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Trashed rental property

A property owner removes a paper cover from one of six broken windows she found after tenants moved from a rental home on North 51st Street.

Lincoln renters living in dirty, dangerous or dilapidated housing conditions due to dawdling or derelict landlords see a proposed city ordinance as a tool to beef up inspection requirements.

But some landlords call it a "solution in search of a problem," a move that would make rental housing less affordable and fails to hold problem landlords accountable. 

Lincoln's City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal introduced by Councilman Carl Eskridge at Monday's 3 p.m. meeting.

Eskridge said the ordinance stems from a bill introduced in the Legislature that followed issues at an apartment complex in north Omaha that housed roughly 500 refugees from Myanmar in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. 

That bill (LB85) initially required both Omaha and Lincoln to establish residential rental inspection programs before being amended to only include Omaha.

Eskridge, city housing inspectors and landlords say those deplorable conditions seen in Omaha don't exist here. But public testimony led Eskridge to review how Lincoln deals with rental housing issues.

"I don't see it as landlord versus tenant," Eskridge said. "Both people win here."

Improving the quality of rental housing in Lincoln, he said, is a priority as the city looks broadly at housing affordability.

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 a top-to-bottom inspection of an apartment building.

Opponents of the ordinance question its timing and believe some parts are overly broad.

Lincoln housing inspectors investigate all housing complaints, and if violations are found, the city puts the property on an inspection schedule to make sure the problem gets corrected, said Chad Blahak, who heads the city's Building and Safety department. 

There are 3,000 licensed apartment buildings in Lincoln with about 40,000 units, according to the city.

All licensed apartment buildings are initially inspected inside and out, and then checked out annually to ensure the exterior and common areas meet code, Blahak said.

Each year about eight of every 10 housing code complaints the city receives result in a violation, triggering further inspections, the city said.

Among the changes proposed are new triggers allowing housing inspectors to look inside all apartments if apartment buildings on a property with the same owner each receive one complaint in a year. 

Inspectors can also look at all apartments if the owner has been convicted of a housing violation in district court or if the owner ignores the city's notice of a housing violation, Blahak said.

"It’s not necessary and not going to solve the problems," said Lynn Fisher of Great Place Properties, a property management company which has more than 600 units ranging from apartments to rental homes in Lincoln.

City code already has provisions for housing inspectors to address problem properties, and rogue landlords will still operate, he said.

He believes the costs for the rental registry will get passed along to renters like other fees and taxes landlords must pay.

"I don’t appreciate the fact this is being rammed through with the current outgoing City Council and mayor," Fisher said.

He said educating renters about their rights and recourse is more important.

For Molly Mayhew, a 28-year-old state government employee, the proposal is welcome.

Her rental experience in the Everett neighborhood turned from headache into nightmare seven months into her stay, she said.

Her dishwasher almost caught fire, a dirty neighbor in the building led to "cockroaches the size of terriers" in her unit and black sludge backed up into her kitchen sink twice, she said.

Seeking redress for her concerns, she was bounced between the Health Department and city regulators, and often was informed to simply contact her landlord, she said.

She wanted to give her landlord a chance to get the work done, but corrective work languished.

The final straw came when the shower started to fall apart in August, and she didn't have a functional bathroom for two weeks. She bolted after her landlord sought to raise the rent in a new lease.

Sometimes tenants need the city's help, she said.

"When the city doesn’t take care of it, you have nowhere to turn," said Mayhew, who has since moved in with family.

She believes the proposed ordinance is reasonable.

"You’re not going to have them knocking at your door every five minutes," she said.

The ordinance wouldn't apply to short-term rentals, like those listed on Airbnb, according to the city.

It has the support of Nebraska Appleseed, Collective Impact and the South of Downtown Community Development Organization.

Kyle Fischer, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Lincoln, questioned whether the city needs a rental registry for single-family homes and duplexes if they're not going to be part of the inspection schedule.

He believes more time and input are needed on the proposal.

Eskridge, who is not seeking reelection, said he's open to changes, and he hopes his colleagues on the council will enter Monday's meeting with an open mind.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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