This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Lisa Salinas tried to do everything right. In 2021, the 50-year-old with blue eyes and wisps of red in her hair moved back to Omaha to help her parents. Her father, now 82, was in assisted living. Her mother needed help.
“You don’t know how much time you have with them,” Salinas said looking toward an overcast February sky in northwest Omaha.
But finding a place to live wasn’t easy. She had no income besides monthly Social Security and disability payments (about $800 in total, she said), her credit was bad, and she had four cats, all service animals. She did find one place — a one-bedroom near downtown Omaha in an old apartment building that, from the outside, seemed nice. Her mom met the landlord and handed him a check for $1,400 to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent.
But less than a year later, the building made local headlines when the city condemned it after Salinas and 13 others had lived through winters with no heat, apartment fires, holes in the ceilings, rodents and shoddy plumbing.
Now Salinas just wants to see her former landlord face the consequences.
“Go to jail. Live in your own building, and see how you like it,” she said. “I want him to pay for that.”
In Omaha a lack of quality affordable housing leaves many, especially in neighborhoods with more people of color and poverty, at risk of health issues, housing instability and stunted childhood development. City housing inspectors are meant to keep housing safe by serving fines and threatening legal action when landlords or homeowners break building codes. But advocates, and even the city’s own inspectors, say there’s not enough accountability.
“I do think someone with some authority needs to actively monitor the housing situation and clean these places up,” said Dave Pantos, a housing attorney and candidate for Douglas County attorney who’s representing Salinas and other tenants in a suit against their former landlord, Bill Stanek. “This is why he’s been able to do it, because he’s just been slapped on the wrist in the past.”
Stanek, a disbarred lawyer and property owner with many code violations over the past several years, did not answer the door of his home, return requests for comment or respond to questions from a Reader reporter after an eviction hearing in Douglas County court for another tenant in a different building.
But he’s not the only one racking up violations. An analysis by The Reader found 40 individuals and companies, less than a percent of property owners cited, account for about 13% of Omaha’s code violation cases since 2015.
They include companies with headquarters in the Bahamas and Switzerland, a person found guilty of sexually harassing tenants in 2004 who still owns properties, a former landlord with a reality show, and a company with a Westside address that owns 171 properties almost entirely in North Omaha.
When landlords break building codes, Omaha’s 13 inspectors can fine them $125 per inspection and give them between 30 and 120 days to fix it — more if they get extensions, less if the violation is immediately dangerous. If they don’t, they can face up to a $500 fine and/or six months in jail. Some say the penalties are too minor, and the legal system favors landlords too much.
“It’s not a level playing field,” said Seth Cope with Omaha Tenants United, a local housing advocacy group. “If you weren’t showing up to work on time or doing what your boss asked you to do, you get fired. If your landlord doesn’t fix the light, doesn’t get the heat repaired and steals money from you [they’ll likely get away with it].”
More cities are leaning toward proactive solutions, such as rental registries, which allow for regular inspections. Omaha implemented a registry in April 2019 to keep up with more than 19,000 rental properties.
Amanda Reddy, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, said most Americans agree safe housing is a necessity. Generally, landlords, tenants and code enforcers want to do the right thing, she said. What’s lacking is enough programs to fix buildings, tools to keep bad landlords in check and resources for enforcers.
“This is a problem we can fix,” Reddy said.
Scott Lane has a sweeping view of Omaha through his office windows 10 floors up in Omaha’s City Hall. The former Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy is approaching four years as the city’s chief housing inspector, but another title scribbled on his desk placard describes it better:
Chief Chaos Officer.
“If there is any division in the city, or in government period, that has more ‘What If’ scenarios than this division, I would be surprised,” he said.
In the last few years, Lane has had to rebuild the department from the ground up. In 2015 the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association, an advocacy group for area landlords, and the City of Omaha settled a lawsuit by changing city code to bar inspectors from investigating homes unless they’ve received a direct complaint.
“The frustration level of not having enough teeth to truly enforce and conduct this job is one of the No. 1 complaints I get from the inspectors,” Lane said.
But Lane says the department has grown, from six people to 13 today, and Omaha’s rental registry has increased its authority.
The registry requires landlords to submit contact information to schedule inspections once every decade. If the property has had recent code violations, landlords must pass two years of clean annual inspections. Technical issues have slowed implementation, Lane said, and only a few landlords have gone through two rounds of annual inspections. By the end of this year, he said, the city should know how well the registry works.
“I think it’s an incredible tool,” Lane said. “We’re really trying to be fair to the landlords, specifically the good ones, yet really capture which ones are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
The registry is the only requirement people have to become landlords outside of following Nebraska’s Landlord-Tenant Act, which covers rules for eviction, how rent should be paid and other basic landlord and tenant responsibilities.
MOPOA has challenged the registry in court and lost twice. The organization does help landlords get out of inspections, though. They provide waivers for residents, prompting them to agree to not allow city officials in their homes. The organization claims the inspections are a violation of landlords’ Fourth Amendment rights. Some landlords also threaten to charge tenants if they allow inspectors into the home.
MOPOA did not respond to a request for comment.
Even with increased accountability, the enforcement team’s power is limited. Every inspection, regardless of the number of violations, carries a $125 fee. Lane said that’s probably not enough when landlords are netting hundreds more on a monthly basis from just one tenant.
Lane’s inspectors can also vacate a unit, but that displaces people and sometimes the landlord will just fill the unit with someone else, even though that’s technically illegal.
If a landlord does that, or refuses to fix a problem, code enforcement can send the Omaha Police Department to charge them with a misdemeanor. Lane said it’s not uncommon to see a few landlords sent to jail in a month. But some high-profile landlords have avoided jail time.
In 2018, Kay Anderson of AB Realty faced 85 misdemeanors for hundreds of code violations at the Yale Park Apartments in North Omaha. He was found guilty of four, sentenced to pay a $1,080 fine and spend two years on probation, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
In the Reader’s analysis of landlords with the most code enforcement cases, there are plenty who have faced pressure related to their conduct.
The list includes offenders with 89 code violation cases down to 10. It also includes large property owners with more than 6,000 units in Omaha and small guys with far less. Entities like the Omaha Housing Authority and Habitat for Humanity also place high on the list. And while patterns of underfunded public housing and Habitat’s commitment to rehabbing housing stock separate them from the private market, they’re nonetheless contributing to gaps in safe housing.
Dave Paladino, who owned Landmark Management Group until his death in a plane accident in 2021, sparked controversy when he requested tax breaks despite having outstanding code violations. Paladino also became known for signs posted outside his storage locker facilities with epigraphs like “ANYONE THAT REFUSES TO WORK SHOULD NOT EAT.” He also parlayed his job into a cable reality show called “The Super.”
Other repeat offenders include Jerry Wojtalewicz, whose former Westside address is listed on code violations for AMP Enterprises’ properties located almost entirely in North Omaha.
VCM Global Asset Management has the most code violations of any landlord but doesn’t technically own properties in Omaha. Instead, VCM manages limited partnerships overseeing rentals. The company is headquartered in Colorado Springs with offices in the Bahamas, Switzerland and Toronto. But when CEO Tom Vukota appears on code violations, his address is 45 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
Though the Lund Company has a relatively high number of violations, Senior Vice President of Property Management Tanya Shapiro said those represent only 12.5% of their real estate portfolio, which includes 48 properties and 6,000 multi-family units in Omaha. Thirteen of their 28 violations also resulted from a 2021 apartment fire started by a resident’s cigarette, Shapiro said. Lane also said of the large landlord companies he’s worked with, Lund is the most responsive and accountable. Requests for comment sent to Landmark Management Group’s real estate division, VCM Global Asset Management and Wojtalewicz, were not returned.
For some, the system is too out of whack to trust local government with fighting back. Instead they trust organizing and educating tenants about blatant violations of Nebraska’s landlord-tenant laws to pressure landlords.
“We’re not maximalist in any of our demands,” said Jade Krivanek, a member of Omaha Tenants United. “We’re not asking for damages. Most of the time it’s like, ‘Pay me the money that is mine, legally,’ ‘Fix this window that is making my apartment below the legally allowed temperature in the winter.’”
Sometimes it works out well. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Huma Haq worked with the group after living without heat for a year. Her apartment near downtown Dundee averaged 40 degrees one day in the middle of January. Ten days after sending a demand letter, she was asked to vacate.
While it shocked her, she didn’t regret standing up for herself. Omaha Tenants United also stepped up, raising $1,500 for Haq through GoFundMe.
“I was mind blown,” she said. “I want to cry just thinking about it … Like I remember shivering in my bedroom under layers of clothes. The only way [I got out] was with the help of Omaha Tenants United.”
Retaliatory evictions are illegal under Nebraska law, but that doesn’t stop them from happening.
It’s also a legal gray area for landlords to have tenants sign waivers promising they won’t allow city inspectors inside. But Erin Feichtinger, director of advocacy and policy at Together, an Omaha nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger and homelessness, has enough examples of that to fill a thick folder on her desk.
“People presume that everybody has a choice,” Feichtinger said. “They don’t. When it comes to housing in Omaha, the free market does not exist for people who are severely cost burdened, for people who have been evicted, for people who have larger families, for people with disabilities, for low-income seniors — none of these people have access to the market in the same way you or I do. And that’s not OK. Because you cannot have a thriving community when you’re leaving all these people behind.”
“We Don’t Have to Wait”
The connection between housing and health is not up for debate.
“It is undeniably the most important environment that we find ourselves in,” said healthy housing advocate Amanda Reddy. “It is the most well-documented social determinant of health for a reason and one of our most powerful platforms for actually helping people to realize their full potential.”
Failure to replace lead pipes and paint causes brain damage and stunts children’s growth. If moisture gets into a building, it can grow mold and attract bugs.
Studies also show substandard housing increases children’s risk of asthma, a top reason kids miss school. Black children have it the worst, being twice as likely to have asthma and seven times as likely to die from it compared to their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rental registries are the best way to catch problems early, Reddy said, although Omaha’s 10-year schedule is on the long end — most cities opt for a three to five-year schedule.
“A big message that we have is how can we stop using ourselves, our children, our families, our residents as detectors,” Reddy said. “We don’t want to wait until a child has been poisoned with lead to be able to find and fix a lead hazard in our home.”
Reddy also said while cities need to invest in stronger enforcement — which federal dollars can support through the American Rescue Plan Act — they also need to figure out how to partner instead of punish.
Omahans can access several programs to fix their homes or buildings. Funds come from the City of Omaha, Douglas County, nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance and area utility providers, spanning issues like lead, rental rehabs and much more, offering sometimes thousands of dollars.
But not enough people take advantage of the programs, according to Lane. Code enforcement can be seen as strictly punitive, but Lane is trying to build relationships with landlord associations, neighborhood groups and nonprofits to send the message that they’re here to help, and hopefully spread the word about these programs.
Compounding the problem is the city’s scarcity of affordable housing, which a recent report put at 80,000 units. The shortage means less pressure on landlords to make costly repairs and renters have to settle for bad options. And if they complain, it’s not hard for a landlord to find another tenant.
Crime and Punishment
As Lisa Salinas stared out the window of the La Quinta Inn off Highway 680, she knew the clock was ticking. The local nonprofit Together had paid for her motel room, as well as other former tenants of the Flora Apartments, but she only had a few days left.
She applied for new apartments, but many were too expensive. Things got worse when her medical transport to the doctor arrived late. Now she had no medication refill to keep her mental health under control.
Today she is finally moving into her own place through the Omaha Housing Authority, but she and other tenants are still waiting for legal proceedings to continue against their former landlord.
Lane said one thing to be hopeful about is people won’t have to worry about renting from Stanek in that building any longer. Recently another property management company, with plans to turn it around, bought the place.
Stanek himself won’t face further consequences however, Lane said. When asked to renovate or sell the building, he cooperated with the city. Stanek and his wife still own seven buildings in Omaha, some of which also have code violations.
It’s a happy ending for the building, and probably future tenants. But for people like Salinas the damage is done. All she wants now is to see the system a little fairer.
“I really don’t care about money,” Salinas said. “The main reason why I’m suing him is because I want him to pay somehow. Everybody’s like, ‘Why didn’t you just get up and leave?’ It’s not that easy. Some people can’t.”
contact the writer at email@example.com