This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
When we set out to work on our story “In Omaha, Bad Landlords Get Off Easy and Tenants Pay the Price,” in early February we had a basic question to start with: who has the most code violations in Omaha?
But finding that answer proved to much more difficult than we imagined, and mirrored the murky, confusing nature that real estate management plays in our city.
What is a building code violation?
To start off, there are several ways a property owner can violate Omaha’s code. The city, like many others, uses the International Property Maintenance Code which sets standards for safe living environments. That means city housing inspectors can write you up for everything from mold and holes in your roof to incorrectly installed light switches and, in some cases, uncovered lightbulbs.
How do I find out about code violations?
Starting in 2015, the City of Omaha began putting all code violation records on a public database. The violations are represented through cases, which may contain one or multiple infractions. The data can be extremely insightful. With the right tools you can see how long cases typically stay open before being closed (about 387 days) and you can see that the city only closes about 60% of cases — which is better than Chicago which only close about 40% but worse than Kansas which closes close to 90%. You can also use geographic data to see most code violations are concentrated in North Omaha, also the highest concentration of race and poverty.
But it doesn’t tell you everything.
How do I find out which landlords have the most code violations?
Ah yes, so we’ve arrived at the question you probably most want to know. The database does not include the property owner’s name. It does, however, include a link to details about the code violation on the city’s website. And THAT has the property owner’s name and address.
The Reader built a web tool to gather that information, and what we got back was helpful but not publishable. See that data here. Names were spelled in several different ways and addresses would vary. Below is just one example. Seems easy enough to suss out until you have thousands of records to run through.
To make it more complicated, many of the “worst” properties are owned by large management companies which themselves don’t own the property, but own a company that owns the property.
Is your head spinning yet? Yeah, ours too.
How did you turn it into something worth looking at?
Cleaning this data was relatively easy, albeit time intensive.
We found unique names and addresses in our data and ran a formula to count how many cases each had in our database. We then selected entities that had 10 or more violation cases and manually combined obvious matches. When we didn’t have a company name but had an address, we had to search the address, typically through the Nebraska Secretary of State’s corporation search page, to find the company it’s attached to.
The end product was both surprising and not. We expected to see companies like Landmark Management group at the top of the list given the criticism they’ve received for their properties in the past. The biggest question was who Vukota Real Estate was? Turns out they’re an international company with addresses in the Bahamas and Switzerland who also happen to have the most code violation cases in the city’s database.
What it can’t tell us, and what we still want to know
What we were unable to do with this story was compare the number of properties an entity owns (or manages) and their code violations. Tanya Shapiro, Senior Vice President of Property Management with the Lund Company pointed out their infractions constitute a very small number of their 48 properties and more than 6,000 units citywide. Meanwhile a landlord like Bill Stanek has 14 infractions for a small number of properties.
We hope to turn the city’s rental registry into a similar database to give a better accounting for how many properties each person/company owns.
contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org