Preventing the Next Legacy Crossing: Omaha-Based Organizations Seek Sustainable Solutions to Housing Crises

Tina Murray remembered sitting on the dirt-covered stairs with the mother of two.

The apartment building they were sitting in had just been condemned by the city of Omaha. Mice, mold, a leaking roof, lack of heating in the winter and other problems allowed the city to justify vacating the Flora Apartments in early 2022, which had been on the radar of Omaha code inspectors for years. But while the city considered it a win by holding homeowners accountable, it was anything but for residents who were given a day’s notice to leave their homes.

“She told me as she sat on that staircase, as disgusting and disgusting as it was, that it was better than living in her car,” said Murray, senior director of crisis engagement programs at the nonprofit Together in Omaha. “This is simply unacceptable.”

The lack of affordable housing forces Omaha’s poorest residents to accept insecure living conditions. But when it comes to holding landlords accountable, the city often has too few tools until problems escalate and demolition of entire buildings becomes the only option. Some high-profile examples include Yale Park Apartments in 2018, Flora Apartments in early 2022, and the recent Legacy Crossing in December 2022. Nonprofits that ultimately respond to the emergency by raising money and finding housing say this model cannot continue.

“We need to start holding people by the legs so that in this way… [so we don’t] “I see violations going on for five years and then all of a sudden someone says we’re shutting down and we’re going to ask everyone to move in 24 hours,” said Mike Honerak, CEO of Together.

The most common tool to enforce city code is the $125 inspection fee. But for some this is not convincing. David Carney, a local activist, posted emails on Twitter claiming that property owners for Legacy Crossing would rather pay inspection fees than fix violations.

The city recently launched a register of landlords, obtaining a list of all properties for rent and checking them once every ten years. Properties with violations must go through two years of clean inspections before returning to a ten-year schedule, Dave Fanslau, director of urban planning, said in a press release. Omaha Chief Housing Inspector Scott Lane did not respond to a request for comment.

Murray said that while the registry is helping, especially in educating the community about tenants’ rights and how to report code violations, accountability needs to be strengthened.

“Education is great, but if you don’t have enforcement action in place to hold the landlord accountable, the landlord will get away with not correcting code violations or not responding to complaints filed by tenants,” Murray said. “Because they know that there are 100 more people sitting there who are ready to live in such conditions and pay for it, because it is better than living in a car.”

The urgency of the decision is highlighted by the lack of affordable housing in Omaha.

To meet the demand for affordable housing over the next two decades, Omaha will need $17.4 billion to produce 80,000 to 100,000 new apartments, according to a study by the Omaha Community Foundation. Much of the current stock is also in need of investment. Of the 325,000 calls received on the 211 hotline, 72% are related to rent and/or utilities, according to the United Way of the Midlands.

As buildings fall into disrepair, there is an increased need for non-profit organizations to raise money to provide housing and food for people. If nothing changes, they will be left wondering when the next mass condemnation will be – the next time they are forced to collect money, move furniture, check people into hotels and try to restore order in a chaotic situation.

“This is not an immediate decision,” Murray said. “You take people out of their accommodation and put them in hotels, it takes months to put people in… you have [some] people with criminal offenses, evictions, low incomes, etc. These people are harder to accommodate, so more resources are needed.

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