On July 14, the city cleared a campsite of unhoused people near Haymarket Park ("Lincoln officials defend action to pack up west Lincoln encampment," July 17). This campsite has existed for years and is one of several spots around the city where people who are chronically or temporarily homeless make homes in tents and use the trees or gulleys for protection from the elements.
The city said the action was out of concern for the tenants’ health and safety. At Collective Impact Lincoln, we agree that this should always be at the forefront of our city government’s decision-making. In that same vein, and in a sincere effort to avoid another July 14, this is an opportunity to highlight the proactive steps that can be taken to address the root causes of homelessness in Lincoln.
Camps of unhoused people don’t happen in a vacuum. Lincoln has a true problem with affordable housing. Housing is unaffordable for 45% of Lincolnites who rent, at all income levels. More than 21,000 Lincoln households are cost-burdened by housing costs; 86% of extremely low-income families spend more than a third of their income on rent locally.
The last 18 months have only made the need to make meaningful change clearer. Lincoln’s chronically homeless population has increased and the pandemic’s economic effects erased the marginal savings of low-income families.
Yet, Lincoln’s leadership can put our city at the forefront of national housing reform. It can help halt or even reverse these tragic losses through a number of proven approaches. Strategies include proactive rental inspections, protecting tenants from source-of-income discrimination such as Section 8 vouchers, and requiring the development of more affordable housing through inclusionary zoning.
On their own, proactive rental inspections (PRI) would be a major step in the fight for housing adequacy. PRIs require more accountability from landlords and property management companies, and for them to place greater value on tenants’ health and safety. Proactive rental inspections also slow deterioration of the city’s housing stock and keep more units available. This is a critical need; Lincoln’s rental vacancy rate is well below the national average.
At Collective Impact Lincoln, we hear story after story from low-income tenants of landlord neglect and willful disregard of basic maintenance issues. One family faced standing sewage water in their basement and no running water for weeks, forcing them to bathe with bottled water. Another tenant was hospitalized for a week after sewage flowed into his apartment and made him seriously ill. A tenant’s young son was injured after falling off a porch on which the handrail had not been replaced.
Many others have reported the presence of black mold; often, landlords simply scrape it off and paint over it when preparing for new tenants. Another couple did not have hot water for the entire winter, forcing them to boil water for sponge baths. Pleas for exterminators to spray for cockroaches also often go ignored.
Technically, tenants can complain to the city’s Building and Safety Department to trigger an inspection, which then could result in a landlord being required to address the violations. But this process has major flaws in terms of accessibility, as well as in ensuring landlords do not retaliate against tenants for making the complaint in the first place. Although certain retaliation from landlords is illegal, a common refrain from tenants is if they lose their current unit – even if it’s in a deplorable state – they don’t know where they’ll go.
The barriers to renting other housing aren’t just about what’s affordable: Eviction records, criminal convictions and discrimination against sources of income such as vouchers all compel tenants to stay where they are.
The risk of a spiral into homelessness easily ensues. From there, it’s not difficult for tenants to imagine themselves living in a tent – a tent that the city may decide to put in a dumpster because it poses concerns for their health and safety.
Eradicating homelessness in Lincoln demands many approaches. Direct-service providers do much to support Lincoln’s homeless and housing-insecure populations. Mutual-aid organizers have built power and capacity to meet people’s immediate needs with community resources. There’s certainly no lack of effort in these corners of the city.
Now city leaders must do their part, by dismantling the systemic barriers to true health and safety for all Lincolnites.