Since the City of Omaha shut down the Yale Park Apartments in September, a debate has simmered over how to ensure that Omaha’s estimated 80,000 rental homes are safe, clean and habitable.
While pushing for more inspections and accountability for problem landlords, housing advocates have circulated photos of cockroaches, broken windows and mold as evidence of the dingy conditions some renters endure.
“There’s a lot of substandard rental housing out there, and the city needs a way to identify those places,” said Dennis Walsh, a member of advocacy group Omaha Together One Community.
Local landlords and property groups, meanwhile, have lined up at a town hall and a legislative hearing to argue against increased government interference and fees they say would punish responsible landlords and jack up rents.
And slum landlords aren’t the only problem, they’ve argued — what about the tenants who skip out on rent or trash apartments?
At the state and city level, there are multiple proposals that attempt to address rental housing problems and try to prevent another Yale Park situation from festering behind closed doors.
Some, including a legislative bill, would require regular, proactive city inspections of rental properties — not just when complaints are received. The Omaha City Council has the introduction of three different ordinances on its agenda Tuesday, including one proposed by Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert that would establish rental inspections in phases.
Places like Sacramento County, Kansas City, Cleveland and, closer to home, Council Bluffs and La Vista, have all enacted landlord registration or rental inspection programs, and have been studied by Omaha officials.
Local governments that adopt inspection initiatives can risk lawsuits, incur costs to hire more inspectors and face backlash from landlords and tenants who don’t want government employees entering their homes.
“We already have a lot of regulation we have to contend with,” said John Chatelain, the president of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association, which represents local landlords.
As Omaha officials prepare to debate whether to establish some sort of rental oversight program, here’s a look at how registration and inspection programs operate elsewhere.
There have been a few ups and downs since La Vista adopted an ordinance in 2009 requiring rental properties to be registered and regularly inspected.
Landlords challenged the ordinance, saying they were being unfairly singled out, but the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld it in 2013.
Inspections ground to a halt about the same time due to staff turnover, and some landlords questioned what the city was doing with revenue from registration fees.
Today, chief building official Jeff Sinnett said inspections are on track, and the number of violations are decreasing. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of rentals pass their first inspection.
“(Landlords) know what to expect,” he said.
The city has about 2,500 rentals and two housing inspectors. Property owners pay $50 for single-family units and $6 per unit in apartment complexes. A $50 fee may be required for re-inspections.
New construction gets a three-year grace period. Rentals that pass inspection won’t be inspected again for two years, but rentals with major code violations will be examined again in one year. Inspectors also respond to complaints.
Iowa law requires cities with more than 15,000 people to inspect rentals. For years, Council Bluffs allowed landlords to register with the city and self-inspect properties.
Then several people died in fires in unregistered rentals, prompting Council Bluffs to overhaul its inspection process in 2015 and switch to a system where city inspectors, not landlords, examine single- and multi-family rentals.
Some landlords decided to sell their properties instead of dealing with more oversight, said Steven Carmichael, the city’s chief building official. The number of rentals dropped from about 11,000 before the change to about 9,500 last year.
Council Bluffs employs three inspectors and one permit technician. They are tasked with inspecting every rental unit at least once every three years.
Annual property registration fees range from a flat fee of $25 plus $17.50 per unit in larger complexes to $70 for a duplex. The fees cover the first inspection, although landlords may pay more for re-inspections of violations.
Inspectors focus primarily on life-and-safety issues. And owners aren’t the only ones on the hook: The city can cite renters if they, for example, tear down smoke detectors or pull copper wiring to sell.
In December, a judge ordered the city to refund landlords more than $230,000 in registration fees collected under the old system. Landlords had argued that the city was not conducting enough of its own inspections to merit the fees.
Programs aimed at improving rental properties have been around, in some version, for decades in Minneapolis. Stothert has pointed out that Minneapolis has several dozen inspectors on staff, compared with Omaha’s nine.
The city’s current program includes a tiered licensing program with staggered fees and inspection schedules designed to reward compliant landlords and apply more scrutiny to problem properties. Landlord licenses can be revoked.
Tier 1 properties, those in good standing, may be inspected once every eight years and Tier 2 properties every five years. Problem properties, Tier 3, face annual inspections. There are 100,000 units currently licensed, and of multiunit rentals, 17 percent fall into Tier 2 or 3.
“The conversation here has really been how do we, in this current housing market ... make sure rental housing is not a second-class housing experience?” said Kim Keller of the department of regulatory services for Minneapolis.
In 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that rental inspection programs do not violate renters’ privacy rights.
More than 90 percent of Cleveland’s housing stock was built before 1978 — and that means a lot of rentals are aging and may be at risk for lead contamination, said Ayonna Blue Donald, Cleveland’s director of building and housing.
The city had a rental registration program for years but started inspections in 2017. Starting out, the city is trying to focus on areas that may have the most problems, with lead exposure a particular focus. It could take five years to get through all of the city’s rentals.
Compliance is an ongoing hurdle, Donald said. She estimates that about 53,000 of the city’s 92,000 rental units are registered, or 57 percent. Landlords pay $35 a unit and also have to consent to let inspectors inside. They get 30 days to fix violations.
Cleveland has a housing court that helps expedite evictions and code violations. Landlords who file for eviction must show proof that they’ve registered their property. The city’s rental inspection division employs 12 inspectors, plus administrative staff.
Here, a staff of 10 inspectors completes about 250 inspections per week. With high housing prices in California, there are a lot of rentals — an estimated 90,000 units in the county, officials said.
Property owners have to register rentals. They can opt for inspections by county staff or conduct their own if they’ve received an inspection certification. The county performs random checks on self-inspected properties.
An annual $16 per unit “compliance fee” is bundled in with sewer bills, plus extra costs if county inspections are requested or a property fails an inspection. The program has an annual budget of about $4 million, and fees don’t cover all the costs.
There are about 300 rentals on a “problem property” list, and those properties are inspected by the county twice a year.
“It takes a long time for large, bad properties to get full renovations,” said Tim King, supervising code enforcement officer. “But some of these properties have been fully gutted, new roofs, new windows, new management, new tenants, less nuisance and criminal activity.”
Kansas City, Missouri
Community groups lobbying for a rental inspection program last year won voter approval of a ballot question establishing a program that targets the health risks of badly maintained rentals, like lead, mold and pest infestations.
The program falls under the city’s health department, which estimates that there are 90,000 to 120,000 rental units. The department is in the process of adding about 11 employees, including a social worker, and Naser Jouhari, senior public health manager, hopes to one day employ up to 40.
To start the program, the city was asked to kick in $600,000, although Jouhari estimates that the program could eventually bring in $2 million in fee revenue.
The inspections are complaint-based, although health inspectors can conduct random inspections.
Landlords pay $20 to register properties each year, plus a $20 one-time application fee. There are higher fees for re-inspections. Landlords can also report tenants who are damaging rentals.