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Black mold. Leaking pipes. Cockroaches and vermin.

These conditions exist in Lincoln’s rental units and exist more widely than many would like to accept. We know this because we have spoken to thousands of Lincolnites over the course of the last two years.

What we have learned is tenants seldom complain about unhealthy rental conditions because they either do not know they can complain or they fear eviction as retaliation for complaining. Yet, our interior inspection system rests almost entirely on tenant complaints.

Ordinance 19-52 before the Lincoln City Council would amend current regulations, taking one small, measured step towards remedying these issues. It would ensure all rental units are registered with the city. Presently, only one- to two-unit rentals have no such obligation. No one actually knows for certain how many of these units are being rented in Lincoln because there is no requirement to register with the city.

Under current regulations, the city already has the authority to conduct interior inspections of rental units when a certain number of code violations have been found. Ordinance 19-52 would merely amend current regulations to expand interior inspections where complaints are known to have occurred.

For example, an interior inspection would be allowed in both units of a duplex when one of the units has made two complaints or more within a 12-month period. Inspections, therefore, would not rely solely on tenant complaints and, as a result, would help address lack of tenant knowledge about the complaint system and retaliation.

Ordinance 19-52 would also help address housing affordability in Lincoln. Addressing the quality of units helps to preserve the current stock of housing, which if neglected can lead to condemnation and in some cases, destruction. This step towards ensuring quality helps preserve the stock of affordable units and is a critical component of a comprehensive plan to maintain housing that is affordable and humane.

Indeed, Lincoln has a critical shortage of units available to low-income households. Much of the housing that exists for these folks is in single-family units and duplexes that have been converted to rental property. Without a registry of these units, the city lacks important information about the state of rental housing in Lincoln. This ordinance provides for a registry so that the City of Lincoln can make decisions with accurate information.

Moreover, Ordinance 19-52 will not bring the harmful impact opponents claim. Any cost to landlords is minimal -- a one-time $15 fee. Not only is the $15 flat fee to register a one-time occurrence; there is nothing that prevents landlords from disbursing this small fee to renters over time, who could gain confidence that this ordinance has measures which honor legitimate complaints and helps identify problem properties.

In addition, if a rental unit is up to housing code there is little affect for a landlord. If, on the other hand, improvements need to be made to fulfill code requirements then, this law will better ensure those changes are identified and made, which benefits tenants, landlords and our community broadly.

In short, Ordinance 19-52 is a modest, reasonable amendment to current regulations that should be passed -- and now.

We also recognize the need for all interests to come together to discuss what other changes need to take place in Lincoln’s housing. Housing affordability and adequacy need to be further addressed.

We are open and committed to working in good faith with all stakeholders in this process. We can all work together towards a Lincoln where everyone has access to affordable and adequate housing.

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James Goddard is the economic justice director at Nebraska Appleseed. He wrote this on behalf of Collective Impact Lincoln, a project that includes Civic Nebraska, the South of Downtown Community Development Organization and Nebraska Appleseed.

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