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Nebraska housing advocates fear continued evictions could increase homelessness, disease

A couple of attorneys chatted about the pandemic. A few dozen defendants sat in rows of chairs, maintaining distance where they could.

Then Judge Grant Forsberg entered the courtroom, adding another body to the room of 40-plus people.

The coronavirus and crowd limits be damned — eviction court was about to begin.

Even under ordinary circumstances, eviction from one’s home can pose financial, emotional and health threats to people struggling to make ends meet. Add in a global pandemic, with directives to stay home and avoid others, and the challenges compound.

After one man Friday quietly relayed to Forsberg the circumstances that had prevented him from paying rent on his apartment near 72nd Street and Interstate 80, the judge summarized the law in a way that illustrated how narrow the margin is for many tenants.

“If you owe one penny, then a landlord has the right to make you move,” Forsberg said.

Similar scenes in Courtroom 20 at the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center play out four days a week. Housing advocates have counted more than 4,800 evictions annually since 2011 in Douglas County.

Over two dozen local advocacy groups have signed a letter asking Nebraska courts and elected officials in Omaha to suspend eviction and debt-collection proceedings in the wake of a public health crisis that’s creating an economic one. Some other states and municipalities have already done so. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday announced a temporary suspension of some evictions in certain circumstances.

By Friday afternoon, no Nebraska governmental authority had stepped in to offer clear guidance on evictions.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said his office is reviewing who has the power to stop evictions. Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz said the City Charter does not give Mayor Jean Stothert the power to halt such proceedings.

Organizations that represent low-income tenants and debtors say it’s up to Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican to halt eviction and debt collection court proceedings statewide.

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Ron Murtaugh, the Judicial Administrator for Douglas County Court, screens people before they can enter a courtroom at the Douglas County Courthouse. Only defendants and witnesses were allowed inside after Gov. Pete Ricketts called for public gatherings to be limited to 10 or fewer people on Monday to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

State Court Administrator Corey Steel has said local courts have authority to say which types of hearings need to happen and which do not. Steel said that Heavican is unlikely to issue a blanket order, but will convene a meeting of attorneys from both sides of the issue to work on alternatives to evictions.

In the meantime, Ricketts said, he hoped that during a public health emergency, “when we are going through so much disruption,” that landlords would not evict anyone.

“Look folks, we’ve got to help our neighbors out,” he said during a Friday press conference. “We’re all going through a lot of tough times, a lot of uncertainty ... so do the right thing.”

Relying on the generosity of landlords didn’t pan out for one man whose case went before Forsberg on Friday. The man said he had through the weekend to gather his belongings from his apartment. Then, if he couldn’t find someone to stay with, he’d consider a shelter for the homeless.

But the man has underlying health conditions — COPD and chronic emphysema — so going to a shelter right now “scares the hell” out of him, he said.

The federal government is narrowly suspending evictions and foreclosures through April. The suspension applies only to homeowners with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.

The Omaha Housing Authority, the largest public housing entity in the state, has temporarily stopped evicting people for not paying rent. The agency received guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development encouraging housing authorities to temporarily halt evictions, CEO Joanie Poore said.

Last week, the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association, which represents more than 450 landlords, asked its members to reduce rents by 10% for April and sent a sample letter landlords could use that said, “we know our community is stressed out.”

“Kicking them out is not the answer,” said Rick McDonald, vice president of the association.

McDonald has 23 rental properties in Omaha. He said he expects half his tenants not to be able to make rent because of their types of jobs and layoffs he already knows about.

“We’ll keep (tenants) if we can. I’m going to deal with it case by case.”

The eviction process can move so fast — within 10 to 14 days after a tenant is one week late on rent — that tenants have little ability to stop or delay it. Typically if they can’t pay rent on time, they don’t have the resources to find an attorney. Nine out of 10 evictees don’t get lawyers.

Those who manage to get an attorney through Legal Aid, Family Housing Advisory Services or the Creighton University legal clinic still are pinched for time.

“We’re scrambling to prepare those cases,” said Gary Fischer, a longtime housing attorney based at the nonprofit Family Housing Advisory Services.

Evictions in Omaha happen “exactly where you think” they occur, Fischer said. “In the poorest parts of town. With elementary schools with the highest rates of transfers. Poverty. Lead. You name it.”

Fischer said evictions normally create “a devastating churning of people.”

But during the public health emergency created by the spread of COVID-19, that churning can become physically dangerous. Tenants who get evicted are thrust onto streets or into homeless shelters or close-quarter scenarios with friends and relatives.

“This is a crisis,” Fischer said. “We’re asking people not to go into work. We’re asking people to quarantine if they feel they might have symptoms. How are you supposed to do that if you lose your housing?”

Given the fragility of the economy, with unemployment likely on the rise, Fischer and others predict housing instability will get much worse.

Omaha’s three major homeless shelters — the Siena Francis House downtown, the Open Door Mission in east Omaha and the Stephen Center in South Omaha — already are operating near capacity.

“We can’t make any more people homeless during this pandemic,” said Karen McElroy, a member of Omaha Together One Community, a group that works on housing and other issues. “The immigrants, the refugees, all of our people who are below the poverty line ... I don’t know how they do it now, before this crisis came.”

The federal government is working on plans to send stimulus checks that could help families pay their bills. But one landlord noted that there’s no guarantee that money would be put toward housing costs.

“If you haven’t worked for two weeks, you’re buying corn and toilet paper and diapers,” said Meghann Youngblood, who runs a family property business. “Rent is the last thing on your mind.”

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Some housing advocates are talking about rent freezes as a way to help tenants stay in their dwellings.

But it’s a complicated situation: How would rent freezes work for landlords who still have mortgages to pay?

Local landlords said they’re already fielding calls from tenants — especially hard-hit hourly workers at hotels, restaurants and casinos — who fear they won’t be able to pay April’s rent.

On Wednesday, Youngblood laid off her two office workers in anticipation of the downturn. Meanwhile, her maintenance workers are afraid that a call to fix a renter’s leaky sink or broken refrigerator could expose them to the coronavirus.

Youngblood’s business, The Homesteads Group, owns 180 rentals or homes for sale in Pottawattamie and Mills Counties in Iowa. Rents range from $595 to $1,200 per month.

“I don’t plan on doing any corona-related evictions,” she said. “I told them pay what you can, we’ll keep working with you. I don’t know if other landlords will be that accommodating.”

If courts close for weeks or months, Youngblood is worried that it will be harder to evict problem tenants who are breaking the law or destroying property, or recoup money from renters who were late on rent before the coronavirus outbreak began. Ten of her tenants are already past-due on March rent.

But evictions are expensive — Youngblood estimates it costs her $3,000 to $4,000 each — and she doubts there will be many people looking to move this spring.

Youngblood said she’s probably got more financial cushion than smaller mom-and-pop landlords because she owns more properties.

Even larger Omaha landlords, including the Seldin Group and Dave Paladino, did not return calls for comment.

Chris Foster, who owns 10 rental properties in Omaha’s Gifford Park neighborhood, said smaller landlords like him may have less access to lines of credit or have repair projects they’re still paying off, compared with larger companies that manage thousands of units.

Still, Foster acknowledged, “probably in most cases landlords are in a better situation and can weather the storm better” than their tenants.

Foster said he’d prefer to see landlords and tenants work out issues themselves, instead of a sweeping eviction ban or rent freeze.

“At least with my renters, it’s a long-term thing,” he said. “It’s kind of the cliché — we’re all in this together.”

World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Livewellnebraska
It starts with a very long swab up the nose: how Nebraska labs test for coronavirus

As cases of the novel coronavirus mount across the United States, the lack of testing is a festering sore spot.

Those at highest risk — people who are hospitalized with symptoms, the elderly or those with underlying health conditions — are the first in line to be tested. But national news reports also recount the stories of people with no symptoms, such as pro basketball players and celebrities, getting tested.

The latest advisory from Nebraska health officials adds these groups to the list of those who should be tested: health care workers, public safety officers and those who live in, visit or work in nursing homes, group homes and child care centers.

Doctors still are likely to first order tests for influenza and other seasonal respiratory conditions in an effort to rule them out.

Those with mild symptoms are advised to isolate and recover at home.

Officials say more testing is on the way. But supply shortages limit the number of tests that can be conducted. Thursday, federal officials said manufacturers of all sorts of products, from masks to chemical reagents, are ramping up production.

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The testing process as it stands is a complex one.

It all starts with a fuzzy-tipped swab — not your lowly Q-tip, but a long, thin plastic swab called a nasopharyngeal swab.

A health care worker — wearing protective gear and trained to properly collect the sample — inserts the swab into a person’s nostril until it reaches the upper part of the throat.

Not only is it uncomfortable, it’s also not the kind of thing a person is likely to be able to do himself at home.

After the specimen is collected, the swab is inserted into a vial containing a liquid called a viral transport medium, which is intended to keep any virus it holds alive until it gets to a lab.

Today, the labs processing the tests include the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, located on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus, and more than 80 other state and local public health labs across the country.

As federal officials relax regulatory restrictions, some hospital labs have launched their own tests. That includes a lab jointly operated by UNMC and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine. Commercial labs, including LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, both of which have operations in Nebraska, also have begun testing. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also gave the OK to two other firms with expertise in fast large-scale testing to launch commercial tests.

A significant update came Friday, when the agency announced that it had approved use of the first rapid diagnostic test that could detect the virus in about 45 minutes. The test could be used in hospitals, according to a statement and video from California-based Cepheid, its manufacturer. The automated system does not require users to have special training to perform testing.

All testing now available in the United States, however, comes down to one process — a genetic analysis that requires trained laboratory experts to perform it and to interpret the results.

As yet, there’s no blood test, no strip test like those used to check blood sugar or identify pregnancy and no doctor’s office version like those now used to check for strep throat or influenza. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the new 45-minute test eventually could be used in clinics.

“It’s complicated technology,” said Peter Iwen, director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory.

Another complication: supply bottlenecks, starting with the swabs and protective gear and running through some of the chemicals, known as reagents, needed to run the tests. One of the large manufacturers of swabs is in Italy.

Lack of supplies already has shut down some drive-thru testing locations in other states.

Dr. Deborah Perry, medical director of the Methodist Pathology Laboratory, said the Methodist system initially was sending specimens to the Nebraska lab for testing, like most others in the state.

Recently, the health system switched to a third commercial lab. But Methodist officials were notified last week that the firm couldn’t keep up with the volume and had ceased testing. As of Tuesday, she said, the two other commercial labs were performing a combined 14,000 tests a day for systems across the United States. Methodist had sent out 200 specimens for testing and gotten 21 results back.

“Right now, nationwide, we are severely limited on testing capacity and testing time,” Perry said. “The push we’re making is only symptomatic patients who go through the screening get tested. We have no capability to test someone who’s mildly sick or not sick at all.”

Iwen said the public health lab, which has a staff of four that has been working seven days a week, currently is running an average of 40 tests a day. It has the capacity to run 100 a day — if it has the needed supplies. They can run the samples in four to six hours. By the end of the day Friday, they had run 583 tests. Of that total, 378 specimens were from Nebraska residents and the rest were from Americans who had returned from China and a stricken cruise ship.

After the lab receives and logs specimens, they’re taken to what’s known as an extraction room where lab staff begin the process of pulling out any RNA — the genetic material of the coronavirus — that is present in the sample.

To demonstrate, Emily McCutchen, the technical supervisor of the lab’s biology section, donned a gown, mask, goggles and gloves and sat down in front of a hood like the ones people may remember from high school chemistry. In this case, however, the hood is sealed by a wall of air that prevents any airborne particles from escaping.

If it were a real test, McCutchen would place a vial in a device that shakes it at high speed. Inside are tiny glass beads. Once the material collected by a health care worker is shaken loose from the swab inside, McCutchen would use a pipette to suck up a sample of the liquid and continue through the steps of separating out the viral RNA. The virus is killed by the time the process is complete.

Labs can use either a manual or automated process to do the extraction, Iwen said. But the materials necessary also are in short supply.

McCutchen, who had finished the mock extraction, removed her protective gear and walked next door to a room equipped with several boxy machines.

The material from the sample would be loaded into a plastic cartridge and placed in one of the machines. The cartridges are full of chemicals needed to convert the virus’ single-stranded RNA to double-stranded DNA, then make an exponential number of copies of selected pieces and compare them with those of the novel coronavirus.

The last half of the process, called polymerase chain reaction, is the same technique that scientists would use to increase a minuscule amount of DNA collected from a crime scene in order to compare it with the genetic material of a criminal suspect.

The tests, however, require different chemicals that come from different manufacturers, Iwen said. The lab technologists need all the different components to run them, just as a baker needs flour, sugar and other ingredients to bake a batch of cookies.

Some of those chemicals, too, are in short supply, Iwen said. That’s making it difficult for laboratories to keep up with the demand for testing. The public health lab has an advantage in that it can access federal stockpiles to get them, but those supplies are being rationed as well.

The public health lab uses a diagnostic procedure developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The lab, in fact, was among the first three public health labs in the country to be approved to run the CDC kits.

Lab staff, Iwen said, also worked with the CDC to help define an early problem, which led to a fix by the agency. The lab also was one of a handful of public health labs to re-evaluate the new kit, which now is in place in most of the nation’s public health labs.

The separate UNMC-Nebraska Medicine lab, which has been featured on CNN and “60 Minutes” and in Esquire, has created its own test, based on one developed by the World Health Organization.

The clinical lab, however, still relies on the same process. It also has the capacity to run up to 100 tests a day and is being used to test patients within the health system. It, too, however, is facing a shortage of reagents, Iwen said.

The results of the tests show up as a series of lines on a computer screen. From them, McCutchen said, the lab staff can see whether the virus’ genetic signature is present.

The process, Iwen said, is about 99% accurate.

The test can’t do one thing, however: Because it looks for the virus’ genetic signature, it can tell whether the virus has been in a person’s airway at some point, but it can’t tell whether a person is still infectious.

“This is all new,” Iwen said. “Nobody has the answer to it.”

Said McCutchen, “We’re doing the best we can with the situation (as it) unfolds.”

In addition to ramping up and speeding the testing process, another goal for test manufacturers would be to develop a version that could be used in a doctor’s office. A number of companies are talking about such systems, said Bruce Carlson, publisher of Kalorama Information, a market research firm that covers medical diagnostics.

Still another option would be a test that looks for antibodies to the virus, which the body produces when fighting a germ. That’s known as a serological test. Researchers in Singapore have reported using such a test, but it would have to be validated before it is put to wider use, according to the journal Science.

And any new tests must be accurate. A false positive means someone is isolated at home for 14 days. A false negative means they may be out and about spreading the virus. That’s generally why regulators in the United States don’t approve just any test, Carlson said.

“We want tests to be accurate,” he said, “because false positives can be just as bad as false negatives.”

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

State_and_regional
Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes receives 30% raise; Sen. Chambers calls it 'obscene'

LINCOLN — Nebraska already has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country; now it also has one of the best-paid corrections directors.

On Jan. 1, Gov. Pete Ricketts granted a 30% raise for State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, upping his annual pay from $192,000 to $250,000.

The increase makes Frakes, who has held the job for five years, among the highest-paid state prison chiefs in the nation. It also puts him just behind the head of the Nebraska Investment Council as having the biggest salary of state agency directors.

Scott Frakes

By comparison, neighboring Iowa and Kansas pay their state corrections directors yearly salaries of $154,300 and $140,000, respectively. California, which has more than 20 times as many inmates as Nebraska, pays its corrections chief $265,900 a year. And Washington state, where Frakes was a longtime prison administrator before coming to Nebraska, pays its secretary of corrections $186,900.

State employees in Nebraska were granted a 2% wage increase for the current fiscal year, with an opportunity for an additional 0.3% merit increase. However, front-line corrections corporals and caseworkers were given an 8.4% salary bump in January as well as long-sought step increases for longevity after negotiations between the union representing corrections officers and the Ricketts administration.

While two state senators criticized the steep salary increase as unjustified and “obscene” while Nebraska’s prisons continue to struggle with overcrowding and high employee turnover, a spokesman for the governor said several other states grappling with prison problems “would love to have Scott Frakes.”

“Six years ago Governor Ricketts took over a Corrections Department in crisis,” said spokesman Taylor Gage. “Now that the department is trending in a positive direction with increased capacity, reduced staff turnover, and more rehabilitative outcomes for inmates, Governor Ricketts wanted to acknowledge Scott’s successes, and wanted the continuity of Scott’s leadership at the department through the governor’s second term.”

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Gage did not respond to a question about whether the raise was offered because Frakes was about to retire, as was widely rumored last fall. And the Corrections Department did not respond to a request for comment from Frakes.

But Kevin Kempf, executive director of the Idaho-based Correctional Leaders Association, said that Frakes is one of the best prison directors in the nation and is performing an extremely challenging, 24/7 kind of job.

“The stress of politics, unions, inmate families, staff, disturbances, threats against your life, constant need for security, low pay, and an average tenure of less than three years is unique to any other leadership role in state government,” Kempf said, calling corrections directors underpaid and underappreciated.

Ernie Chambers

State Sens. Steve Lathrop and Ernie Chambers, both of Omaha, expressed surprise at the raise, given the continuing problems within state prisons, such as the overcrowding — the second-worst in the nation — and staff shortages, which have cost millions in overtime expenses and have forced Corrections to ship officers in vans from Omaha to fill vacant posts.

Chambers, a frequent critic of Frakes, called the raise “obscene” and “immoral,” and pledged to filibuster the state budget unless $50,000 is deducted from the Governor’s Office budget to help cover Frakes’ raise.

“I cannot believe what you are telling me,” said Chambers, when informed of the salary increase. “I see this as the governor rewarding incompetency.”

Lathrop, who has led more than one legislative study into the problems in the Department of Correctional Services, said he couldn’t imagine “what metric” the governor used to justify such a large salary increase.

Steve Lathrop

“(Frakes) has presented no plan for alleviating the overcrowding, and has demonstrated an unwillingness to work with the Legislature to find solutions,” the senator said. “I can’t conceive of a reason to give someone a $60,000 raise when our prison staffing is out of whack and our prisons are number one or number two in the nation in overcrowding.”

Nebraska’s 10 prisons currently hold about 2,000 more inmates than their design capacity of 3,535, and have hovered near 160% of capacity in recent months. The state faces a federal civil rights lawsuit, for inadequate health and mental health care for the crowding, and is looking at spending upward of $240 million to build a new prison.

Alabama, whose prisons stood at 170% of capacity on Jan. 1, already faces federal intervention to build more prisons or release more inmates.

But Gage, the governor’s spokesman, said Frakes cannot be blamed for prison overcrowding. He has no control over the number of inmates sent to prison, Gage said. A recent World-Herald story detailed how an increase in felony cases was likely a key driver in the worsening prison overcrowding in Nebraska.

Lathrop, who heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees state prisons, said that lawmakers stand ready to help with overcrowding, but Frakes has been unwilling to offer or support policy changes that would do that.

Overall, the senator said he’s frustrated by the lack of urgency shown by the administration to the looming July 1 deadline when the state will be forced to declare a “prison overcrowding emergency,” and begin reviewing hundreds of inmates for possible release on parole.

Chambers said that too many inmates who are parole eligible haven’t received their required programming while in prison, a problem that he pins on Frakes.

Gage, however, said the overcrowding emergency is mostly out of Frakes’ hands. The State Board of Parole — not Corrections — is the agency that will review who can and who cannot be released, he said.

One former Nebraska prison warden, Dennis Bakewell, said that given the risks faced by prison employees, the raise for Frakes wasn’t unreasonable. Corrections employees, from the front line to the top office, have been underpaid for years, Bakewell said. The state prison system, overall, was underfunded for more than a decade, he said.

“Corrections is a hard way to make a living,” Bakewell said. “People are taking risks for their personal safety every single day. It’s an environment not everyone wants to work in.”