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Affordable housing, 12.13

Katharen and Scott Wiese know they're fortunate to pay about $600 a month for their apartment in the Near South. But like many renters, they know affordable, quality housing isn't easy to find.

A coalition of Lincoln organizations recommends that the city broaden its inspection program for rental housing as one way to assure people have a safe place to live. 

Renters described their various issues in more than 100 postcards dropped off at the Lincoln City Council office. 

One renter said she uses an umbrella in the bathroom because of a leak in the ceiling above the toilet.

Renters also described high rents and rising rents, people working two jobs to afford an apartment, and problems including limited parking, busted furnaces, water leaks, broken door frames, unsealed windows, very high utility bills and neighbors smoking marijuana in common areas.

To help protect renters, Collective Impact Lincoln would like the city to expand its rental registry to include duplexes and house rentals. Currently, only complexes with three units or more are required to register and are subject to annual inspections of the exterior of the building and common areas.

The coalition is also seeking periodic inspections of the inside of all rental units.

Renters expressed their concerns in the postcards and in testimony during a public comment period at a recent council meeting.

Lincoln families deal with everything from skyrocketing rents to living in rat-infested apartments, said Jose Lemus, with Collective Impact Lincoln.

The expansion of the rental registry would incorporate another 10,000 to 15,000 housing units and would reward good landlords while protecting tenants from retaliation from bad landlords, Lemus told the council.

The coalition is focusing on two issues — housing affordability and housing conditions — said James Goddard, with Nebraska Appleseed, which is working with Civic Nebraska and the South of Downtown Community Development Organization under the Collective Impact Lincoln partnership.

Currently, the city does indoor inspections only when a complex opens or changes ownership or in response to complaints. The size of the complex determines the number of complaints required to trigger an interior inspection, Goddard said in a telephone interview. 

And often people don’t complain because they are worried about losing housing in retaliation, which has happened, Goddard said. If someone is low-income and already struggling with housing, they are not likely to risk losing the roof over their head.

The coalition would like the city to have a periodic inspection system, perhaps one that would reward good landlords with few violations by putting them on a longer inspection schedule, he said.

Several cities, including South Sioux City, Papillion and Council Bluffs, Iowa, have periodic inspection systems in place, Goddard said.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne this year introduced a bill in the Legislature (LB85) to require both Omaha and Lincoln to establish residential rental inspection programs.

The measure was in response to reports of unsafe and deteriorating rental housing conditions, capped by the shutdown of an apartment complex in north Omaha that housed roughly 500 refugees from Myanmar in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Wayne's bill, which was amended to cover only Omaha, has not been scheduled for debate.

Goddard said he expects the Lincoln coalition to continue the housing discussion after the city elections, when there will be a new mayor and several new council members.

Currently, Lincoln is looking at hiring a consultant to explore what constitutes affordable housing and to look at policy options and best practices in other communities, said David Landis, director of the city's Urban Development Department.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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