Tina Murray remembered sitting on grime-covered stairs with the mother of two.
The apartment building they sat in had just been condemned by the city of Omaha. Mice, mold, a leaking roof, no heat in the winter and more problems made it easy in early 2022 for the city to justify vacating the Flora Apartments, which had been on Omaha code inspectors’ radars for years. But while the city counted it as a win holding landlords accountable, it was anything but for the residents who were given a day’s notice to leave their homes.
“She told me sitting on those stairs, as gross and disgusting as they were, that it was better than living in her car,” said Murray, senior director of crisis engagement programs with Omaha nonprofit Together. “That’s just unacceptable.”
A lack of affordable housing pushes Omaha’s poorest to accept unsafe living conditions. But when it comes to holding landlords accountable, the city often has too few tools until problems escalate and condemning entire buildings becomes the only option. Some high-profile examples include Yale Park Apartments in 2018, Flora Apartments in early 2022 and recently Legacy Crossing in December 2022. Nonprofits — which end up responding to the emergency by raising money and finding housing — say this pattern can’t continue.
“We need to start holding people’s feet to the fire so that way… [so we don’t] see violations happening for five years then all of a sudden somebody says we’re pulling the plug and we’re gonna ask everybody to move in 24 hours,” said Mike Hornacek, CEO of Together.
The most common tool city code enforcement has is a $125 inspection fee. But for some that’s not persuasive. David Carney, a local activist, released emails on Twitter alleging property owners for Legacy Crossing would rather pay inspection fees than fix violations.
Recently the city started a landlord registry, getting a list of all rented properties and inspecting them once every decade. Properties with violations must pass two years of clean inspections before returning to a decennial schedule, said Dave Fanslau, city planning director, in a news release. City of Omaha Chief Housing Inspector Scott Lane did not respond to a request for comment.
Murray said while the registry is helping, particularly in educating the community more about tenant rights and how to report code violations, there needs to be more accountability.
“The education is great, but if you don’t have the enforcement piece to hold the landlord accountable, the landlord will get away with not fixing the code violations or responding to complaints filed by tenants,” Murray said. “ Because they know there’s 100 more people sitting there that are willing to live in those conditions and pay for it, because it’s better than living in a car.”
To meet the demand for affordable housing over the next two decades, Omaha needs $17.4 billion to produce 80,000 to 100,000 new units, according to a study by the Omaha Community Foundation. Much of the current stock also needs investment. According to United Way of the Midlands, of the 325,000 calls it received to its 211 hotline, 72% are rent and/or utilities related.
When buildings are condemned, it increases the need for nonprofits to raise money to keep people housed and fed. If nothing changes, they’re left only to wonder when the next mass condemnation will be the — the next time they’re forced to raise money, move furniture, check people into hotels and try to pick up the pieces in a chaotic situation.
“It’s not an immediate fix,” Murray said. “You take people from their housing and place them in hotels, it takes months to get people housed … you have [some] people with felonies, evictions, low income, etc. Those are the harder people to house so it takes more resources than that.
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