On an overcast February day, Lisa Salinas sat by a window in the lobby of a La Quinta Inn in northwest Omaha as people checked in and out at the front desk nearby. The small hotel has been home to Salinas and several other former tenants of the Flora Apartments at 2557 Jones Street since the City of Omaha condemned the “unlivable” building in January. While she appreciates a place for her and her four cats to stay, Salinas said being thrust into housing uncertainty hasn’t been easy.
Because she’s on a fixed income through social security and disability payments, she’s found few affordable apartments, and none that accept pets. And the change of location caused her medical transportation to miss an appointment for her necessary medications.
But Salinas may seem some compensation. On Wednesday, Feb. 16, a lawyer representing Salinas and other tenants sent their former landlord William Stanek a demand letter asking him to repay security deposits, moving costs and unjustly charged rent, among other things, for a total of $10,000 per client. Stanek did not return a request for comment or answer the door of his South Omaha home.
For Salinas it’s not about the money. Though that would help pay her mom back for money borrowed to rent the place, Salinas wants Stanek to know there are consequences.
“Go to jail, live in your own building and see how you like it,” she said. “I want him to pay for that.”
While Salinas’ recent experiences with housing stability have brought stress into her life, they’re nothing compared to the “nightmare” she experienced since moving into the Flora Apartments nearly a year ago. She went without heat, had plumbing issues and had the apartment below her catch fire, pluming smoke into her one-bedroom unit which she paid $700 a month for. Other tenants described having to use space heaters to stay warm in the winter as well as having holes in the walls and ceiling, exposed wiring, people openly using drugs in the hallways, mice and rodents, and non-tenants freely entering and exiting the building.
“It was so heartbreaking,” said Dave Pantos, who’s representing the Salinas and other tenants pro bono. “Just seeing the scars on their arms from the bedbug bites and cockroach bites. I mean, these folks all are suffering from trauma.”
Pantos first heard about the building when the City of Omaha’s code enforcement condemned it in January. As tenants’ stories began to surface, the former executive director of Nebraska Legal Aid, a free service for low-income individuals, and current Douglas County Attorney candidate, said he offered his services.
“Landlord-tenant law in Nebraska is stacked against the tenant,” Pantos said. “I think this is a pretty profound case of [not following lease agreements], and that’s a violation of the statute.”
Pantos said he and his clients are prepared to file a lawsuit in Douglas County Court if Stanek doesn’t respond to the letter by March 1.
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