about cost and quantity — people need to have homes they can feel secure in and be proud of.”

The inspiration for the Middle-Income program, he said, came in part from the overwhelming success of the (2018) Rural Workforce Housing Fund (RWHF). That program saw the State devote approximately $7 million to affordable workforce housing development in counties of less than 100,000 residents. Since, the RWHF has helped finance hundreds of units, with more investments to come as funding revolves. The Legislature allocated a second round of RWHF dollars — to the tune of $10 million — earlier this year.

“For the State Legislature to invest general funds into housing was unprecedented,” Peregrine said. “It’s really the product of an ongoing call to action, and the recognition that we need to address the growth of housing in our state. Our legislature is made up of citizen politicians who have been leaders in their communities and know the issues that are at stake. It’s been tremendous to see such priority being given to this area of economic development.”

That display of dedication, he said, is crucial for sustained economic growth at the state and local levels. Success on the housing front many not always be easy — in fact, it rarely is, nor is it always as attractive as developing other local amenities. Yet, when you get to the heart of the matter, it’s easy to see why homes are a central ingredient —a key component — of a successful economic future. If homes are where the heart is, they are also, perhaps, the heart of a community.

“More and more communities are recognizing that housing really is economic development and vice versa,” Peregrine said. “That’s driven an incredible rate of progress in recent years, and there is a lot of momentum built for the future.”

To learn more about NHR, visit its website. For more about State-administered resources for affordable housing development, visit opportunity.nebraska.gov.