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City of Omaha reverses legal position, opens emergency rental aid to undocumented immigrants

OMAHA — The City of Omaha has reversed an earlier legal stance and now is opening federal emergency aid to all renters hurt by the pandemic — regardless of citizenship or U.S. legal status.

The change of heart puts Omaha at odds with the opinion of the State of Nebraska and Gov. Pete Ricketts, yet aligns the city with how Lincoln authorities from the onset have handled Emergency Rental Assistance Program dollars.

“It’s a huge change,” said Jason Feldhaus, executive director of Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, the contractor Omaha pays to administer ERAP funds. “This takes away those limitations and allows us to help all people in need, the most vulnerable in our community.”

At play, in the short run, is $18 million that Omaha still has left to distribute of roughly $100 million in ERAP funds received from the U.S. Treasury Department.

However, there may be even broader impact as the city is awaiting word on whether it will be granted another wave of the emergency funding to distribute.

Applicants for the rental aid must answer a variety of questions and pass various income and eligibility thresholds.

Omaha is just one municipality that disperses the national ERAP funding. Separate pots of money also are distributed by Douglas County, Lincoln and Lancaster County and the State of Nebraska (for the state’s 91 smaller counties.)

The Nebraska Examiner learned of Omaha’s turnabout Wednesday, after the City Legal Department notified those involved that proof of legal status is no longer a prerequisite to applying for the rent and utility aid.

Before, Mayor Jean Stothert’s office said proof of legal status regarding the emergency rental funds was based on state law, “so the requirement will remain.”

Wednesday, City Attorney Matt Kuhse said a review was requested by the mayor and urged also by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which cited Lincoln’s contrasting way of looking at the matter.

Kuhse said his office considered a recent federal court decision. He said that while a state law requires U.S. citizenship for public benefits, the Law Department concluded that the ERAP assistance fell under an exception to that rule.

Lincoln authorities from the beginning of the ERAP program had interpreted the state law differently than Omaha did and noted that Treasury guidelines on the program did not require U.S. legal status.

This takes away those limitations and allows us to help all people in need, the most vulnerable in our community.

– Jason Feldhaus of Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH)

Debate over the citizenship question took on more steam this summer after a Creighton University report found that South Omaha, and its sizable immigrant population, had been underserved by the rent assistance program based on the area’s needs and demographics.

Author Pierce Greenberg, an assistant professor at Creighton, said in his examination of the Omaha ERAP process that a likely reason for a significant service gap was that Omaha required applicants to have U.S. status.

A key takeaway: Of Douglas County’s 12 most underserved census tracts revealed in his report, 11 were in South Omaha.

The ACLU later stepped in and met with both city lawyers and community advocates who also had voiced concerns.

“We heard the concerns and tried to support the community to find a resolution,” said Mindy Rush Chipman, ACLU legal director. “We are just really grateful for the news today that this barrier is going to be eliminated.”

Community activist Ben Salazar, who himself had been mulling legal action, said he was both “elated and shocked” at the reversal he learned of Wednesday.

The city’s $18 million needs to be distributed by the end of the year, officials said.

Next steps, Feldhaus said, include changing the rental assistance application form to eliminate language about proof of U.S. residency.

He is working with Salazar and others in South Omaha to get the word out to potential applicants. MACCH might also strategically place a Spanish-speaking staffer in a nonprofit to help people fill out the extensive paperwork required to apply for the emergency funding.

Feldhaus said contact forms that will put applicants in touch with experts who can help with the forms currently are in spots including the South Omaha library on the Metropolitan Community College campus.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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