Public housing was introduced in Omaha in 1937 when the federal Housing Act was passed. This act made federal loans to the city for the construction of low-income public housing. This is a history of the public housing in North Omaha.
In the 1930s, the City of Omaha first created an informal housing authority meant to address the housing needs of low-income European immigrants. Seeking to coordinate with the federal government, Omaha joined cities across the nation with this type of program. Starting in 1934, the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, depended on these entities to disperse their funding. The Omaha Housing Authority was ultimately responsible for creating the HOLC map which codified Omaha’s longstanding redlining practices that segregated Black people into the Near North Side.
An Intro to OHA
The Omaha Housing Authority, or OHA, is the government entity responsible for the planning, construction and maintenance of the city’s public housing efforts. Formed in 1937, OHA’s first effort was to oversee the federal construction project by the Works Progress Administration with workers from the Carter Lake CCC Camp that came to be known as the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects (see below for details).
Before World War II, public housing was promoted as a way to employ men who couldn’t find work because of the depression. This resulted in 1,000+ units built in North Omaha. After the war, public housing was used as a way to employ men who came back from the military and couldn’t find work because it didn’t exist. The public housing building boom in the United States continued into the 1950s, including a spree in North Omaha that results in more than 1,000 new units between 1951 and 1954.
The original OHA board of commissioners was comprised of five members serving five-year terms. Today, commissioners are appointed by the mayor of Omaha and confirmed by the Omaha City Council to serve staggered five-year terms. According to their website, commissioners “set policies governing the operations of OHA and chartering the direction of current and future programs.”
For the first 30 years of Omaha’s projects, the OHA “believed it’s sole function was to provide a place where the poor could live.” In 1966, they began “turning our attention to the human problems as well – providing furniture, food and clothing.” Starting in 1966, its first tenant relations director started to meet those needs.
For more than 50 years, the rent in OHA’s public housing projects was approximately 25% of a family’s income, no matter what the makeup was. Single parent families, multi-generational homes, elderly clients and others paid according to this formula.
Projects in North Omaha
A product of the Great Depression, the first public housing projects in Omaha were started in 1938 and were eventually called the Logan Fontenelle Projects. Between 1951 and 1953, three other complexes were built in North Omaha: Pleasantview, Hilltop and Spencer Homes. All of them were built in and around Omaha’s Near North Side, a historically African American neighborhood. They were built here to ensure the effectiveness of redlining and to act as buffers to keep the African American population from expanding beyond this area.
A 1947 report said OHA operated four public housing projects in North Omaha: Pleasantview; Hilltop Homes; Logan Fontenelle, and; Spencer Homes. Citywide, they had six projects with 1,303 rental units.
Within the next three decades, that number increased, and in 1974, the newspaper reported that 10,000 people lived in 3,750 housing units owned or leased by OHA. The agency owned 1,395 units in 11 buildings, and 1,778 units in five projects. At that point, there were 1,202 units of scattered site housing. A concept introduced in the 1960s, scattered site housing offers apartment and housing units spread out in different areas of Omaha. For the last 25 years, OHA has offered residents in these units rental support, case management services, employment support, and other support services. That same year under a new program, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, began supporting individual families to move into scattered site housing en masse. This was a change from former policies that focused HUD finances specifically on projects.
In 1951, OHA announced development of public housing projects on both sides of North 30th Street, from Burdette south to Parker Street. Originally called the Near North Side Projects, it was changed to Parker Street Projects, then to Pleasantview within a year of it being announced. The Leo A. Daly Company designed the complex in 1953. Originally featuring 300 units, there were initially 16 one- and two-story buildings, and a single large tower with a second one planned. In late 1953, the minimum cost of project was billed at $3.1 million. The Pleasantview Public Housing Projects were demolished in 2010 and replaced by the ultra-modern mixed income Highlander neighborhood. Find details in my article, “A History of the Pleasantview Projects in North Omaha.“
Built in 1952, the Hilltop Homes were part of the same construction project as the Spencer Homes. Located on the southwest corner of North 30th and Lake Streets, they started as mixed race housing for African Americans and European immigrants, slowly becoming completely segregated with only African American residents. In 1969, the important Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer participated in the dedication of a childrens’ activities center at Hilltop. The Hilltop Homes Public Housing Projects were demolished in 1995 and replaced by Salem Baptist Church and a Walgreen’s. Discover some of their history in my article called, “A History of North Omaha’s Hilltop Projects.”
Originally called the North Side Housing Project, construction on the Logan Fontenelle Projects began in 1938. They were the first public housing projects in Omaha, and were completed in 1941. Noted Omaha architect Everett S. Dodds served as the architect and project manager for the design and building of the development. The office for Logan Fontenelle was at 1401 North 22nd Street. They were demolished starting in 1991 and completely gone by 1996, replaced by the mixed-income Conestoga neighborhood. Learn more in my article, A History of the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects.
The Spencer Homes Public Housing Projects at North 30th and Spencer Streets were opened in June 1952. Designed by the the Leo A. Daly Company, there were originally 165 units here. Ernie Chambers lived in Spencer Homes in the 1970s. In 1981, 57 units were demolished to make room for the North Freeway, which was being expanded from Lake Street northward to present-day Sorenson Parkway. The demolished units were replaced with new units in 1983, and Spencer Homes was effectively split into two separate areas by the freeway. In 2019, it was announced that the federal government awarded the City of Omaha money to demolish the Spencer Homes and replace them with a new mixed-income development. Learn more from my article, A History of the Spencer Homes Public Housing Projects.
Tall Towers for the Elderly
From the 1950s through the 1970s, OHA built a series of high-rise apartment buildings as public housing projects for the elderly. The towers located north of Dodge and west of North 72nd Street include:
- Benson Tower at 5900 Northwest Radial Highway
- Burt Tower at 700 North 20th
- Evans Tower at 3600 North 24th
- Florence Tower at 5100 Florence Boulevard
- Underwood Tower at 4850 Underwood Avenue, and
- Crown Tower at 5904 Henninger Drive
There are several other towers for the elderly outside of North Omaha, too.
Problems in the Projects
Public housing and the Omaha Housing Authority have faced a lot of criticism throughout the decades. Following are some of the main areas that have concerned different people.
The Omaha Housing Authority and the public housing projects they operated were under nearly constant criticism from the 1940s through the 2010s, and continue today. A litany of problems faced the projects, including management issues like finding and keeping tenants; property maintenance and modernization; fiscal management; federal government regulations, and; communicating with tenants. Charges laid against public housing residents included gang membership, rampant violence, drug use and sales, and many other ills. The OHA has also been frequently cited as a problem itself. Plagued by criticism of bureaucracy, overspending, under-financing and many other issues, the agency has also been charged with racism, classism and blatant disregard for the very people its supposed to serve. Throughout the years, critics of the OHA have included Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers, the late Charles Washington, and the late Judge Elizabeth Pittman, among many others.
When they were first constructed in 1938, the Logan Fontenelle Projects were intended for Eastern European and Jewish immigrants flooding into Omaha. However, within a year the Omaha Housing Authority built another section equal to the size of the first one. Apparently they were flooded with requests from African Americans, and because Omaha was segregated and the federal government was encouraging that, the other section was built for Blacks segregated from whites. By the 1960s, conditions in the city resulted in almost all of the city’s housing projects being African American. A 1986 article by Donald L Stevens Jr in Nebraska History magazine called “Government, Interest Groups, and the People: Urban Renewal in Omaha, 1954-1970” highlighted the racist undertones of public housing practices in Omaha for the 16-year period studied.
Between 1953 and 1993, no new public housing for low-income families was built in Omaha. Worst still, the condition of the old units was left to deteriorate into abysmal conditions. That meant raggedy paint and flooring, out-dated and broken appliances, terribly unclean public spaces, and deplorable outdoor areas around many buildings. Broken windows and bolted doors were common, and elevators, stairways and yards were rough. Pest control was an issue in the projects from the time the first one opened in 1938 through 1996. There are a lot of memories of cockroaches, rats, mice and other vermin that caused sickness and disease throughout the decades. Almost every effort to prevent, intervene and otherwise stop these deplorable conditions seemed to fail, whether it was the poor shape of the physical spaces, pest control and other problems. In a 1982 resident survey, parking was a major issue at Pleasantview. Logan Fontenelle and Hilltop had parking issues too. Other major issues identified in the same survey included the exterior condition of the projects, the slowness of fixing problems, and a feeling that residents’ privacy was routinely disrespected. Most respondents mentioned their neighbors’ behavior as a problem, along with the appearance of the outdoor areas.
Rent rises were always a problem in the projects. Happening across the years, there were sometimes jumps of 50% and more. According to a 1969 edition of the Omaha World-Herald, “This is intentional, officials said, because it is believed that most elderly tenants would qualify for additional Old Age Assistance if their rents are increased.” Non-elderly families who weren’t on welfare assistance and those who were old but not old enough for assistance were always unduly affected.
By 1955, there were more than 1,700 young people under the age of 15 living in the Pleasantview, Hilltop and Spencer public housing projects. In December of that year, the projects’ “Mother Council” requested more activities for kids. Mayor Johnny Rosenblatt was there, and said “We know that something must be done to provide them with both something to play with and a place to play.” Starting in the early 1960s, the Nebraska State Employment Services hired youth from the projects to staff recreation programs in the summer, too.
Throughout their existence, North Omaha’s public housing projects were slighted, slammed and otherwise lambasted for being bastions for illegal drugs, violence and criminal enterprise. In the 1940s when the Logan Fontenelle Projects were primarily Eastern Europeans, the residences were routinely reported as being home to too many “delinquent” youth. In the 1950s and 60s, the new projects called Spencer, Hilltop and Pleasantview were cited in the newspapers for vagrancy, bad parenting, and partying by teens and adults. However, all that changed course after 1966. That year police response was at it lowest in Logan Fontenelle, youth programs had been cut, and there was no relief from the summer heat for residents in the projects and surrounding neighborhoods. With the first rioting happening that summer along North 24th and North 16th, police and politicians routinely hammered the projects as being hotbeds for crime and criminals. Then, in 1969 when an Omaha Police Department officer shot and killed a 14-year-old African American girl named Vivian Strong, the lid came off the white supremacist leadership of Omaha and all fingers pointed at the projects again. After that point, the media ensured Omahans everywhere understood that all drugs, gangs and violence in the city emanated from the projects. Even the executive director of OHA ensured this trope was upheld, saying to the media, “According to arrest and search warrants in 1988, 18 to 20 percent of all drug activity in the city of Omaha occurred within public housing.” As recently as 2017, a local newspaper reflected on those times and similarly upheld the trope by saying, “the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.” This perspective doomed the projects to their fates, and by 2000 there were no signs of large scale public housing left in North Omaha.
Leadership of the OHA has been challenged since the 1960s. One of the most divisive figures in the history of Omaha’s public housing was an individual named Robert Armstrong. Armstrong was hired as the executive director of OHA in 1986. From that point forward, he appeared hellbent on demolishing every public housing project in Omaha, moving public money into private pockets, and relinquishing the rights of low-income residents to build and sustain their own communities.
Replacing the Projects
Across the decades, resources were clustered around the Pleasantview, Hilltop and Spencer Street Projects. With so much determination to replace highly concentrated poverty within projects, the redevelopment of these places seemed inevitable. Starting in 1996 and lasting through 2019, these projects were demolished. Redevelopment in these areas will emphasize existing community assets including Howard Kennedy Elementary School, the Omaha Early Learning Center at Kennedy, the Charles Drew Health Center and the new Highlander Accelerator Building, a commercial and community center.
Popular Omaha journalist Leo Biga (who is from North O) responded to one of my Facebook posts about the projects a few years ago saying “Beware of the carpetbaggers” in reference to those who had demolished the projects and replaced them with shabbier housing. He preceded that by writing, “There is no doubt that at every level of public and private leadership, North O was systematically drained of its resources or denied the resources that other districts enjoyed.” This belief about the negative impact of removing the community within the projects at Hilltop and Pleasantview, Logan Fontenelle, Spencer and elsewhere is pervasive. Time continues to show its true.
In 1995, the Hilltop Projects were demolished, and in the 2000s, the Pleasantview Public Housing Projects were completely demolished. Within the next decade, the area was recreated as an “urban village” designed to build on surrounding institutions like Salem Baptist Church, the Charles Drew Health Center, the Urban League and the Miami Heights neighborhood. Plans called for mixed-income and mixed-type housing, neighborhood services, and an intergenerational community center.
Over the last decade, the Highlander neighborhood was built on the site of Pleasantview at North 30th and Parker. 10 apartments, town houses and row houses house more than 300 people, with 60% of the units subsidized for moderate-income people, and 40% available at market-rates.
Located at North 22nd and Grace, the Conestoga Place neighborhood was built on the site of Logan Fontenelle. Seeking to replace the concentrated poverty of the projects with single-family housing for mixed income households, the neighborhood was comprised of various professional and working-class families of different races. A 1995 report said white homeowners lived in 20% of the houses in Conestoga Place. Today, there are 38 homes in this neighborhood.
In 2019, the federal government announced an award for the City of Omaha to replace the Spencer Homes with mixed-income housing. Additionally, the stretch of North 30th Street nearby will be uplifted, too, and existing community resources will be leveraged to support and build the area as well.
Despite criticism, many people in Omaha believe these changes are good for North Omaha and the city as a whole. Steven Abraham, a former resident commissioner for Omaha Housing Authority, stood up for the transformations underway.
“This is not gentrification. I don’t know how I can say it in more plainer words. This is not gentrification… And the people that are there, the people have been displaced, have first choice on what is taking place with this development so the people that are currently there, the people that are currently there, they have first choice in this new development.”—Steven Abraham as quoted by NOISE (May 2019)
Abraham’s perspective seems to be shared increasingly throughout the community. However, there’s still a seed of doubt in some conversations reflecting years of misguidance, distrust and the resulting conspiratorial beliefs.
Nonprofits Providing Housing
Many nonprofit organizations have developed and operated low-income housing in North Omaha throughout the years. The Family Housing Advisory Services has a mission “to improve the quality of life and eliminate poverty by helping people achieve housing stability and financial security.” They teach people about housing, finances, household management and more issues surrounding housing. The most prolific nonprofit housing organizations in Omaha was founded in 1983, and is called the Holy Name Housing Corporation. Holy Name builds new houses and renovates old ones, working citywide with private and public dollars to “rebuild communities.” Other organizations that have provided low-income housing throughout Omaha’s history have included United Ministries of Northeast Omaha, Urban Housing Foundation of Omaha.
Modern Public Housing in North Omaha
Public housing continues to be needed in North Omaha and citywide. As of 2018, OHA administers over 2700 public housing units and over 3700 Section 8 units. Its jurisdiction includes Omaha, Ralston, Papillion, LaVista, and Millard. The Douglas County Housing Authority covers the rest of the county. According to the OHA website, Section 8 is a “housing choice voucher program [that] is the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing available in the private market.”
All of the units available through OHA today include the senior living towers, scattered site housing, and various apartment buildings in North Omaha. For instance, the Alamo Apartments sit at 120 North 36th Street in the Gifford Park neighborhood and the historic Strehlow Gardens was rejuvenated and renamed as the Ernie Chambers Court at 4401 North 21st Street.
Criticism and concern of OHA continues. As recently as 2018, late community activist Mathew Stelly suggested racism still rules the roost by reporting in the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance,
“The treatment and on-going segregation of the black community persists despite a current shift to ‘re-segregation’ where density is being shifted from houses to apartments in mid- town, and public housing to far west Omaha…”—Mathew Stelly, North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (NONA) Newsletter, September 2018
More Than Housing
In the last 50 years, OHA has provided various services to residents in public housing programs. These have included job readiness training, educational, cultural and recreational activities. Specifically, they programs include a family self sufficiency program; a homeownership program; elderly and disabled services programs and activities; food pantries; field trips; community resource fairs and health fairs; medical and mental healthcare screening services; holiday events; nutrition workshops; flu shot programs; diabetes education; home healthcare referrals; employment programs and services; youth athletics; and scholarship opportunities.
The senior living towers each has a governance body called a residence association. A group of representative residents is elects to the board to facilitate communication and recreation activities for that tower.
According to OHA, these activities are funded through partnerships with businesses and community organizations, HUD grants, private funding, and donations to the OHA Foundation.
Remembering What Has Gone
As former OHA commissioner Abraham said, “Omaha Housing Authority moving forward as an organization will have to strengthen community relationships with the residents and service providers to address many of the issues we see today. I’m hopeful that we’ll be having a different conversation in the future about how housing disparities are addressed.” His analysis shows the way forward for OHA, and begins to allude to possibilities for Omaha in general.
However, as is frequently said but little acknowledged, those who fail to remember the past are destined to repeat it in the future.
Today there is little left to commemorate the public housing projects once concentrated in North Omaha. Memories from kids who long ago grew up there; newspaper stories about the gangs and guns and drugs they hyped as filling the projects; and remaining defensiveness and attacks take up the space they used to occupy. No historical markers, plaques or monuments acknowledge where they were located, where the thousands of families lived, where dozens of notable young people started their lives, or where the city segregated low-income Black people from white people for more than a half-century.
In Highlander, there are historical pictures emphasizing North O history. Maybe someday there will be no shame in remembering the public housing projects that were in that specific location and others throughout the community. Maybe someday we’ll remember the history of public housing projects in North Omaha.
You Might Like…
- Histories of Individual Public Housing
- A History of Redlining in North Omaha
- A Timeline of Race and Racism in Omaha
- Omaha Housing Authority official website
- “History of OHA” by the Omaha Housing Authority
- Omaha Housing Authority Foundation official webpage
- 75North official website
- “Robert L. Armstrong: Something upbeat is going on in Omaha’s public housing” by Penelope Lemov for Governing magazine in December 1990
- “Management and Maintenance Needs and Problems in the Omaha Housing Authority ‘s Four Family Developments” by Joan V. Holley for the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1982
- “History of Prospect Village” by the City of Omaha
Warning: The following video of the Hilltop Projects was filmed in 1995. It may contain language or music that some find offensive. Mute the volume.