Husker ideas open doors to affordable housing in Valentine

by Architecture

Nate Bicak
Courtesy | Architecture
Nate Bicak, assistant professor, works with students on concept presentations to community stakeholders.
August 23, 2022

Lincoln, Neb. —After several years in the making, University of Nebraska–Lincoln students will soon see their vision for affordable housing in Valentine, Nebraska, become a reality.

Through a collaboration focusing on rural, attainable housing with College of Architecture faculty and students, the Lincoln-based Hoppe Development is breaking ground on a townhouse project in the western Nebraska City. Called Sandhills Townhomes, the 15-unit housing development began as a concept generated from one of the college’s 2020 design studios. The course was led by Nate Bicak and Steven Hardy, both associate professors.

Faced with a housing shortage that was taking a toll on the local economy, the labor market and the pocketbooks of low-income families, Valentine stakeholders and Hoppe Development approached college faculty to help them explore possible solutions. The collaborative design studio, consisting of fourth-year undergraduates studying architecture and interior design, plus construction management graduate students, partnered with Valentine officials and Hoppe Development to create design proposals for rural housing which could later be used for planning, grant applications and other uses. Of the four proposed designs generated, Hoppe Development further developed and used one of the studio concepts in an application for Low Income Housing Tax Credits through the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority.

Hoppe was awarded the tax credits and is ready to start construction on Sandhills Townhomes. A ribbon cutting was held Aug. 19.

“We are beyond excited this project is coming to fruition and the fact our work is making a difference for rural housing is extremely gratifying,” Hardy said. “We knew it was an issue that needed to be addressed, and if we could help out in some way, we were more than happy to assist the community of Valentine.”

The students worked in teams with the goal of evaluating Valentine’s existing conditions. As part of the exploration process, the studio studied issues such as increasing housing density in the community, affordability, sustainability, construction methods and understanding user groups for a holistic picture of the housing situation.

Their research and ideas played an active role in guiding the town towards a prototype that reinforced a strong sense of community and satisfied the need for affordable housing and quality neighborhoods with a “sense of place”. They spent time in the area listening to community members to get feedback on values and housing needs. After evaluating the sites identified, the students started working on ideas and concepts. A variety of housing types, layouts, construction strategies and materials were considered and evaluated. The collaboration determined that duplex or townhome style units would fit the preference for single-family suburban typography while achieving the required density needed.

The partnership with Hoppe Development gave the college students first-hand knowledge of applicable industry standards, codes and regulations. Hoppe Development was able to share with the students their experience of design constraints that come with affordable housing. Low-income housing projects particularly have certain design standards, green standards and required amenities to meet the threshold of a competitive and successful application.

Ultimately, the plans used for Hoppe Development’s application to NIFA adopted the student’s suggestion of utilizing existing infill lots for row-home style, medium density housing, with priority given to individual entrances and yards to maintain some familiarity for the town. The Sandhills Townhomes will feature 15 three-bedroom units with two floor plan styles — single story living, and a two-story design — addressing the needs the students identified for different housing types to meet the community’s demographics. Each unit boasts an attached garage, appliances including washer and dryer installed in each unit, ample storage and a garden plot in each yard.

“I’m humbled to know that our work helped Valentine secure funding for affordable housing and make a real impact on the trajectory of housing in that area. It’s very rewarding to see the efforts of this collaboration with our students, Valentine and Hoppe Homes result in some prototype design ideas for a community,” Bicak said. “We were delighted to get to work with these partners and the Collaborate Studio students, who now get to see their course work make an applied impact in the built environment.”

The housing units will be available to households at 60 percent or below of area median income at initial move-in, and rents will also be restricted consistent with 60 percent limits. Additionally, Hoppe Development has partnered with Northwest Nebraska Community Action Partnership to target a portion of the units specifically to households at risk of homelessness and to provide supportive services to all tenants of this development.

In addition to working with the students, the community also supported the Sandhills Townhome project by assembling a locally-sourced financing collaboration between Heartland Public Power and Sandhills State Bank, with Midwest Housing Equity Group providing tax equity.