If legislation is passed this session, rural Nebraska could get an additional $10 million in grant funding for more workforce housing in communities experiencing both workforce and housing shortages.

LB 773 would transfer an additional $10 million from state’s general fund to the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Fund, created in 2017 with an initial appropriation of $7 million.

“I haven’t been involved in a program that has worked more successfully than this one,” said District 36 State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, who introduced the bill.

Even with communities required to match any award on a one-to-one basis, available funds during the first round were quickly exhausted due to overwhelming response.

“We had over twice the dollar amount applied for as we had funds available, so it was a tremendous success,” Williams said. “The state invested $7 million for those grants and communities invested another $10 million into 14 different projects across the state.”

He added the first round investment was responsible for the building of 577 housing units and a total investment nearing $100 million.

One of the local groups applying for the first round of funding was Western Nebraska Economic Development. They worked with Panhandle Area Development District to write the application for submission to the state.

“We applied as a region for $1 million from the initial fund but weren’t successful,” said Starr Lehl, Scottsbluff’s economic development director. “I’m sure the group will apply if more funding becomes available. It would be beneficial to all the communities in western Nebraska.”

Brian Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said housing is an essential part of any workforce plan to attract new workers into the area.

“One issue is we’re not growing our population fast enough,” Slone said. “In many communities across the state, we don’t have enough housing to accommodate the workforce we’re trying to recruit.”

He also pointed out that one of the 15 key initiatives in the Blueprint Nebraska report, supported by the Chamber, calls for building an additional 30,000 to 50,000 living units in rural Nebraska.

“The fact the state continues to support workforce housing is a positive sign,” Michelle Coolidge, project manager with Twin Cities Development, said  “We’ve seen some real benefit in the region from that support. We’ve been able to update and offer workforce housing options with properties we currently have as well as rehabilitating some others for that purpose.”

Most state senators see the need for workforce housing in rural areas.  Passing LB 773 will depend on whether $10 million can be found in the general fund to finance another round of grants.

The initial one-time $7 million appropriation in 2017 came from unallocated funds from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Those are no longer available.

“We’re discussing two potential alternatives we could use to fund this new round over a period of time rather than a one-time transfer,” Williams said. “The $10 million figure might change as well. The plan is good and it’s been very successful. We just need to find a way to fund it.”

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Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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