First the renters stood up in the Lincoln City Council chambers.
They wore blue “Humane Housing” stickers and lauded Councilman Carl Eskridge’s proposed ordinance creating a rental housing registry, which would expand the authority for city housing inspectors to examine problem properties.
Then the landlords stood up, testifying that this unnecessary regulation would drive up rental costs and fall short of its aims.
“You’re looking at a divided chamber today — almost in half — asking you to take an action that we haven't fully explored,” Kyle Fischer, of the Realtors Association of Lincoln, said at a public hearing on Monday.
The debate over Eskridge’s proposal spanned three hours and followed a debate in the Legislature earlier this year that was prompted by the discovery of dilapidated, unsanitary housing conditions at an Omaha apartment complex where many refugees lived.
Renters and their advocates implored Lincoln City Council members to adopt the ordinance requiring a database of the rentals in the city, holding landlords accountable for the conditions in their rentals and providing protection to tenants who might be fearful of speaking out.
"People have learned to accept substandard conditions for the price they pay," said community organizer Isabel Salas, adding that everyone deserves a home that's up to code.
But opponents said the city has upgraded its toolbox in recent years to address problem properties, and state laws and city codes already give inspectors the means to correct these issues.
In the eyes of the ordinance's opponents, the system already works.
Last year, the city’s five housing inspectors investigated more than 1,500 complaints and found violations in 620 rentals. There are 3,000 licensed apartment buildings in Lincoln with about 40,000 units, according to the city.
The key components of the ordinance create a mandatory registry for duplexes and single-family rental homes, with a one-time $15 fee, and add new and different thresholds to trigger top-to-bottom inspections of apartment buildings.
Scott Hoffman, who's been a landlord in Lincoln for 35 years, opposed the proposal and said the $15 fees would add more pass-along costs to those who rent duplexes, homes and apartment buildings in the aftermath of higher property evaluations.
Shawn Ryba of the South of Downtown Community Development Organization said the ordinance marked an important first step to improving housing overall in Lincoln. Many in the chambers could collaborate on these issues, he said.
But as written, it had his support, he told the council.
If the city isn’t going to increase Lincoln’s housing supply, “we have to improve what we have,” Ryba said.
Faith White said she hadn’t made a decision on whether the ordinance was good or bad, but she believes it hasn't been given enough thought.
“I would expect that there was a full investigation and study rather than small anecdotes calling for a change in the ordinances,” White said.
Renters said delaying the proposal would just delay improving living conditions for low-income tenants who have been putting up with poor conditions because they can’t afford to live any other way.
Todd Watson of Century Sales and Management said he opposed additional regulation to hold unresponsive landlords accountable because the regulations on the books work.
The city could make housing more affordable and improve its quality by taking steps to spur housing construction, he said.
“Have (bad landlords) deal with competition,” Watson said.
The City Council did not take action Monday night, but Eskridge said he'd consider delaying the vote on the proposal, which is set for next week.