If a broken window can increase crime (the so-called “brown window theory”), imagine the effect an abandoned or burned out house can have on a neighborhood. Omaha has 461 single family houses with orders of demolition in every part of town, according to Kevin Denker, chief code inspector for the city. There are 735 demolition orders total, which can include anything from a fence or a garage to an apartment building or commercial structure. The cost to tear all of it down? Millions.
Vacant buildings were just one problem discussed by Mayor Suttle’s landlord task force over the course of the spring and summer. The task force was formed in February after members of various neighborhood alliances asked city officials to come up with a plan to assist them in improving the condition and safety of Omaha’s neighborhoods. Elected officials, police, a code enforcement official, neighborhood alliance members and an attorney with Omaha Housing Authority were convened. No landlords were on the task force, though several were invited to give feedback and make suggestions. Last Thursday, the Mayor announced its recommendations at a press conference.
About one third of the ideas in the task force report focused on prosecution of offenders and changes to ordinances, while two thirds of the ideas were proactive ways to help landlords and neighborhood alliances. “Crime occurs where landlords neglect their property and have violations,” Suttle said. “Landlords should meet basic legal standards to assure safety in all neighborhoods. This goal is so important. How do we rebuild neighborhoods?” Task force co-chairman Mike Getty, an assistant city prosecutor, indicated that criminal activity by tenants leading to unsafe neighborhoods was also taken into consideration by the task force. “There has to be a balance to this,” he said.
With those realities in mind, the task force came up with a strategy of identifying problem landlords — a group of about 25 property owners — and working with them to improve their compliance with city codes or prosecuting if they do not. According to Denker, there were 1,500 complaints about code violations, resulting in 1,260 notices written in 2011. Mike Getty reported that 180 charges were filed against 67 defendants under the general property maintenance code for failure to comply.
To address the problem of vacant or burned out buildings not being torn down, the task force recommended requiring insurance companies to escrow money required for demolition before sending a check to the property owner. State Senator Brenda Council attended the press conference and she indicated that such a move would require enabling legislation because insurance is regulated by the state. The task force also recommended vacant property registration, which has proven to be an effective management tool in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago.
Expanding the “closed property” posting ordinance would allow for posting and entry onto a vacant property by city officials without the owner’s permission. An ordinance was suggested to allow landlords who were absentee or afraid of their tenants to assign their rights of eviction to the city.
On the bad tenant side, rewriting the city’s nuisance ordinance to more specifically address illegal activity with emphasis on civil injunctions was proposed though no specific language was included in the report.
The Mayor was encouraged to formalize by executive order the Problem Resolution Team, a multi-agency monthly meeting that deals with problem properties. Kevin Denker has been the chair of the meeting since it was formed in 2001 by police chief Donald Carey. “If everybody is there, these are huge meetings,” Denker said. Departments involved include planning, parks, public works, law, health, the Humane Society, police, fire, housing authority, human services among others. By getting all the stakeholders to attend one meeting, it facilitates quick resolution and tracking of properties with violations.
One of Denker’s favorite recommendations from the task force involves upgrading Neighborhood Scan, a project of UNO’s Neighborhood Center. Executive Director Ronald Abdouch describes the center as a “one-stop shop for all things neighborhood.” With Scan, volunteers or paid staff use hand-held devices such as smart tablets to make an inventory of an entire neighborhood including photographs of each building. Code violations are noted and the property owner receives a letter from the neighborhood association — not the city. “Our voluntary compliance rate is double what compulsory compliance is,” Abdouch stated. Scan is a way for neighborhood associations to identify and fix problems without involving the city. It is also a way for neighbors to help neighbors, in cases where a property owner may be elderly or disabled.
Persons wanting to get involved in the continuing work of the landlord task force can contact co-chair Mike Getty at email@example.com