Inspectors in protective suits enter the Yale Park complex. City officials evacuated each of the 100 units in the wake of a daylong city code inspection that uncovered gas leaks and unsanitary conditions.

Several community groups put pressure on the city Wednesday to adopt a landlord registration system and conduct more frequent inspections of rental units, pointing to the Yale Park Apartments as the poster child for why more tenant protections are needed.

The substandard living conditions found at the Yale Park complex that displaced about 500 refugees are just the tip of the iceberg, said Habitat for Humanity of Omaha Executive Director Amanda Brewer.

As she’s visited families across the city, she’s witnessed furnaces that don’t work, forcing families to heat their homes with stoves and space heaters, and tenants packed into crowded boarding houses. One family in a flood-prone unit took their young children to the hospital twice because water bugs were stuck in their ears.

“This is just one property,” Brewer said. “We’ve seen so many. And it’s not just a refugee problem — it’s a problem for many people seeking affordable rentals.”

Several city leaders, including Mayor Jean Stothert, Council President Ben Gray and Councilman Pete Festersen, have said they’re open to the idea of a potential landlord registry, although Stothert said many details would have to be hammered out.

Gray last week said that he is working with the city’s Planning Department to introduce a landlord registry ordinance, and Festersen has called a special meeting Oct. 2 of the City Council’s planning committee.

Council Bluffs and La Vista already have such inspection programs, but any attempt by Omaha to follow in those footsteps is sure to face a fight from a group representing local landlords, the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association.

At a press conference Wednesday organized by Omaha Together One Community, volunteers, clergy and other activists said there are plenty of other tenants living in apartments and single-family homes across Omaha battling the same types of problems city inspectors uncovered at Yale Park: holes in ceilings, leaky toilets, faulty wiring, insects and mold.

The solution, according to OTOC and other groups? Hire more housing code inspectors, require landlords to register with the city and carry out regular, proactive inspections of rental properties.

“The Yale Park complex is only one of hundreds across our city,” said Pam Font-Gabel, a board member with the Benson Area Refugee Task Force. “How could you not wonder what is in the inside of other rental properties?”

City housing officials said they have not received an influx of complaints about other properties since Yale Park was inspected.

In a press release this week, MOPOA President John Chatelain said inspections would not be fair to landlords and would represent government intrusion of tenants’ homes. He also questioned where the line is between a tenant’s cleaning responsibilities and the landlord’s duties.

“We have known for some time about folks in our community lobbying for a landlord registration and inspection program,” he said. “Was the timing of the assault on the people living at Yale Park orchestrated to push the new program?”

Watching the press conference Wednesday, Yale Park landlord and owner Kay Anderson said, “it appears to me that I’ve been sacrificed to push an agenda here.”

A registry will just drive away more landlords who are currently providing affordable housing, he said, and lead to more abandoned properties across north Omaha.

OTOC said it has been raising the issue of a landlord registration system with City Council and city officials since early 2017.

But the idea has surfaced repeatedly in Omaha, including in the mid-1990s after a World-Herald series chronicled widespread problems in how the city handled code violations and gave landlords lax deadlines to fix up problem properties.

The landlord lobby has proved a powerful foe in the past, OTOC leader Dennis Walsh said.

OTOC proposes a three-year inspection cycle for rental properties — with annual inspections for properties that aren’t repaired quickly — to be funded with a landlord fee system. With a program similar to La Vista’s, OTOC says, landlords could pay $50 for each single-family property, or $6 per unit at multifamily properties, and provide proof of annual pest inspections. The city could use the extra revenue to hire more inspectors, Walsh said.

City officials said they’re studying how landlord registries have worked in other cities, such as Minneapolis.

Omaha has struggled to hire and hold on to housing inspectors — only six out of nine positions are currently filled.

“We’re trying to staff up,” city Planning Director Dave Fanslau said.

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Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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