OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) - For nearly two decades, Gesu Housing has transformed vacant lots in North Omaha into homes with the goal of revitalizing the neighborhood.
The nonprofit was started by Brother Mike Wilmot, who built Jesuit Middle School of Omaha near 22nd and Lake Streets. After finishing that project, he continued working in that area to help low-income families achieve their dreams of home ownership.
“He started building houses in this neighborhood and it grew from there to where he got some funding, he started partnering with the City, got some HUD (Housing and Urban Development) money and just got bigger and bigger,” says Executive Director Dale Barr Jr.
He adds that the organization’s mission is to tackle issues of poverty and fill in vacant lots by turning renters into first-time homeowners by offering an affordable mortgage payment.
Gesu Housing sells each three-bedroom home to qualifying families who have good credit and live below the 80% median family income guidelines, for about $128,000, which equals to about a $650 monthly mortgage payment. It costs about $225,000 to build each house. That’s where Barr steps in to help fund that gap through private donations.
The nonprofit works closely with the City of Omaha Planning Department to identify the lots and sells them to Gesu Housing for cheap. They then work with other partners, including Omaha 100, another nonprofit, to help educate the homeowners on things like budgeting and managing a house.
Since 2002, Gesu Housing has built 70 homes in the Clifton Hills Neighborhood.
“When you put 70 new homes clustered in one area like that, it stabilizes the neighborhood,” adds Barr. “It’s one of the thrills for me is handing the keys over. It’s just such a unique thing for them. Most of them are first time home buyers. And the fact that they’ve stayed in the homes, every one of our homeowners - we’ve got 63 of them now, have not moved out. And that’s for 18 years. That’s an extraordinary number.”
Barr adds that with dozens of families moving into the homes, a review of Omaha Police data found that emergency calls were down 22% and burglaries decreased by 47% in that area since 2013.
“This works means a lot to me. And I know we are making a difference. I’ve known this place all my life,” says Barr. “So, to come full circle, after working 30 years in Corporate American, then volunteering for Gesu Housing, then got on the board, and now executive director - and it’s all in the place where I grew up. It’s so cool.”
Typically, Gesu Housing builds about 10 houses a year, but due to the pandemic, donations are down, and they’ve had to cut back their construction in half.
“We’re not going to quit. Pandemic or not, we’re going to keep building houses. If we have to wait until next year we’ll wait, but the need is here and we’re going to keep doing it,” says Barr.
Since the organization’s annual fundraiser was canceled due to COVID-19, Gesu Housing is hosting a virtual fundraiser online that will allow donors to help fund the costs of building a house. You can find more information on its website here.