Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne wants state to require rental inspections, a plan opposed by Mayor Jean Stothert

October 13, 2018 GMT

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha thinks that it’s time for the Nebraska Legislature to take on the issue of rental properties that are unsafe to live in.

Spurred by the filthy conditions and almost 2,000 code violations that displaced 500 refugee tenants at the Yale Park Apartments last month, Wayne said Thursday that he plans to introduce legislation to require a landlord registration system and more regular inspections of rental units in Omaha.

“Poor housing conditions perpetuated by certain landlords have been a longstanding problem in north Omaha and throughout the city, and the Yale Park situation demonstrates the need for a new approach to address code violations in rental properties,” Wayne said in a press release.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said city officials are in the best position to figure out how to regulate rentals.

“I don’t feel like we need the state coming in with a state law dictating what we need to do,” she said.

Under the inspection program that Wayne proposes, the city could levy annual registration fees, fines if landlords fail to register and fees for any re-inspections the city has to do.

Wayne’s proposed legislation would apply to cities with a population of more than 300,000, meaning only Omaha.

Council Bluffs has a rental housing inspection program, as required by Iowa law for cities with more than 15,000 people.

There, inspectors perform random and complaint-based inspections, according to the city’s website. But all rental properties must be inspected at least once every three years.

At the roughly 10,000 rental units registered with the city, inspectors look for dangerous conditions and compliance violations. The city also charges annual registration fees.

Stothert said Omaha isn’t the only city with problem properties and shouldn’t be singled out.

Several Omaha leaders, including Stothert, City Council President Ben Gray and Councilman Pete Festersen, have said they’re open to the idea of a potential rental registry, although Stothert said many details would have to be hammered out, including how to fund additional inspectors. No ordinance has been proposed.

“There’s a lot of things we have to look at,” Stothert said. “Practically speaking, to go out and inspect 75,000 to 80,000 rental properties — and a lot that are new and we know that there are not problems with — it just doesn’t make sense. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to do that.

“What we need is to figure out a way to target those offenders.”

Wayne said the issue can be tackled at both the state and local level.

“Regardless of whether the city moves forward with adopting a rental inspection program on its own, the root causes of this crisis should be examined as part of the Urban Affairs Committee’s ongoing discussions surrounding state and local building code enforcement,” Wayne said.

Wayne is the chairman of the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee. The next legislative session begins in January.

The city carried out the mass inspections and an evacuation at Yale Park on Sept. 20, after receiving more than 90 formal housing complaints from tenants. Inspectors found mold, gas leaks, bedbugs, leaking toilets, holes in ceilings, and missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Landlords, meanwhile, have warned against imposing a knee-jerk regulation in response to the Yale Park situation.

The Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association has said it will oppose any attempt to institute a registration system or more frequent inspections.

In a policy statement, the Omaha Area Board of Realtors said cities should be able to crack down on properties with building code violations when a complaint is received — Omaha has a complaint-driven system now — but said additional licensing requirements or mandatory inspections “serves to make local government larger.”