A proposed lawsuit settlement agreement between the City of Omaha and a landlord group faces questions and amendments when it goes before the Omaha City Council on Tuesday.
The agreement would settle a federal lawsuit filed against the city by the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association.
The agreement includes an overhaul of the city’s ordinances and procedures on housing code enforcement.
It also includes a consent decree under which the landlords could haul the city back into U.S. District Court if the city changed those codes or procedures in the future.
Catherine Mahern, a Creighton University law professor, said the council shouldn’t approve the consent decree as proposed.
“Allowing the regulated group a final say in any regulation aimed at their own regulation is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote to the council.
She and other advocates also raised concerns about certain parts of the changes. Those include requiring inspectors to ask tenants who filed complaints about whether they had given their landlords 14 days’ written notice to make repairs.
Tenants are not required under Nebraska law to provide such notice unless the tenant is seeking to terminate his lease if the repairs are not made.
Mahern also objects to an ordinance change that would close a housing code violation case once a property owner obtained a city permit for repair work.
That’s a big loophole, she said. It would allow a landlord to pull a permit and never make the repairs, she said.
Councilman Ben Gray has proposed an amendment to change the language on the written notice question. Gray also has proposed changes to the Property Maintenance Appeals Board, a new entity that would be created under the settlement agreement.
The amendment, among other changes, would require that the board include a tenant.
Council President Pete Festersen noted that the City Law Department has recommended approving the settlement. Festersen said the changes would improve the code enforcement system.
“It establishes firm deadlines for enforcement, which is my primary interest,” Festersen said.
He said the proposed amendments would improve the settlement.
That said, Festersen said he still has questions about the ongoing effect of the consent decree.
“I will have questions to pose about how it may or may not hinder us in the future, if additional or more stringent measures are required in the ordinances or standard operating procedures,” Festersen said.
In Mahern’s view, the settlement would make the property owners association a “gatekeeper” over city government.
“I didn’t elect MOPOA; I elected my council member,” she said. “Why should they have the authority to prevent us in the future from responding to issues that we aren’t aware of yet?”
What if, she asked, a future City Council wanted to require registration of landlords and routine inspections of rental housing, such as Lincoln and La Vista do, as opposed to Omaha’s current complaint-based system?
Deputy City Attorney Alan Thelen said the consent decree covers only the items spelled out in the settlement agreement.
“If it’s a direct change that’s an element of the settlement or that the court decreed, then we’d have to go back to the judge,” Thelen said.
But other changes to city law, such as a registration and inspection ordinance, would not require consent from the property owners or review by the judge under the consent decree, he said.
Asked if the city is giving away too much to settle the suit, Thelen said, “The Law Department has recommending approval of the settlement. Implicit in that is the belief that we’re not giving away too much.”