KC Belitz: Peer learning in the NCF network

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

Today I’d like to share some of the highlights from a great example of the value of peer learning in the Nebraska Community Foundation network. On Friday our friends in Boone County hosted people from Ogallala, North Platte, Pender, Ainsworth, Schuyler, Columbus, Norfolk and Lincoln for an open discussion of three important topics.

Each group brought both expertise and curiosity to discussions on housing, fundraising for capital projects and early childhood education. For example, Boone County has extraordinary success and expertise to share in fundraising and a stellar example of early childhood education in Boone Beginnings. On the other hand, they would like to learn from others in the housing arena.

One big takeaway in all these areas, but especially in housing, is the need for all resources to be used in combination to create success. Unfortunately, private enterprise isn’t going to solve this housing crunch alone—there are too many market forces creating headwinds.

Brian Bywater is the housing specialist for Schuyler Community Development, where they have done about as well on housing as any community in recent years. He shared the value of communities making connections with housing developers, contractors and other resources; the various housing programs they have leveraged; investment of the local business community; and the commitment made by local government to move ahead in housing. Using all of those tools, Schuyler has built single-family houses, apartments, senior living and have more in development.

Given the complexity of the issue, I’d say one major takeaway from Friday’s discussion is the need for communities to have someone in a position similar to Brian’s. NCF has been working with a community to develop a template for such a position using charitable resources, and there was certainly interest in the room in that approach.

Shannon Harner, Executive Director of Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) said Friday there is a growing gap between the cost of construction and the capacity of Nebraska families to pay the mortgage or rent that comes with that cost. NIFA helps in a variety of ways, but they have been working with NCF in two specific experiments.

First, NIFA has offered matching grants to three community colleges to develop the pipeline of future workforce in residential building. Current contractor shortages add expense (not to mention frustration) to home construction, so this is an important long-term approach.

Second, NIFA has partnered with NCF and a private developer to experiment with an approach that could bring private, public and charitable resources together. This effort has been developed within NCF’s People Attraction Committee over the past year and is just now reaching the point of contact with a community to see if it works “on the ground.” More to come!

One other key takeaway from that discussion is that senior housing is a potential “sweet spot” in the housing realm. Shannon brought that idea first to the meeting Friday, and we’ve seen it confirmed in other places. Moving retirees (or near retirees) into new housing opens up housing units that are likely going to be typical homes for first-time home buyers. This addresses that gap I referenced earlier, which means generally we today can’t build entry-level housing that’s affordable as new construction. And, traditionally, that’s how the housing market has worked: as we age and move out of older housing, that opens it up for those who follow. Current housing markets are so tight that the flexibility doesn’t exist, so that model has broken down to some degree. One other benefit, senior housing is also a place where charitable or public dollars are likely to be used, so that can lower the overall cost to the end users.

As you can tell, there was plenty of fruitful discussion among these Nebraskans who were willing to give up a day, travel and share. This spirit of being a good neighbor is part of the reason that Nebraska works so well, and that was on full display in Albion last Friday.

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