For more than three hours Monday night, the Lincoln City Council chambers were ground zero for the divide on how best to address the city’s crunch on rental housing.
As a proposed expansion to the city’s rental registry was debated, the question remained the same: What’s the best way to improve the quantity of quality rental units? Landlords and developers believe the city should remove regulations and red tape they deem costly and burdensome. Conversely, renters’ advocacy and neighborhood groups want City Hall even more involved in the process.
With such a disconnect between these groups, the Journal Star editorial board backs Councilman Carl Eskridge’s suggestion to delay a vote on this measure. Pumping the brakes and examining the efficacy of the existing regulations before taking action is a wise move.
While there are indeed bad apples among property owners, as documented by the complaints several renters brought to Monday’s meeting and previous discussions, the entire tree isn’t poisoned.
Penalizing good landlords through higher costs to keep up their work will result in higher rents. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, though, Lincoln already has 5,000 too few moderately priced units among the 43,000 total units in the city reported in the 2010 Census.
For reference, city inspectors in 2018 investigated 1,500 complaints, which turned up violations in 620 rentals – about 1.5% of the city's total. The balance between what the two sides want boils down to the proper way to crack down on problem landlords without being too onerous on those who follow the rules.
Eskridge said his proposal was inspired by the fallout from unsafe and unsanitary living conditions found at a north Omaha apartment complex that housed 500 people, mostly refugees from Myanmar who were later relocated.
Such a problem property has yet to be documented in Lincoln, if one remotely to that level exists at all. And that, we feel, is a testament to the present protocol doing what it should.
Under current city ordinance, preliminary inspections required to obtain and keep a permit consist of checks of the exterior and any common areas of buildings with three or more rental units. Full interior inspections are primarily driven by complaints. It also mandates landlords inform tenants of their rights, pertinent laws and the complaint process.
Think back to that earlier discussion of quality vs. quantity. Proposed updates to the existing regulatory framework could increase the number of livable units. But they would do nothing to reduce the shortfall of moderately priced rentals – and, in practice, may very well grow that gap.
Accordingly, the City Council should table this idea and head back to the drawing board in pursuit of a plan to improve both quality and quantity for rentals.