LINCOLN — State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha issued an ultimatum to the City of Omaha on Wednesday — get moving to bolster inspections of substandard rental properties, or he’ll push forward with a legislative solution.

Wayne told fellow state lawmakers that he’s asked that first-round debate on his proposal, Legislative Bill 85, be delayed for two to three weeks to allow the city a chance to introduce an ordinance to solve the problem locally.

“We have to step up to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” the senator said.

An aide to Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said later that several ideas are being considered by the City Planning Department and City Council members in hopes of coming up with an ordinance to introduce.

“There are meetings taking place almost as we speak,” said Marty Bilek, the mayor’s chief of staff and liaison with the State Legislature. Bilek added that the city continues to work with Wayne on his proposal.

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The issue has been hotly debated since September, when 500 refugees had to be removed from the Yale Park Apartments because of a range of substandard conditions, from unsafe electrical circuits to natural gas leaks to the presence of mice, bedbugs, lice and maggots.

The city eventually found almost 2,000 code violations in 100 apartments near 34th and Lake Streets. Advocates for the tenants, though, have complained that code enforcement is lax because city inspectors can only check for code violations when there is a complaint. Apartment tenants, they say, are reluctant to complain because of possible retaliation by a landlord.

In response, Wayne introduced LB 85, which would require rental properties to register with the city and be inspected at least once every three years. Landlords would be charged annual registration fees and could be fined if they don’t register.

The City of Omaha opposed the bill at a public hearing on Jan. 22 as too costly and usurping local government control.

Stothert said the solution was not “identifying and registering landlords” but proactive enforcement of current city housing codes and ordinances. The mayor also said the city is limited in what it can do because of a federal court order, resulting from a lawsuit filed by an Omaha property owners group.

City officials, at that public hearing, also pushed back on Wayne’s assertion that the city had “abandoned” plans to bolster its inspection program.

Bilek said several meetings on the issue have been held this week, and more are planned. At least four City Council members have ideas, as does the City Planning Department, he said. The goal is to craft one ordinance that all can agree with, Bilek said.

One concern is whether requiring more inspections and registration fees from landlords would increase rent for low-income apartments, he said. Bilek estimated that doing that could require 30 more city inspectors at a cost of more than $2 million a year.

In the end, he said he expects that the city will craft a solution and that the Legislature “will be satisfied.”

Wayne’s bill was advanced from the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee on a 4-1 vote, and on Wednesday, the senator said he has the necessary votes in the 49-member Legislature to pass the bill. The bill as advanced included an amendment sought by the city, which would give it three years to phase in the registration and inspection program.

During a brief debate on the issue on Wednesday, Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh read off a list of substandard conditions found during a recent look at other low-income rental properties in Omaha, including mice, roaches and water leaks. Cavanaugh said she hoped that the City of Omaha could solve its own problem and that legislative action would be unnecessary.

“It’s a crisis in Omaha,” she said.

Wayne said he’s heard complaints from young professionals seeking to rent apartments in the city, because an Internet search for apartments brings up the dilapidated conditions found at the Yale Park Apartments.

“It’s a black eye on the state,” Wayne said.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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