If Omaha is going to cut crime and make its neighborhoods cleaner, city officials say they know one place to begin: problem properties and landlords.
Thursday, a group of city and neighborhood association leaders released a 59-point strategy for tackling a variety of problems related to landlords, tenants and abandoned buildings. Members of the Landlord Task Force said they want the city to jump-start efforts that would get landlords to clean up their acts — and do more to prosecute those who ignore the rules.
City officials say many of the suggestions could make a big difference, though some landlords say they're concerned they weren't asked to help come up with the list.
Mayor Jim Suttle said he plans to get landlords more involved with the process. But he said he initially wanted to focus on taking on the worst offenders, not pushing the landlords doing a good job of keeping their buildings safe and clean.
“We are only talking about the worst cases,” Suttle said. “These are the cases our neighborhood associations told us about, that we need to address to attack crime in these residential areas of our city.”
The group, formed in February, is recommending that the city expand an existing effort called the Problem Resolution Team, which has members from police, planning and other departments and handles the most serious problem landlords. A revamped team would meet more regularly and invite input from landlords.
If the City Council approved a handful of proposed ordinance changes, the team would have more power to revoke occupancy permits, make it easier for police to arrest trespassers and take civil action against frequent offenders.
Rick McDonald, who runs about 20 rental properties around the Crossroads Mall area in Omaha, said he's unhappy that landlords weren't involved in the task force's discussions.
But he said he does want more of an emphasis on helping to evict problem tenants. He said it's difficult when tenants have been checked out, but then a friend or relative moves in and starts causing problems.
“We want them out of there worse than anybody else, but we can't get them out of there until we can prove they are staying there, not visiting,” he said. “Our hands are tied in that case.”
John Chatelain, president of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association, said he feels he's been shut out of the process. He said the actual number of problem landlords is smaller than the city says, and the new proposals could punish others who rent out properties.
“If this is some kind of a legitimate program for fighting crime involving rental properties and landlords, it seems bizarre, to say the least, you would not include any landlords,” he said. “We feel ambushed, blindsided.”
But members of the task force say they're looking out for landlords.
City Councilman Ben Gray, who participated in the city's landlord task force, said giving the city more control over some properties could make it easier to handle evictions and clean up troubled buildings.
“In a number of instances, some of our landlords are afraid of their tenants,” he said.
Among other recommendations:
» Broaden Omaha's “closed property” ordinance, which allows police to arrest anyone who trespasses on property marked “closed” during certain hours. The city would be able to mark the property closed without the owner's permission if the owner was absent or unavailable.
» Set aside more money for demolition of fire-damaged buildings from shares of insurance proceeds.
» Pursue civil injunctions against people who “disturb neighborhoods” with ongoing criminal activity.
» Update a software system that tracks information on problems in neighborhoods, from graffiti to abandoned vehicles.
» Create an ordinance for training and certifying landlords and offer programs for good tenants.
City staff members have already drafted some of the proposed ordinances, so they could show up on the council's agenda within the next few weeks.
Other efforts, however, might take some time.
“There's not going to be bulldozers tomorrow morning at the front door,” said City Councilman Garry Gernandt, another task force member. “This is a work in progress.”
Other members of the task force are Special City Prosecutor Michael Getty, Officer James Stokes of the Omaha Police Department, chief city housing inspector Kevin Denker, South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance President Mike Battershell, North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance Chairman Carl Christian and attorney Jennifer Taylor.
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