Zane Francescato, Development & Government Affairs Director with the Seward County Chamber & Development Partnership, discussed housing in the City of Seward, including recent growth, current status and issues, and future opportunities and challenges, with Seward Rotary Club on March 17, 2021.
Seward Rotarian Zane Francescato, who serves as the Development & Government Affairs Director with the Seward County Chamber & Development Partnership (SCCDP), was the featured program at the March 17th luncheon meeting of the Seward Rotary Club in the Seward Civic Center.  He was born in Grant, Nebraska and grew up in southern Colorado.  He came to Seward by way of Concordia in 2014 and fell in love with the community. After graduating in December 2017 with degrees in History and Criminal Justice and a minor in Philosophy, Zane interned for U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry and at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. Following his experience on the east coast, Zane attended law school in Idaho, deciding to change paths and serve as a District Representative in Congressman Fortenberry’s Lincoln District office before joining the SCCDP team in February 2020.
The scope of Zane’s presentation was on Seward’s past, present and future housing issues. Since joining SCCDP, Zane’s main focus has been the housing dilemma across Seward County, his first major project being the presentation of the October 2019 Seward County and Communities, Nebraska County-Wide Housing Study with Strategies for Affordable Housing to all eleven Seward County Governing Bodies. His Rotary presentation covered the housing situation in Nebraska and Seward over the years and on the recent “housing boom” in Seward. Zane noted that the COVID-19 pandemic created the perfect storm with historically low interest rates, an inflated seller's market, increased material costs, and years of decreased home construction driven by recession-based issues. This storm, which covers not only the housing market in Seward but across the entire nation, has driven more people to hold onto their homes rather than building their next home and placing their existing home on the market.
He commented that the housing growth in Seward is to the north and the east, due to flooding concerns and the proximity to the schools. He shared that in 2019-2020 there were 51 new single-family homes built in Seward with average prices ranging $300,000 and above. In addition to single family homes, Seward saw the addition of one apartment complex, the first since the '90s. Zane also shared that the Housing study indicated there are many single-family units in Seward County that are in need of rehabilitation or total replacement, which could be another untapped source of homes for the market.
Zane said, “according to Census estimates, Seward will experience a 2.6% population increase by 2024 to 7,448 residents and to accommodate the growth, Seward will need to add 242 units to its housing stock.” Broken down, there will be a need for 162 for single housing units and 80 more rental units 41.1 acres of land and $58.7 million to develop. Further, 47% of the city’s targeted new construction demand should be targeted for the workforce population. As it stands, Seward averages 30 new home constructions a year with a price of $300,000 to $400,000, missing a critical demand for “affordable” workforce housing below $275,000 (as defined by the State of Nebraska).
Zane walked the club through a progression of Seward’s growth since 2012. He shared that of the four newest subdivisions started in the past five years, two are completely full, one is almost full, and the other is seeing an increased rate of construction. One major problem Zane touched on is “Where to build?” In communities like Seward, growth is hampered by geographical constraints. The other major issue is cost. “Home cost is a real factor on growth,” Zane stated, “without affordable options for housing, those who would be considered as part of the 'workforce' are forced to find other communities to live.” Zane went on to say that this issue has a direct impact on economic development as an employer who is looking to build in a community looks to factors like average new construction cost and availability of homes. He commented that Seward has already experienced a negative impact stemming from this problem as a major investor decided to plant an $83 million facility which would have employed nearly 400 people in Blair, Nebraska. Seward came in second place due to the communities' lack of housing opportunities and perceived lack of an accessible labor force.
“But Seward’s housing issue is not just related to new constructions,” Zane stated, “it’s also related to an issue with a nationwide scope – a lack of existing homes on the market.” He shared that as of February 25, 2021, Lincoln (a community of over 280,000) only had 74 existing homes on the market, and 21 new constructions that were advertised as complete. As of the date of Zane’s presentation on March 17th, there were only five homes on the Seward market, three of which were new construction with price tags over $300,000.
Developments are expensive to complete-with a major, upfront cost to the developer often including the extension of infrastructure-making the price of the lots higher. In addition to a high-priced lot, costs of building materials, especially lumber, has increased 199% since April 2020. All of this reflects in the final sale price of the home. Zane stated that the question then must turn to what can be done to help supplement the cost of development, keeping the price of the lot down, so more “affordable housing” can be built in the community.  This is not a new issue, according to Francescato and other Rotarians who echoed similar concerns, but the need must be addressed.
Zane stressed the point that “affordable housing” is not necessarily tied to “low-income housing,” but is applied to a wide-variety of options ranging from lower to upper $200,000 homes and those homes targeted for lower income individuals. Zane pointed out that mixed use developments, incorporating housing for income levels of all types in a single neighborhood, have proven successful in past Seward projects.
He concluded his presentation by sharing a preview of one tool which is designed to help bring down development costs, the Rural Workforce Housing Fund (RWHF). Zane stated that SCCDP has submitted a RWHF application to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (NEDED) for a grant to match $631,500 the organization secured commitments for in 2020. The SCCDP submitted the over 300-page grant in January and are expected to hear back from NEDED in April. If successful, SCCDP will issue RWHF dollars to developers looking to build in Seward County via low-interest loans to help offset development or land acquisition costs for single family homes under $275,000 or multi-family homes under $200,000 per unit.