The term “blighted” has been used for a long time to describe neighborhoods that are host to a range of social problems, particularly concentrations of poverty, crime, and property vacancy — and often overlaid with ugly connotations about racial minorities. In the Urban Renewal era of the mid-20th century, cities began officially designating “blighted areas” in advance of large-scale takings of property by eminent domain and eventual demolition. But in Nebraska, some cities are taking advantage of a change in state law that doubles down on the term, hoping it will help generate economic development and new affordable housing in areas that need it the most.
This fall, as the Lincoln Journal-Star reported, planning officials in Lincoln and Omaha have approved the designation of certain parts of their cities as “extremely blighted.” The term “extremely blighted” itself was written into state law last year, defined as an area that is part of a neighborhood that has already been declared blighted, and where the poverty rate exceeds 20 percent and the unemployment rate is at least twice the state average. A bill approved by the legislature this spring gives priority to extremely blighted areas in applications for funding from the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The legislation also creates a $5,000 tax credit for homebuyers in extremely blighted areas who use the property as their primary residence. The planning departments in both Omaha and Lincoln produced studies designating the areas within their boundaries.
Some people have started to use the term “crisis” to refer to affordable housing issues in Lincoln, says Wynn Hjermstad, the city’s community development manager, but she doesn’t think the city is quite there yet. Still, Lincoln has thousands of renters who are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent. The city is looking at anything it can do to help create more affordable housing, and getting a leg up on trust-fund dollars and providing homeowner tax credits fits the bill, Hjermstad says.
“Since the state legislation was enacted, we might just as well take advantage of it,” Hjermstad says.
The city is also reviewing zoning regulations related to height limits and parking and setback requirements to see if those rules are standing in the way of building cheaper housing, Hjermstad says. Dan Marvin, Lincoln’s director of urban development, says that cities have limited tools to address their housing needs, and are now in the position of trying to cobble together everything that might help, however slightly. Since the homeowner tax credit is only available to owner-occupants, for example, it could prevent some homes from going to cash investors, Marvin says.
“We’re not pretending that this is going to solve that problem, but for individuals trying to compete with all-cash buyers buying homes for rentals, this is something that is unique to them,” Marvin says.
Next City was unable to reach officials in Omaha.
Should lawmakers keep using the term “blight” to describe areas that have been disinvested? The term maps onto a history of racist urban policy, says Amy Laura Cahn, senior attorney and interim director of healthy communities and environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. Cahn previously worked with a neighborhood called Eastwick, in Philadelphia, which has to manage a series of problems that are directly related to urban renewal and the neighborhood’s designation as a blighted area. As part of that work, Cahn wrote an article called “On Retiring Blight as Policy and Making Eastwick Whole.” The term can be used to blame residents for the conditions of their neighborhoods, without acknowledging “how much a community invests in the face of disinvestment,” she says. The article notes that the term’s original meaning was related to plant diseases, and that “blight rhetoric” has often been used to emphasize problems in certain neighborhoods while obscuring the causes of those problems. Plus it’s unspecific, Cahn says. Better to name the specific problem — poverty or segregation or unemployment — “and then you shift that blame to the entities with power,” she says.
Cahn isn’t alone in questioning the term. In 2015, for example, Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission, wrote in an essay about the term, “The most impactful tools are often words — the denotations and connotations and stories attached to the physical and social geographies of parts of the city: ghetto, slum, bad, black, blight.”
But Justin Wayne, the Omaha-based state senator who introduced the state legislation, says he’s trying to counteract some of the policies that have created racial inequalities in Nebraska’s cities. Wayne first sponsored the “extremely blighted” designation as part of an effort to reform the state’s use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF), in which governments sell bonds to help developers build in areas designated as blighted, and the developers pay back the bonds over time. Wayne is sponsoring a ballot-based constitutional amendment that would extend the repayment period for TIFs in areas that are “extremely blighted.” He says it’s because the normal “blight” designations have sometimes been used simply to benefit projects that would have been built anyway, and he wants the state’s tax incentives to go to neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise get the investment.
Wayne says that he represents a lot of African-American neighborhoods in Omaha that are segregated as a result of redlining, and have been chronically deprived of wealth through policy and other forces. He’s hoping the “extreme blight” designation can help draw investment to those places. And he hopes the homeowner tax credit will help people from within those communities to build wealth.
“I am very conscious of gentrification, and I am very conscious of my community losing what small percentage of land that we own,” Wayne says. “I don’t want people from outside the community taking advantage of that [tax credit] to put up rental homes.”
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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.