Housing measures made the Legislature jump

LINCOLN, Nebraska (Nebraska Examiner) — If it hits a third time, State Senator Tony Vargas could cross the finish line this year with a proposed law that would make it illegal to deny someone an apartment based on source of income.

On Wednesday, the Omaha senator told a legislative committee that nearly 20 other states and 100 cities have introduced bans similar to Bill 248.

Omaha State Senator Tony Vargas (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

In an effort to open more doors for people who rely on benefits like Social Security and federal housing vouchers to cover rent, Vargas said homeowners will still be able to use screening methods like credit checks and background checks.

“Removing Barriers”

He suggests that the bill will reduce segregation and create conditions for low-income families who use federal housing vouchers to live in new areas with better public services.

“We need to make sure we remove the barriers,” Vargas told the Legislative Assembly Judiciary Committee. “This will affect long-term earnings, childhood academic performance, and the likelihood of ending up in our justice system.”

Public testimony on the proposal lasted almost three hours, followed by hearings on five more landlord and tenant bills introduced by various senators that stretched on for another four hours.

In another public hearing room at the Capitol, five other housing bills were presented before the Appropriations Committee, which together provide for a $600 million government injection into housing programs.

The hearing day, which drew fans and critics from across the state, added to Nebraska’s heightened focus on the affordable housing crisis, which several witnesses said also hindered economic and job growth, especially in rural areas.

Apartments in downtown Omaha have grown in the last year. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

A crisis

Erin Feuchtinger, political director of the Omaha Women’s Fund, was among those who rushed between two committee rooms to speak on more than one bill.

Speaking for LB 248, Feichtinger said the state’s housing needs should be attacked from more than one front. Many are looking for brick-and-mortar solutions, building more housing, she said.

Also important, Feichtinger said, are accessibility efforts such as LB 248, which will make more existing and private residences accessible to low- and middle-income families.

“This will give families a better chance of success,” she said.

To show the significant demand and use of public rental vouchers, Vargas told the committee that the Omaha Housing Authority announced several years ago that its Section 8 list would be open for one day to receive applicants. He said the agency received 10,000 calls in response.

Burdensome Requirements

Alicia Christensen, director of public housing at nonprofit Together Omaha, said people shouldn’t be dispossessed just because rent is subsidized by the government. She and others noted that federal rent payments go straight to the landlord.

“How we pay for something should not determine what we can buy,” Christensen said. “Cash shoppers don’t have more choice in the grocery store than check shoppers.”

The proposal was opposed by numerous landlords and other opponents. Most said their objection was due to the inaction of housing agencies and burdensome government requirements, not to the tenants.

Scott Hoffman, a landlord with 40 years of experience, said he testified against the proposal the last two times it was presented.

He noted a new element in the latest iteration: a $50,000 government-funded landlord guarantee program will be created to reimburse landlords for unpaid rent or damage to tenants.

‘It’s a joke’

Hoffman said it may have been added due to his past criticism. But he said the amount was not enough and that he did not think the state “should be in the business of saving the federal government.”

Hoffman said, “Now you as a state want to fund this for $50,000? It’s a joke.”

Lynn Fisher, of the Nebraska Property Owners and Managers Association in Lincoln, said his organization includes members who accept government rental vouchers and others who don’t. But he said the consensus of the members was to oppose the bill.

“You can work with this program, but it should be the choice of the owner,” Fisher said. “The Choice of Private Property Law”.

Christy Lamb, vice president of NP Dodge, said the management company oversees 4,000 apartments in Lincoln and Omaha, and about 40% are for low- and middle-income residents. However, the company opposes LB 248, believing property owners should be able to choose whether they want to participate in a government program such as housing assistance vouchers.

No action was taken by the Judiciary Committee to bring the bill into the full Legislative Assembly for debate.

$600 million

At the Appropriations Committee hearing, Vargas introduced two more bills related to housing.

Bill 741 requires the state to invest $100 million in the Rural Housing Investment Fund and the Affordable Housing Fund, two existing programs aimed at building affordable housing for the working class.

Bill 801 provides for $200 million in housing investment for the middle income workforce and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The Appropriations Committee also heard public presentations on three other bills:

LB 504, introduced by Senator Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, requires a $100 million public investment in rural housing and affordable housing investment funds. – Tenements within two miles of the airport, mostly in North Omaha. LB 789 of Senator Justin Wayne of Omaha is asking for $100 million for “innovative housing solutions.”

The Nebraska Examiner is part of Newsroom States, a network of newsrooms supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. The Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. For questions, please contact editor Keith Folsom: [email protected] Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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