LINCOLN — Tenants and their advocates fought with landlords for several hours Friday over a package of bills heard by the Judiciary Committee.
Supporters argued that the measures would help even the scales of justice by increasing tenant protections under Nebraska’s Landlord and Tenant Act.
They said the changes would help prevent people from winding up homeless.
But landlords defended the current law, saying the proposed changes could encourage more lawsuits and make them wait longer to evict tenants who are not paying rent.
State Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, who offered five of the measures, said the proposals grew out of interim study hearings last year focused on affordable housing, neighborhood and rental issues. His bills would:
» Make landlords responsible for returning or accounting for security deposits within 14 days of a tenant moving out.
Tenants and advocates said few renters realize that Nebraska law puts the burden on renters to ask for the deposits back.
Renee Just, a recent law school graduate, said that when she did not get deposit checks back, she simply thought that her landlords spent all the money on repairs.
John Chatelain of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association said he does not think that it is an imposition on tenants to request the money. He raised concerns about the 14-day timeline and about the proposed penalties for landlords that do not return deposits on time.
» Protect domestic violence victims from being evicted for reasons related to their abuse.
Current law allows landlords to evict tenants if they or a guest is involved in a physical assault. Advocates for domestic violence victims said the law can leave victims homeless because of damage and disruptions caused by their abusers.
The landlords argued that they have to consider other renters in a multifamily unit, who have a right to peace and quiet.
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» Offer tenants more protection against retaliation for complaining about housing code violations or breaches of their lease agreements.
Advocates said tenants fear that they will be evicted or charged higher rents if they complain. Landlords said the proposal would put the burden on them to prove that they were not retaliating.
»Allow tenants seven days instead of three to find rent money before landlords could start eviction proceedings against them.
The landlords said three days is enough time, especially considering that tenants already know that they owe rent.
But advocates said the additional time could mean that the rent gets paid and landlords would not have to go through with the cost of eviction.
» Free judges to grant continuations in eviction proceedings.
Current law allows continuations only for extraordinary causes, and only if the tenant deposits any past-due rent, plus rent that may come due during the court proceedings.
Hansen said the standard is higher than for any other court proceedings in Nebraska, including evictions involving commercial tenants. The landlords said that tenants already have time to make their case and that any continuations would mean longer periods during which owners are getting no money from their rental property.
A sixth proposal was introduced by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha. Her bill would ban housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and citizenship.
She also offered an amendment to ban discrimination based on whether a renter gets housing assistance.