The Douglas County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday to approve funding for an eviction mediation program and allocate funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Commissioner Maureen Boyle introduced a resolution to allocate $410,000 in emergency rental assistance to support the Douglas County Tenant Assistance Program (TAP). The TAP provides free legal assistance to county residents facing eviction. The resolution passed 5-0.
The money was reallocated from the $4.1 million Douglas County received in the first round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Federal guidelines required that 65% of the money be obligated by Thursday. The Christian Outreach Program of Elkhorn (COPE), a nonprofit the county contracted to distribute the funds, was going to fall short of that threshold.
However, guidelines also allowed for up to 10% of the funding to be spent on “housing stability services,” including eviction diversion programs like the TAP. By obligating $410,000 to the TAP, the county will meet the 65% threshold.
“Winter is coming, and with the eviction moratorium that the federal government had imposed expiring, it’s more important than ever to make sure people have a roof over their heads,” Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh said.
Laurie Heer-Dale, director of the Nebraska Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, said their goal is to bridge the “justice gap” for low-income people who often walk into an eviction hearing without a lawyer. Meanwhile landlords are almost always represented. Other cities and states have recently passed laws to provide all tenants with legal counsel and seen evictions drop by 41% in places like New York City.
Heer-Dale said the TAP is a collaboration between over 20 organizations in Douglas County.The Lancaster County TAP has helped over 500 families since it started in April 2020. The Douglas County TAP just started this August, but Heer Dale said they’ve already seen results in preventing immediate evictions and addressing homelessness.
Heer Dale said the $410,000 will be used to pay for two full-time attorneys and administrative assistance for the next three years. She said it will make a huge difference for coordinating the program and connecting people who need help.
As the county board decides how to spend the $111 million it received through ARPA, Commissioner Boyle introduced a resolution to split up $17.5 million for commissioners to identify needs in their own districts. Each commissioner will have $2.5 million to fund proposals, which will still need to be vetted and approved by the ARPA strategy committee like any other proposal.
“Each commissioner seems to have some ideas of what to do for each district.” Commissioner Boyle said. “We feel the pulse of our districts more immediately than the whole board.”
The board also approved a transfer of over $2.1 million from ARPA to the county’s general fund reserve to make up for lost revenue.
Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said she had good news during her weekly COVID-19 update to the board. Although the county still has a high transmission rate, the total weekly number of cases declined this week. Hospitalizations, which often lag behind cases, are still high.
“Our hospitals certainly are still strained, I don’t want to minimize that by any means,” Huse said. “But hopefully as our numbers decrease, and hopefully they will continue to decrease, we will buy them that breathing room that they so desperately need.”
During Tuesday’s Omaha City Council meeting, two items were pulled from the consent agenda to be debated separately. Both passed, but not without opposition.
The first was an agreement with Olsson, Inc. to oversee replacing road panels across the city. The project is a part of the Capital Improvement Plan, and is funded by the street preservation bond voters approved last year.
Olsson was chosen out of a field of eight engineering firms. Councilmember Vinny Palermo said he will take a close look at agreements like this in the future.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than when I go out to a job site and my constituent says ‘I really wish I never voted for that,” Palermo said.
Palermo said the city is “paying someone to babysit contractors,” and constituents have told him that the quality of work is often subpar. He said they could hire city employees instead of outside firms.
Councilmember Aimee Melton said she has also heard from constituents about issues with street improvements. She said she hoped that Olsson and other engineering firms seeking contracts with the city were listening. No representative from Olsson came to speak Tuesday.
“We are paying you to do a job,” Melton said. “We’re paying you to make sure that the roads that the taxpayers are paid for are being done to spec.”
Councilmember Danny Begley said during his election campaign, the most common issue he heard from constituents was the quality of Omaha’s streets. He said it was important that the city hold the firms and contractors accountable.
“There’s no Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole,” Begley said.
The city council also approved an agreement to sell 29 city-owned lots to the Habitat for Humanity of Omaha for a total of only $1. Most of the properties are located in Councilmember Juanita Johnson’s district, who said the low price was possible because of the Nebraska Community Development Law.
JaQuala Yarbro, a business owner and community activist from the area, said she opposed the agreement because she was concerned if the homes would be built to last. She also said it was a race equity issue, because the area is predominantly Black.
“If we do it right the first time, in 20 years we don’t have to demolish new homes,” Yarbro said.
Tracy McPherson from Habitat for Humanity said their goal was not only to build affordable housing, but also to promote long term home ownership and equity. She said they offer educational opportunities and flexibility for new homeowners.
Councilmember Johnson said she has personally witnessed the work Habitat for Humanity has done in North Omaha. She said the organization has the interests of the community in mind.