Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Following a truncated 2020 session in the Nebraska Legislature which many felt did little to address pressing social issues, some senators’ have put their sights on social injustice and inequity highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic as focuses of their legislative packages for 2021.

Chief among them are proposed changes to housing law, which were on display at a committee meeting Wednesday, Jan. 27.

For a full day senators and proponents argued for a slate of bills that would give tenants legal leverage and update unclear language in state law. The legislation would take aim at many long standing issues that became glaring in 2020 as many lost their jobs and faced eviction.

Opponents, including landlords and representatives from landlord associations, argued these bills were overreaching, introduced redundant solutions or sought to penalize all landlords for the misbehavior of a few.

Both sides presented to the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee which includes Chairperson Sen. Steve Lathrop, Sen. Tom Brandt, Sen. Wendy DeBoer, Sen. Suzanne Geist, Sen. Terrell McKinney, Sen. Adam Morfeld, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks and Sen. Julie Slama. Senators, who funnelled in and out as they presented their own legislation to other committees, asked questions often about the language, direction and implications of new legislation. Sen. McKinney, District 11 of Omaha, particularly stood out, asking landlords and their representatives tough questions about evictions as well as proposing compromises that could assuage their complaints with the legislation.

Sen. Megan Hunt, District 8 of Omaha, also stood out presenting several bills including giving tenants legal recourse if they feel they were retaliated against for presenting a code violation to their landlord and standardizing how late fees are charged. Sen. John McCollister, Sen. John Cavanaugh and Sen. Wendy DeBoer also introduced legislation that ranged from protecting victims of domestic violence who have had to leave their homes to steps landlords must take to forcibly enter a tenant’s home.

Not heard yesterday but of particular interest to housing advocates is Sen. John Cavanaugh’s bill that would provide right of counsel to all tenants in eviction proceedings. Most tenants walk into eviction court without a lawyer, according to housing advocates. After New York City implemented a right to counsel program they saw a dramatic decrease in eviction filings and 98% of represented tenants were able to stay housed. That bill will be heard in front of the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 4.

Read our full Tweet thread of yesterday’s meeting. Some tweets contain misspellings of names are corrected later in the thread.

Listening in to the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee this morning. Hearing a lot of housing bills today

Senator Megan Hunt is up first with LB277 which would update landlord and tenant law (including provisions for damages, deposits and overdue rent) to include those living in mobile homes.

Last year Sen. Hansen’s bill (which passed with no opposition) updated many of those pieces of the law for other types of renters, did not include mobile home renters. Sen. Hunt’s bill is essentially the same bill, would just update law to serve every renter uniformly.

One opposer up now, didn’t catch his name, but would rather have tenants request deposit once they’ve moved out. This bill would put impetus on landlords.

Opponent says too much is put on landlords these days and the only people supporting this bill are not tenants but people “who think they know what’s best for tenants”

Hunt follows that saying just because people aren’t in Lincoln (given the snow, the pandemic, the early timing in the day) doesn’t mean they don’t support this bill.

Next up, LB268 from Senator McCollister

This would change language about how landlord’s can enter units. Landlords have to give tenants one-day alert that they’ll enter. This bill would change language so landlords must get tenant permission. That can be waived if there’s an emergency or if property has been vacated.

It also changes the language from “one day” to “24 hours” Erin Olsen from Nebraska Legal Aid says that she’s had many tenants who’ve gotten calls in the middle of the night that a landlord will enter the home the next day.

This would also require landlords to provide written notice. Olsen said this burden put on a landlord is minimal in comparison to a tenant’s right to use and enjoy the property they’re paying for.

There’s some questions about what constitutes an emergency? how does the landlord have to deliver the written notice? Is this a big enough issue to require new legislation? Olsen: yes, this is a frequent issue my tenants face.

Missed the last proponent bc of video issues. We’re on to the first opponent. First up is a board member of two different landlord associations.

First opponent says the statute is clear, landlords who aren’t following statute are not going to follow this either.

He says that if a tenant asks for a maintenance issue, for example, that should be considered consent. This bill would put undue burden on a landlord by requiring extra steps to get access to their property.

Another issue is whether the tenant has or is selling drugs out of their apartment. Opponent says landlord’s aren’t going to ask for permission, says they have a right to inspect if they hear something like that is happening.

Sen. McKinney asks what authority a landlord has to enter an apartment. Says they need something other than a “hunch” to get into the apartment. Opponent says landlord is liable if they don’t do something about it.

Sen. McKinney asks opponent to consider whether one tenant might target another by saying a tenant has drugs. Sen. McKinney said landlords should face similar burden as law enforcement to enter an apartment.

Lynn Fisher with the Real Estate and Managers Association is up now as an opponent

Fisher said tenants and landlords both take on risks when entering rental agreement. Says the current Landlord/Tenant Act works well, this would hurt good landlords more than help tenants of bad ones. Also says the burden would result in higher rents for every tenant.

Didn’t catch next opponent’s name but said this bill would fix a problem that doesn’t exist. No landlord would enter someone’s property without permission or notice, he said.

Also has questions about what would happen if a repair project takes multiple days. Do you provide written notice for every day?

Another opponent, member of an association that collectively owns tens of thousands of units in Omaha, echoes other complaints that this would add undue burden on landlord’s with costs being passed on to tenants.

Things that fall in grey area: getting consent for things like inspections to sell a property (in this example a 47-unit building), would become a logistical nightmare to get every one on the same page.

Heading off to a meeting but if you’re interested in following along, once again here’s the link:

We’re hearing about LB 46 which would change how landlords can serve and notify tenants of eviction. Missed proponents speaking, but opponents are echoing sentiments we heard early: undue burden on landlords, make it harder for them to do their job and add costs to tenants.

This bill would make it mandatory to personally serve tenants so they know they have an eviction proceeding. Landlords also say it is extremely unlikely tenants would not know they’re being evicted, so the point is moot.

Heard someone earlier from the State Bar Association’s tenant legal services that often their association’s outreach group is some of the first times tenants learn they’re being evicted.

The main point is that landlords believe tenants are dodging personal servings, taking advantage of living rent free until they are absolutely forced out through a court injunction.

Passing this will also cause landlords to lose money. If they’re losing money waiting to evict people, those costs will be pushed onto tenants because, as one opponent put it, landlords operate within tight budgets and can’t incur those costs.

^ those are comments from opponents if that wasn’t clear.

Brad Greiner, a 20-year Lancaster County constable says this would disrupt an already efficient process. Says that he already catches 65% of people on the first attempt to notice them of an eviction.

Constables in this scenario perform a lot of that extra work involved in evictions, noticing people of evictions, ect.

McKinney points out that last opponent claims he’s neutral but also says he has a better relationship with landowners. What relationship are you trying to build with tenants? Who are you trying to help in this situation?

Greiner says they have a good working relationship because landlords work with them to provide keys, access codes, ect.

Now we’re in recess until 1:30

Starting up with the judiciary committee once again. Starting with Sen. Hunt’s bill LB205 — Change provisions relating to unpaid periodic rent under the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act

Sen. Lathrop says Judiciary Committee usually has 27 days to hear bills, this year due to COVID they have 16. They’ve got more than 100, which is typical, but it’s going to be a crunch. Like this morning, they’re limiting proponents and opponents to 30 minutes each.

Here’s Sen. Hunt’s bill —

This bill would change standards for when/how much landlords can change for late fees. There’s currently no standard and Hunt says advocates at UNL have said people are being charged a variety of late fees with some having late fees on top of late fees.

Late fees can be charged following 3 days of late rent. Late fees can be up to 1% per day, fees should not exceed $100 or 5% of total rent. Money would go toward unpaid rent first to avoid paying late fees on late fees.

The bill would also require more communication on landlord’s to let tenants know they’re being charged late fees as well as accurate information on how the fees are accessed.

Law student says UNL legal clinic looked at a sample of housing lawsuits and said people sometimes owed hundreds of dollars more than their monthly rent. Some people also remain in the red despite being up to date on rent.

Rep from Legal Aid says they’ve seen tenants who’ve been charged upwards of 18% of their monthly rent in late fees, or $25 a day. These hurt low-income tenants who in the search for affordable housing have no choice but to agree to these late fees.

18% and $25 are two different figures. The 18% flat rate she provided was $175. These vary landlord to landlord as there’s no legally binding rate.

Lynn Fisher, who spoke this morning, is the first opponent of LB205

Fisher said late fees are agreed upon by landlord and tenants, not imposed upon tenants after the fact. Landlords will often waive late fees, but they need that incentive to make sure rent comes in on time (barring an emergency).

Fisher said if this bill passes, more people would take advantage of low late fees, add costs to landlords which would push up rent (Fisher and many others brought this up earlier today).

Hunt had said this bill follows in line with what other states do. Fisher said Nebraska shouldn’t follow suit. In Nebraska we have “the good life” and there’s a reason it’s been that way.

Sen. McKinney asking good questions: Fisher claims tenants can renegotiate late fees, McKinney asks what if tenants don’t know that (how many of us have ever felt powerful enough to do that btw?). Fisher said it’s a tenant education issue and landlords do a job of that.

do a good* job of that. Says landlords sit down and go through lease agreement with renters line by line. Once again, I don’t know if that’s ever happened with me, curious if anyone’s had that experience and were able to negotiate things like late fees. Please sound off.

Another opponent says that the bill doing away with other fees (pet fees, insurance fees, buyout fees, ect.) would cause a lot of problems for other types of fees that tenants and landlords incur

McKinney asks opponent, who reps some landlords in Nebraska (one I heard was the Apartments Association), says his association has only seen at most a flat $75 rate. McKinney says he’s heard of people being charged much more than that on a day-by-day system.

Opponent says he doesn’t know if his members do that. McKinney asks, don’t you think you should know something like that before speaking against a problem so many people experience?

Dennis Tierney from Metro Omaha Property Owners Association says late fee ceiling is arbitrary and inadequate.

Late fees are not an unusual part of doing business he says. Lawyers, banks, others have late fees, there’s no reason for the extra legalese on this that would just drive up rents for tenants in the long run, he says.

Dora Stuch with commercial investment properties echoing earlier statements: late fees are part of a contract that tenants and landlords agree to. Also repeats another point, landlords also have bills to pay. They have mortgages and other bills they don’t have wiggle room with.

Another key point we’re hearing over and over from representatives of landlords and landlord associations: most landlords act in good faith, don’t charge too high of rent, work with tenant to waive or push back late fees.

Stuch said landlords don’t want to evict residents and she’s never seen a late fee higher than 50%. CIP is one of the largest landlords in Lincoln — own more than 16,000 units in Lincoln, Omaha and some in Iowa.

People arguing with this have not argued that all landlords are preying on tenants, but that there needs to be a uniform standard so that all are acting fairly.

Stuch says CIP has evicted maybe three people throughout the pandemic — once again CIP owns more than 16,000 units in Lincoln, Omaha and Iowa.

McKinney asks Stuch how much in late fees CIP takes in each year. She couldn’t give him an exact figure. Their late fees are locked at $75, it’s not their desire to charge late fees.

One more opponent: Doug Lane says he’s never heard of people being charged late fees on top of late fees. Not to say it doesn’t happen, he says. Lane, like others, says COVID-19 and the stress its put on renters should not be a reason to pass LB205.

Lane echoes the argument that renters/landlords agree on late fees in lease agreement. Also says years ago he charged $40 in fees. People blew that off. Then he raised it to $100, that got people’s attention. Now people are blowing that off and he might have to raise it more.

In closing says this does not stop landlords from charging late fees or evicting for nonpayment on rent. It’s about defining what is “unconscionable.” The law says tenants shouldn’t charge unconscionable late fees.

Hunt said UNL legal clinic has seen people charged 300% of their rent in late fees. Also notes landlords in the room are claiming ignorance on late fees paid on late fees which they themselves are doing that, though she won’t name names.

This is also not just about COVID, she says. This has been a problem for a long time. Nonprofits and government, in some cases, are picking up the bill.

Hunt up with LB358 — Change provisions relating to retaliatory conduct by a landlord under the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act

This would keep landlords from retaliating against tenants who tell their landlords about code violations. Currently tenants have protections if they report code violations to the city.

Hunt recalls Yale Park incident years ago which affected a mostly low-income refugee population.

Hunt said landlords who follow the law shouldn’t worry about this bill, it’ll actually create better communication between them and tenants. She said landlords who testify against this bill will be “telling on themselves”

potential increases in rent outlined in the lease would not be subject to changes proposed in this bill. Tenants would have to prove the raises in rent were retaliatory in nature.

Hunt says retaliatory actions by landlords perpetuate looking “run down” or attracting “the wrong kind of people.” Most of the time tenants bring issues to their landlords and rather than fixing it, landlords evict them bc they know another person will take their place, she says.

Caitlin Cedfeldt with NE Legal Aid says this would foster housing stability by protecting tenants who just want to improve their housing situations. Would also empower tenants who may not bring issues because most don’t have a safety net if they’re evicted.

Cedfeldt said she tells tenants all the time they should be prepared for eviction if they bring up code violation issues. Said she had a good tenant recently get evicted for bringing up such issues.

Lathrop asks what it means to make a complaint in good faith. How do we define a complaint in good faith, is this a workable process? Cedfeldt said gathering evidence like taking pictures of problems in the apartment. Already a standard practice for her in court.

Cedfeldt said she thinks landlords would have to prove complaint was not in good faith. Cedfeldt said in any case tenants aren’t making pithy complaints but sewage getting backed up, mold in the apartments and infestations. Court can also look at the content of the complaint.

Ryan Sullivan with Nebraska College of Law, says that many landlords won’t be affected by this, but it’s the bad landlords this will affect. He says there’s over 10k landlords in Nebraska who aren’t represented at this meeting.

Sullivan said many landlords think this bill could be a backdoor way to avoid eviction by making frivolous complaints. This would be an extra tool for defense, Sullivan said. He also says that as an affirmative defense, tenant would have to prove this is good faith.

Landlord would then have to prove the eviction is not retaliatory

Sen. Geist says this bill might penalize all when it’s only a few that are mistreating tenants. Wonders if there’s a way to do this locally rather than statewide. Sullivan said there’s room to adjust, but it’s not going to penalize people following the law.

Lathrop said this would have an effect on landlords because if someone’s being evicted for violating their lease, but they made an unrelated good faith complaint, that could give tenants unfair leverage over landlords.

Lathrop said the problem is that this would add extra legal burden to overcome the presumption that the eviction was retaliatory. Lathrop says this bill doesn’t feel as tightly tailored out of bill heard day. Would catch some people who are doing the right thing.

Ryan Sump with the bar association’s tenant assistance program is up

Tells the story of someone who moved into an apartment that had code violations with agreement that landlord will fix issues. Landlord doesn’t fix them, tenant goes to city, landlord finds out, one week later tenant is evicted.

On to opposition testimony

First up Lynn Fisher, President of Real Estate Owners and Managers Association. Thanks Lathrop and Geist for asking the right questions.

Fisher said these are code enforcement issues and if this bill is passed “we good landlords” would get caught up in this.

Right now landlords can evict tenants on short notice if they have month-to-month or week-to-week leases. They don’t have to give any reason, this would complicate what’s already outlined in law.

“Thats the way it should be,” he said.

Fisher also says the issues this bill is getting at can be solved through current law and current things like reporting code violations. Not really understanding how that solves the issue of people facing retaliation.

Didn’t catch current opponents name but he points out 76-1419 which says landlords need to keep fit premises, says bill is redundant. Then he says landlords are taking on skyrocketing property taxes. This would add on to problems landlords are facing. Maybe I’m missing something.

McKinney proposes whether we add penalty to disincentivize tenants from making bad faith claims. Opponent said he doesn’t want that, this is just adding more problems for landlords and we don’t need more burden on either side.

McKinney asks, what if we have the tenant prove they’re in fine standing with landlords. Opponent says it’s complicated because there are personality differences, things that go beyond whether there’s code violations or not. Renting just a complicated, nuanced situation.

Next opponent Dennis Tierney, board of directors for the metro omaha property owners’ association

Tierney says the bill is redundant as there’s already anti-retaliation measures for people complaining to government about code violations. Says this makes it so all a tenant has to do is “report a complaint every six months so they don’t get evicted”

Tierney repeats argument that passing this would cause more in legal and other fees that would be passed on to the tenant in terms of increased rent.

Tierney says anti-retaliation law is already on the books. McKinney said if we’ve already figured this out, why are people still experiencing this. Tierney said it’s not happening in Omaha. But maybe some people aren’t claiming retaliation when they should.

One opponent says this bill is an “abomination to good faith” likens it to if you’re in a bad marriage and the police say you’ve done something wrong so you have to stay in that marriage for six years and follow certain rules. Says this bill is ridiculous.

Now he says if someone says he needs to repaint a house because there’s lead paint, he’d have them move out because the cost would be too great. Then that person could charge the eviction is retaliatory. Q for anyone: is it legal to still have lead paint in houses?

From EPA:

Lead paint is still present in millions of homes…If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a problem. Deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention.,is%20usually%20not%20a%20problem

Closing remarks from Sen. Hunt

Hunt said we can’t assume people would bring these complaints frivolously bc the cost financially/time/ect. is often insurmountable for tenants.

Hunt says we do not have proactive code enforcement and we don’t have good retaliation protection for tenants. Says testifiers today show why we need this bill: one person says he doesn’t apply to Omaha’s rental registry, another is suing the city to stop code enforcements.

We’re going to take a five minute break

Sen. John Cavanaugh is up speaking about LB320

The bill would change provisions relating to violence on premises under the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act

Juile Lubisi up to support LB320. Says she is a survivor of domestic violence and that this bill would pave the way for victims to leave their unsafe living situations w/o fear of extra financial burden or evictions which would affect ability to find future housing.

Lubisi says she tried to get out of her lease but the landlord said she was lucky not to be evicted as her daughter’s father left holes in the walls and damaged other things after he’d been drinking. She had to pay off the rest of her lease while trying to provide a better life for her and her daughter.

Caitlin Cedfeldt from NE Legal Aid is up to also speak as a proponent.

Cedfeldt said that victims of abuse are more than 4x more likely to face housing instability and that Legal Aid often works with people facing eviction who are also the victims of abuse.

Lots of meetings back jumping back in for LB128 from Sen. McCollister

Lynn Fisher testifying against the bill allowing for people to apply for evictions being wiped clean from their record says this would put blinders on landlords who need to know about tenants’ pasts.

McKinney says a lot of evictions are traumatic for people to relive and doesn’t understand why we need to people put through that emotional issue just so landlords can decide whether to rent to someone or not.

Fisher said landlords should be able to know a renters’ entire history to access how much of a risk a tenant would be to their property, to their neighbors, ect.

McKinney asks if a landlord has heard of redlining. Landlord pauses and says “I’ve heard of it. I think it’s illegal.”

McKinney says we shouldn’t be able to judge people for something that’s been dismissed.

McKinney brings up this example: a woman has been raped, needs to leave her home, gets evicted, then has it expunged. Then she applies for a new home and the landlord asks her what happened with that eviction.

Will you put her through that trauma, McKinney asks. Opponent says that’s not their goal but they need to know what happened. McKinney says you don’t want to, but you will [put them through trauma].

Trauma for an eviction that may have been expunged

McKinney: Have you ever charged someone for an eviction you didn’t go through with?
Landlord: Yes I have.
McKinney: Why would you do something like that?
Landlord said it’s gotten to the point where people don’t pay. He has them pay attorney fees and other fees to avoid eviction.

If I’m understanding that exchange correctly. McKinney is leading discussion with landlords and representatives

Would also like to point out this landlord referred to the tenant he did this with several times. Sen. Lathrop had to ask him not to keep using the past tenant’s name.

Up now is Sen. DeBoer discussing LB 246

This bill would change some provisions for how landlord’s are able to forcibly enter a resident’s home.

Ryan Sullivan from Bar Assoc Tenants Assistance Project. Says he’s been volunteering since April, learned about a lot of gaps in tenant/landlord law. This would require that landlord’s require legal reason for eviction. This seems like something that law requires but it doesn’t.

Less than 100 of evictions in last year he reviewed stated statutory reason for eviction. Every other one is left to lawyers, judges and others to guess the statutory reasons or legal defense available to tenants

Sullivan says he can’t imagine why anyone would oppose this (sure a similar slate of landlords and reps we’ve heard all day will). Says this will help tenants, the courts and landlords alike.

I stand corrected. No oppositional testimony. Lynn Fisher is speaking for himself and not as a landlord association president. He’s speaking as a neutral voice. Fisher echoed Lathrop’s statement that it’s good evicted tenants have had legal representation through the pandemic.

7 position letters submitted for this bill. All 7 are in favor. I should have been keeping track of each bill but I have to assume that the number of proponents on these housing bills far outweighs opponents

Originally tweeted by Chris Bowling (@ChrisMBowling) on January 27, 2021.

Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

Leave a comment