This much is certain: By early August, the flood-damaged community of Paradise Lakes east of Offutt Air Force Base will be razed.
What remains unanswered is who will end up paying for the demolition, which is expected to cost more than $1 million.
During an emotional public hearing Tuesday packed with more than 60 former residents of Paradise Lakes, the Bellevue City Council voted unanimously to condemn the community’s 195 lots, clearing the way for the city to step in to demolish the modular homes.
The city’s official stance is this: Residents have until the end of July to take action on removing their homes. The remaining structures will be razed by a city-hired company in early August.
But it’s not that simple.
Paradise Lakes was home to a significant number of low-income residents. And after the mid-March flooding, water from the nearby Missouri River eventually reached rooftops. All 195 homes were declared uninhabitable because of contaminated water and mold.
Many of the residents say they can’t afford the cost of demolition, which probably would be several thousand dollars per home.
The community is not eligible for federal dollars to assist with the cost of demolition.
Doug Muse, 54, has been living with his father since March. The former Army paratrooper said he lives paycheck to paycheck.
“I can’t afford to shell out that much money,” Muse said after the hearing, echoing the sentiment of many of the residents who attended.
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Another complicating factor is ownership of the properties. About half the residents rented their homes from Howard “Howdy” Helm, Paradise Lakes’ owner.
Helm has told the city that he can’t afford the cost of the demolition. So when the city demolishes the community, it most likely will place a lien on the property, which Helm would have to pay back if he wanted to sell or redevelop the land.
Jim Ristow, Bellevue’s city administrator, said it’s possible that the lien would be placed on the land itself, which Helm owns. But liens also could be placed against the individual residents who owned their modular homes, placing the financial burden on them.
About half of Paradise Lakes residents owned their homes and leased the land underneath from Helm.
Ristow said residents who have a home loan associated with their unit should be talking to a lawyer and their bank to determine how to proceed.
Helm has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The World-Herald.
Some residents Tuesday had questions the city couldn’t answer. Rick Hartkopf said he and his wife sold their Paradise Lakes residence back to Helm in December 2017. For reasons that Hartkopf said bewilder him, his name remains on the title — and the taxes haven’t been paid, which means he has received notifications about the overdue taxes.
Bree Robbins, the city attorney, said the city can’t give individual legal advice. She encouraged Hartkopf and anyone with a similar issue to contact Legal Aid of Nebraska or a private attorney
“I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, and it’s a really hard answer to give,” Robbins said.
Much of the frustration expressed Tuesday was about Helm, who was not at the hearing and did not send a representative.
At the onset of the March flooding, residents said the company sent a message via its online portal assuring them that the community was built to withstand flooding. In the weeks that followed, multiple residents said, Helm and his employees — including members of his family — did not communicate with people who had questions.
Many residents were unsuccessful in attempting to recoup unused portions of rent and their security deposits. It’s not clear if any received money back from the company.
Mayor Rusty Hike said during the meeting that a housing task force is in the process of finding ways to help those who continue to be displaced by flooding. He said individuals and community organizations are working to find housing solutions.
“The community is still behind you,” Hike said.
What protects Omaha from flooding
The Omaha area’s robust flood protections — knock on wood — are built to keep water out or contained. Most recently, they did their job during the record-setting flooding of March 2019 that turned neighboring towns to islands and caused, so far, hundreds of millions in damage to homes, roads, bridges, fields and livestock. We look in greater detail at the protections in place that guard Omaha. Sources: National Weather Service; City of Omaha; City of Council Bluffs; Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District; World-Herald archives.