Habitat for Humanity breathing life back into North Omaha property with troubled past

Habitat Omaha's Bluestem Prairie
Posted at 11:50 AM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 12:50:58-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine what could come of the nearly 16 acres near 51st and Sorensen on which the Wintergreen Apartments sat. The property was plagued with problems, some of which stemmed from the bad business practices of one-time owner Avrim Cimmering.

After he was sentenced in a case relating to the complex, the City of Omaha demolished the buildings in 2006. Since then, the property has remained empty, grown-over, and for some, it became a place to dump unwanted mattresses, furniture and more.

Private developers might not have seen a profitable pathway, but for Habitat for Humanity — which is more interested in changing lives than making money — the land presented a wonderful opportunity.

"As we've seen property valuations change throughout Douglas County over the last 18 months, purchasing individual parcels of land or existing inventory has become more and more challenging," said Drew Lier, Habitat Omaha's construction director.

After several meetings, the City of Omaha transferred the land to the organization for $1 under the Nebraska Community Development Law.

In a statement, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert described Habitat for Humanity as a "good partner." She said, "This project creates additional opportunities for homeownership and will build up the surrounding neighborhoods."

Now that plans have received adequate approvals, crews are able to get to work. This year, they'll remove brush and trees, as well as old concrete work leftover from the Wintergreen Apartments. In 2022, infrastructure and grading will set the stage for construction in 2023 and 2024.

"There are a total of 85 homes in this development," Lier said, sharing a blueprint of Bluestem Prairie.

Some homes will be zero-entry, making them a good fit for seniors. The rest of the homes will have three, four and five bedrooms — designed with families in mind.

The neighborhood is unique compared to what Habitat Omaha has done before, "which is what's exciting for us," Lier said, adding, "This is kind of what our future at Habitat is as we look at affordable housing and mixed-income requires for homeownership."

Lier said most people are supportive of the development, but some are skeptical — which is understandable given the property's history. For his part, Lier is looking at the future.

"I think there's a lot of research that shows stable, safe, decent, affordable housing — the impact that has on people — immediate and generational impact," said Lier.

Though Bluestem Prairie is unique, some conventional factors remain. Homeowners will be required to contribute minimum hours of sweat equity toward their home or a neighbor's home, and they'll sign 30-year loan documents.

Habitat Omaha will welcome volunteers once construction begins in 2023.

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