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This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — If the third time’s a charm, Sen. Tony Vargas might move past the finish line this year with proposed legislation that would make it unlawful to deny an apartment to someone based on source of income.

The Omaha senator told a legislative committee Wednesday that nearly 20 other states and 100 cities have enacted bans similar to Legislative Bill 248.

Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Aimed at opening more doors to people who rely on benefits such as Social Security and federal housing vouchers to cover rent, Vargas said that landlords still would be able to use screening methods such as credit and background checks.

‘Removing barriers’

He envisions the bill reducing segregation and, for low-income families, creating inroads to living in newer areas with better public services.

“We need to make sure we are removing barriers,” Vargas told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “This is going to impact long-term earnings, childhood educational achievement and the likelihood of ending up in our justice system.”

Public testimony on the proposal lasted nearly three hours, and was followed by hearings on five more landlord-tenant related bills, introduced by various senators, that stretched another four hours.

In a different public hearing room across the State Capitol, five other housing bills — which together seek a state infusion of $600 million into housing development programs — were being aired before the Appropriations Committee.

The day of hearings, which drew fans and critics from across the state, reinforced Nebraska’s increased attention to an affordable housing crunch that several testifiers said also has inhibited economic and job growth, particularly in rural areas.

Student apartments under construction
Apartments rising in downtown Omaha last year. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)


Erin Feichtinger, policy director for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, was among those who scooted between the two committee rooms to speak on more than one bill.

In advocating for LB 248, Feichtinger said housing needs should be attacked on more than one front. Many look for solutions in “bricks and mortar” — building more housing, she said.

Important also, said Feichtinger, are access efforts such as LB 238, which would make more existing housing dwellings available to low- to moderate-income families.

“It will give families a better chance of success,” she said.

To show the sizable demand and use of government rental vouchers, Vargas told the committee that the Omaha Housing Authority a few years ago advertised that its Section 8 list would open up for one day to receive applicants. He said the agency, in response, received 10,000 calls.

Burdensome requirements

Alicia Christensen, director of public housing at the nonprofit Together Omaha, said people shouldn’t be shut out of places solely because rent is subsidized by the government. She and others noted that the federal rental payment goes straight to the landlord.

“How we pay for something shouldn’t determine what we can buy,” Christensen said. “Shoppers paying with cash don’t enjoy a wider selection at the grocery store than those paying with a check.”

Multiple landlords and other opponents spoke against the proposal. Most said their objection was with unresponsive housing agencies and onerous government requirements rather than with tenants.

Scott Hoffman, a landlord for 40 years, said he testified against the proposal the last two times it was introduced.

He noted a new element in the latest iteration: A landlord guarantee program, funded by $50,000 from the state, would be established to reimburse landlords for unpaid rent or tenant damages.

‘That’s a joke’

Hoffman said that might have been added because of his past criticism. But he said that the amount falls short and that he doesn’t think the state “should be in the business of bailing out the federal government.”

Said Hoffman: “Now you as a state want to fund it with $50k? That’s a joke.”

Lynn Fisher, of Nebraska Real Estate Owners and Management Association of Lincoln, said his organization includes members who accept government rental vouchers and others who don’t. But he said the consensus of members was to oppose the bill.

“It’s a program that can be worked with, but it should be a choice of the owner,” Fisher said. “A private property rights choice.”

Kristy Lamb, a vice president at NP Dodge, said the property management company oversees 4,000 apartments in Lincoln and Omaha and about 40% are dedicated to low- and moderate-income residents. Still, the company is opposed to LB 248, believing that property owners should have the ability to choose whether they want to participate in a government program such as the housing assistance vouchers.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on advancing the bill to the full Legislature for debate.

$600 million

In the Appropriations Committee hearings, Vargas presented two more bills related to housing.

Legislative Bill 741 asks the state to invest $100 million into the Rural Housing Investment and Affordable Housing Funds, two existing programs aimed at developing housing accessible to working-class people.

Legislative Bill 801 calls for $200 million for the Middle Income Workforce Housing Investment And the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The Appropriations Committee also heard public testimony on three other bills:

  • LB 504, introduced by Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, seeks a $100 million state investment into the Rural Housing Investment and Affordable Housing Funds.
  • LB 786, introduced by Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, seeks $100 million in state funds to create mixed-income housing within two miles of an airport, essentially North Omaha.
  • LB 789, by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, requests $100 million for “innovative housing solutions.”

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