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  • Writer's pictureIsa Luzarraga

“No Longer One-Way In, One-Way Out:” Habitat for Humanity Begins Bluestem Prairie Development

Habitat ceremoniously broke ground earlier this week at the project’s location near 52nd Street and Sorensen Parkway.

Hope. The word Habitat for Humanity Omaha wants their new neighborhood of Bluestem Prairie to evoke. Before beginning construction on nearly 19 acres of abandoned land in North Omaha, Habitat and its partners knew they wanted the residential community to encourage healing as well as financial prosperity and affordable housing.

“[The project is] bringing that area back, not only for new people but for the people that already live there,” said North Omaha Neighborhood Association Executive Director Precious McKesson. “[It’s] for all the neighbors who have been around for many years. Their property values will go up. They’ll get a sense of beautification. Families will be able to build memories and generational wealth in that area. It’s no longer one-way in, one-way out.”

The $25 million, 85-home project near 52nd Street and Sorensen Parkway was a dream-turned-reality for Habitat which hopes to provide equity and affordable housing through the project. The City of Omaha sold the land for $1 to Habitat under the Nebraska Community Development law, according to a city press release. Habitat’s homes will range from three to five bedrooms with up to 1,800 square feet of space and appraisals between $175,000 and $200,000. Partnering with State Sen. Justin Wayne and the Omaha City Council, Habitat plans to complete all of Bluestem by 2025.

Habitat has also agreed to reconnect the 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-increment financing for the $25 million project — a tool to spur development in areas struggling economically. The rest of funding will come directly from Habitat and its philanthropists, according to Studnick.

Construction has already begun at the site, an area previously home to Myott Park and the former Wintergreen Apartments. The latter complex fell into disrepair and was demolished by the city in 2006. It’s sat vacant ever since.

McKesson said the community is supportive of the development while also acknowledging the bittersweet past of Wintergreen.

“[Wintergreen Apartments] was definitely in need of improvement,” McKesson said citing instances of crime and violence. “But, this is an area where people raise their families. A lot of hurt and pain happened in that area, but people raised families there because that’s what they had.”

Taking this history into account, Habitat’s CEO Amanda Brewer made it a priority to seek community support prior to breaking ground, according to Habitat’s program director Lacey Studnicka.

“We got started mak[ing] sure this is what the neighborhood wants and what the community is asking for,” Studnicka said. “So many people have mixed memories of that space as Wintergreen, as Myott Park. We’ve taken all of that into account as we’ve designed this.”

Habitat held four focus groups, engaging more than 100 community members in total to hear their opinions and concerns regarding the construction. One community suggestion that influenced the design was the desire for more modernized buildings, as well as front porches and back patios for the empty-nester models.

Both Studnick and Mckesson agreed that neighborhood support behind a project like Bluestem is essential to maximize its impact.

“Without neighborhoods, you don’t have a city,” McKesson said. “Without neighborhoods, you can’t make a plan like this. People go to their jobs, they come [back] to their homes, and that’s their sanctuary. That’s where they raise their family. The fact that Amanda Brewer and Justin Wayne tapped our shoulders to talk to us shows that they understand the importance of neighborhoods.”

The 85 homes will include villas for empty nesters, multiple generation homes with attached units as well as homes for growing families. Habitat said these features as well as the neighborhood’s affordability will create a diverse, multi-generational community at Bluestem. In addition, they predict that the collection of property taxes will spur financial growth in the area. Leaders hope that growth can improve nearby schools such as Nathan Hale and Wakonda Elementary, McKesson said.

Community leaders and legislators also anticipate Bluestem Prairie will help alleviate Omaha’s affordable housing crisis. Citywide, Omaha is in need of 80,000 affordable housing units and a quarter of citizens pay too much for their homes, but those problems are exacerbated in North Omaha, according to a recent report from the Omaha Community Foundation. Studnick said this project can ensure equity and combat wealth disparity by providing access to traditional housing and lending opportunities.

According to Habitat, those looking to buy must have been employed for at least two years, as well as have a certain amount of savings while earning less than 80% of the area’s median income.

“This is hope,” Studnicka said. “We are creating access to assets that people can pass on to the next generation. This is wealth-generating and wealth-creating for the community. That’s the antithesis of redlining. This is greenlining.”

Still, McKesson and Studnick agree the project plays a greater role beyond generating profit. While Bluestem won’t completely erase the sometimes painful history of Myott and Wintergreen, it will fortify the community’s foundation and debunk stigmas in the process.

“You get to bring new hope, new joy, new memories,” McKesson said. “You can let that pain be at rest.”

(Images contributed by Habitat for Humanity Omaha)

Article originally published in The Reader.


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