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  • Housing Editorial by President and CEO Gary Person

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    HOUSING – Why is it so critical?
    • A message from the Chamber Development President
     
    Housing and Workers”.  “Workers and Housing”.
     
    Throughout the past two years, nearly every conversation we’ve had with our large, medium and small business members emphasized these two major concerns in regards to an employer’s ability to sustain and perform at the levels they need to operate efficiently and effectively.
     
    Housing is the lifeblood of communities because homes are where we live our family life and as a community - housing is where our jobs live.  North Platte has fallen rapidly behind addressing the housing issue in comparison to our peer Nebraska communities.  Statistical information is being provided at the end of this commentary.
     
    We are at a critical juncture in North Platte’s history with some significant decisions soon to be made on proposed new housing developments, which will dictate whether we can move the needle in a positive growth direction.
     
    The Chamber Development’s Economic Development Committee and Board of Directors recognized this critical factor in 2015 when they developed the effective “Shot in the Arm” housing incentive program, and again when the Chamber, City, Great Plains Health, Union Pacific and our economic growth partners combined efforts with the Nebraska Rural Workforce Housing Fund for “Shot in the Arm – Phase 2”.    While the program has been effective, it simply is not enough to meet the demand.
     
    Developed housing lots where streets, water, sanitary sewer, electric, natural gas and storm water have already been installed are becoming scarce.  When we launched “Shot in the Arm-Phase 2” we had 15 different developers scour the landscape in and around North Platte trying to find ready to build housing sites.   Many of them gave up, knowing in today’s world it is simply cost prohibitive to buy raw land and put all the infrastructure in and attempt to hit the price point for workforce housing affordability.
     
    Chamber Development and City officials recognized this looming dilemma a few years ago when the area in the West A and Dixie / Phillips Avenue area successfully gained redevelopment status inviting potential new development to occur and open a new area of the community for additional housing.  That created an open invitation to housing developers that infrastructure assistance could be available if a major housing subdivision would emerge.
     
    Two such housing subdivisions are now being proposed in that general area.   This will open up many new lots for developing houses if approved.  Both will need tax increment financing to make the projects work, or they simply will not be built. Infrastructure costs drive the price of housing development to levels beyond the reach of most work force purchasers.  Public hearings will emerge throughout over the next few months before the Planning Commission and City Council, as well as Community Redevelopment Authority processes.
     
    Local government has many check and balances in its processes and accommodates open lively debate on the issues.  You have witnessed and will continue to witness this democratic process in action.  We are respectful of well thought out concerns from neighbors and citizens that hopefully developers will be pro-active to address.
     
    Public officials take valid points of concern to heart and make the best decisions they can for the long term benefit of North Platte.
     
    The simple reality becomes, however, without addressing and inviting additional housing of every income status level to come forward, businesses will continue to be frustrated and contemplate moving jobs out of North Platte.  Job seekers will go where housing availability is less frustrating and less costly.  Builders go where communities are proactive in providing the development tools they need.
     
    The number of open jobs waiting for qualified applicants in North Platte is staggering.  A significant factor impacting those openings is the lack of affordable housing availability.
     
    The recent released preliminary results of the North Platte / Lincoln County 2018 housing study validates our employer and home seeker’s concerns – our housing market is void of nearly 1,000 housing units in our region when it comes to meeting current demands, future needs to sustain our economy and replacement of substandard housing.
     
    Let the following statistics soak in when comparisons are made to our peer Nebraska communities. All are regional trade centers and along with agriculture the primary job base for our surrounding respective economies.  In 1980 all six of these communities were similar in size with North Platte having the largest population of the six. That is no longer the case, so we need to look at the statistical data to determine why?
     
    In the decade of time from 2004-2014 (just prior to Shot in the Arm – Phase 1) these were the number of housing units built:  Kearney 2,139; Columbus 757; Norfolk 701, Hastings 652, Fremont 505 and North Platte 407.  All those communities grew in population as a result according to the census bureau with the exception of North Platte.
     
    Look at just the past calendar year at the number of housing units permitted in 2017:  Kearney 127, Columbus 89, Norfolk 51, Fremont 48, Hastings 45 and North Platte 23.
     
    In the decade of 1970-79 in North Platte 2,422 housing units were built.  That has steadily declined to 655 built in the decade 2000-2009 and the current decade is trending to less than 400.
     
    There are 11,624 housing structures in the immediate North Platte area.  Over 75% are a half century or older.
     
    There’s a tall task ahead and we’ve got to work together as a community to move things forward in a positive direction and it’s going to necessitate some “give and take” and looking at creative ways to help housing affordability for our work force.   We are blessed to have the great employers that we do and we’ve promised them we would do all we could as an organization to be proactive on these issues.
     
    When the tough questions come and the rhetoric gets deep when tax increment financing discussion occurs, please remember it’s an investment that will pay immediate dividends for North Platte, but also create many long term valuation increases and population stability.
     
    If TIF is approved most of the targeted housing units will range in the $200,000 to $275,000 in costs, have three bedrooms or more, 1,400 square feet or more, a two car garage minimum and fill a huge gap that currently exists.   New multi-unit dwellings for the market rate work force may emerge.  Not all will be new residents, as others already here will upgrade which will then help open up older less costly housing for other workers.
     
    Those new workers will be making fairly good wages, with a lot of it getting spent in our community helping the service sector economy, as well as local sales tax revenues.  Those folks will buy vehicles that will generate additional property tax and sales tax.  Once the TIF bonds are paid as a result of the new valuation created, it eventually fully goes on to the tax rolls.
     
    As a community we have used the TIF process sparingly and very conservatively, while our peer communities have been very aggressive with it, including housing development.  The Nebraska Legislature has given us additional tools to use in developing workforce housing.  Will North Platte be willing to step forward?
     
    If there were simpler less controversial solutions we would be 100 percent in favor, but the simple fact IT IS NOT happening.  This is evidence that we need to approach it differently than the way we’ve been addressing the issue in the past, if we want things to change.  As a business person your support in these efforts are needed and appreciated. 
    Gary Person
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