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Landlords, renters clash over idea of rental inspections in Omaha and Lincoln

January 23, 2019

Renters and landlords clashed Tuesday over a legislative bill that would require Omaha and Lincoln to register and regularly inspect rental properties.

Supporters argued that Legislative Bill 85 could help prevent another situation like the evacuation of 500 refugees from Yale Park Apartments and ease the minds of tenants who feel they can’t report bad living conditions without facing retaliation from their landlords.

Opponents said the bill would require fees that would ultimately be passed onto renters, making housing less affordable. At least one opponent, the City of Omaha, said it is already working to better enforce its current housing codes and ordinances and doesn’t need state intervention.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduced LB 85 after Omaha officials evacuated the Yale Park Apartments at 34th Avenue and Lake Street. Filthy conditions and almost 2,000 code violations were found, but not until after the city had received formal complaints.

Wayne’s bill was the subject of a three-hour committee hearing. Wayne said he introduced the legislation because the City of Omaha, in the wake of Yale Park, “appeared to have abandoned its plan” to crack down on problem properties.

The day of the Yale Park evacuation, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she supported the concept of a registry ordinance, but a lot of work would need to be done “to get it right for Omaha.”

Since then, city officials, including the Planning Department and City Council, have met to discuss options.

“There is absolutely no truth to the fact that our plans on how to handle rental units in our jurisdiction have been abandoned,” Omaha Planning Director Dave Fanslau told the committee.

Omaha officials are researching registry and inspection programs in other cities, including Minneapolis, Cleveland and Charlotte, North Carolina, to see what has worked and what hasn’t, Fanslau said.

In a letter to lawmakers dated Tuesday, Stothert said the solution “is not identifying and registering landlords.”

“The solution is the ability to proactively enforce current housing codes and ordinances,” she said. She said the city is limited in what it can do because of a court order resulting from a federal lawsuit filed by the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association some years ago.

The city currently sends inspectors out when tenants or neighbors lodge complaints.

Wayne said his bill asks basic requirements of the city and still allows flexibility. And he said he believed that people who rent in his district would pay an extra $100 to $120 a year if it would help ensure safe housing.

Under the bill, Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska’s largest cities, would have to establish programs requiring rentals to be inspected at least once every three years. All rental properties would have to be registered with the city.

The cities could charge annual registration fees to help pay for proactive inspections, plus fines for landlords who don’t register their properties.

Cities could opt to inspect a random sampling of apartments in multi-unit buildings, instead of every unit, or set up a schedule that allows properties with a clean record to be inspected less frequently.

Lincoln, which has a rental licensing and inspection program for properties with three units or more, took a neutral position on the bill.

Iowa law requires cities with more than 15,000 people, which includes Council Bluffs, to establish rental inspections programs.

Dennis Tierney owns properties in Council Bluffs and Omaha and spoke in opposition to the bill. He said he pays annual registration fees in Council Bluffs but the city has conducted just one inspection in 13 years. “They didn’t do their job, they just collected fees,” he said.

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray and member Pete Festersen have said a proposal could be unveiled this year.

Stothert has asked residents for online feedback on housing issues. But she has repeatedly raised concerns about the cost of a program. Omaha has an estimated 79,000 rental units, and the city would have to hire dozens of additional housing inspectors if annual inspections were required, she said.

Ha Day, who spoke through an interpreter in support of the bill, is a former Yale Park resident who dealt with a leaking roof and sewage that drained into her living room.

She said that when she lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, she was afraid of the Burmese army; at the Yale Park Apartments, she was afraid of bed bugs, cockroaches and mice.

When the city evacuated the complex, she lost her apartment and her close-knit community, as the tenants scattered across the city to find new homes.

John Chatelain, president of the landlord group, said it was a “myth” that tenants are afraid to make complaints and that they routinely do so, particularly when “it’s close to the time they’re about to be evicted for not paying rent.” He later clarified that he doesn’t think retaliation against tenants is a myth but said he’s never seen it.

Officials from Omaha, including Fanslau and chief housing inspector Scott Lane, said the city’s current rules have teeth and that a small number of landlords are bad actors. Lane said landlords who don’t address code violations can face up to a $500 fine and six months in jail.

But those penalties aren’t levied very often, he said.

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