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Salaries are not keeping pace with housing costs in the Midwest, especially in Lincoln

Landlords and tenants from Lincoln’s Coalition for Source of Income Protections in Housing rally outside the Lincoln City/County Building.
Jason Witmer
Landlords and tenants from Lincoln’s Coalition for Source of Income Protections in Housing rally outside the Lincoln City/County Building in December 2023.

A new report shows the increasing divide between paychecks and the price of buying and renting across the country. The gap is especially high in Nebraska’s capital city.

Lizzie Turner has witnessed the impact of unaffordable housing and discrimination firsthand. As a community organizer for non-profit Nebraska Appleseed’s housing justice program, Collective Impact Lincoln she advocates for people who are trying to find safe and affordable places to live. One of the Lincoln residents Turner works with is a Black woman with children, who was forced out of her current living arrangements due to what she believed to be racial discrimination.

“She had to move into really terrible housing, and eventually [gave] it up because it was such a bad situation. She has been struggling to find housing since then,“ Turner said. “Black and brown folks do generally experience many more barriers in accessing housing, either because of blatant discrimination or their identity.”

Turner did not disclose the woman’s name in order to protect her identity.

A recent study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that the increasing cost of homeownership is pricing out most Hispanic and Black renters and owners nationwide.

In Lincoln, where the gap between median incomes and housing prices has increased more than 100% since 1990, the lack of affordable housing disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income families.

“For a while housing has been difficult, especially for folks who are categorized as extremely low income,” Turner said. “About 91% of extremely low income families spend more than a third of their income on rent here in Lincoln.”

The Harvard study found that both housing prices and rents are rising at a faster rate in the Midwest and the Northeast compared to other regions. The gap between housing prices and income in other Midwest metropolitan areas like Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City is also increasing, although less drastically compared to Lincoln.

As the Midwest Newsroom previously reported, low supply and high demand are partly to blame for the rising costs.

Turner said she couldn’t say with certainty why Lincoln in particular is seeing such a wide gap between housing prices and income.

However, she noted that other metropolitan areas, like Kansas City, have recently passed additional protections for renters, such as prohibiting evictions based on source of income discrimination.

Source of income discrimination refers to landlords evicting or not accepting renters based on how they pay for their housing. For example, the Black woman Turner works with used a housing voucher to help pay for her rent before she was evicted. Vouchers are granted by the Lincoln Housing Authority to low-income residents who qualify for discounted rent. However, many landlords do not accept housing vouchers as a form of payment, and with the current lack of available affordable housing in Lincoln, low-income renters might be forced to move into dilapidated, temporary housing.

The Lincoln Realtors Association includes in its Fair Housing section: “The law makes illegal any discrimination in the sale, lease or rental of housing, or making housing otherwise unavailable, because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”

Allie Christianson, a community organizer with Collective Impact Lincoln and Civic Nebraska, said source of income discrimination is often a legal manifestation of other forms of prejudice.

“[Landlords] make it very clear that they don't want folks who have low income or folks of color living in their properties,” Christianson said. “They use source of income discrimination as a proxy to engage in other forms of discrimination that are banned.”

Christianson lives in and serves the Lincoln neighborhoods of Everett and Near South, two of the most diverse neighborhoods within the city. Christianson said residents there constantly fear displacement.

“It's an area that a lot of investors and developers look to exploit,” Christianson said. “I see the impact of housing unaffordability and the lack of safe and quality housing very much impacting our BIPOC neighbors.”

Building additional affordable housing in Lincoln may not be an immediate option, however, according to Turner. Considering the price of materials, non-profits would need government funding to build new developments. Instead, Lincoln’s rental rehabilitation program could provide temporary relief.

“Ideally, this program functions on top of the new development so that we aren't losing stock of affordable housing,” Turner said. “It is helpful in preserving our existing stock in that [the City] provides grants to different properties and landowners so that they can make basic repairs.”

Collective Impact Lincoln is part of a local coalition aiming to introduce an ordinance that would add source of income discrimination as a protected class under the City’s Title Ⅸ charter. Both Kansas City and St. Louis have adopted similar protections.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Isa Luzarraga is a journalism major and honors student at Emerson College in Boston. The Omaha native joins the Midwest Newsroom in partnership with Latino News Network and the Hortencia Zavala Foundation.
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