Could Omaha City Council Be Any More Useless?

by Mark Honey

In April, city council passed an ordinance mandating inspections for rental units every 10 years. I can’t even tell you just how worthless it is.

This ordinance came into the spotlight after the Yale Park apartment fiasco, in which landlord Kay Anderson was neglecting a large complex of apartments where refugees from Myanmar lived. The city declared it unlivable after an inspection, and all 98 families there were forced to move. The news pounced all over it, and local churches and non-profits jumped in to try and help the tenants.

Unfortunately, most of the available and affordable housing avaiable on such short notice wasn’t much better, and they weren’t all in the same complex. In the end, these refugees ended up kicked out of their homes and split from their community, all to wind up in living conditions similar to the ones before. Kay Anderson is now suing the city.

This new ordinance isn’t going to solve issues like Yale Park. In fact, it might even create more of them. City Council seems proud to have passed it. Here’s why they’re useless.

Firstly, the new ordinance requires inspections once every ten years. Somehow this ten-year cycle is a compromise between the original bills proposed by Mayor Jean Stothert and the city council, even though those original options had inspections set for every three or four years. That means one of those new styrofoam monstrosities going up all along Leavenworth will be inspected a total of three times in 30 years. Any renter can tell you that just won’t make a difference.

Secondly, they barely even managed to get this version passed. Conservative opponents whined over the money it would cost to hire new inspectors. Councilmember Ben Gray reportedly thought the council was intentionally trying to tank it after seven months of working on it behind the scenes. Landlord association MOPOA claimed the inspections would be an undue burden on them. The mayor even claimed she was going to veto it because the inspections weren’t frequent enough!

Who was missing from this conversation? Strangely enough, renters. As is so common with capitalist structures, the people the bill was actually supposed to assist weren’t allowed to craft the bill at all. In fact, several councilmembers were annoyed by the amount of public comment on the bill, because they had been working on it for several months already! Well, maybe next time they could ask renters what we want instead of just assuming what’s best behind closed doors. Every single councilmember accepted donations from realtor’s associations during election season. The mayor accepted more than $250,000. Could it be they aren’t in touch with renter’s interests?

Could it be they are systematically encouraged to work for the rich and not the working class?

Renters can do better than waiting around for city councils to “solve” their problems. Tenant unions and organizations are popping up around the country. Philadelphia Tenants Union and Los Angeles Tenants Union have fought for and won reforms like “just cause“ eviction protections, which bar landlords from kicking tenants out on a whim. They’re fighting for universal rent control now. Kansas City Tenants wrote an entire People’s Housing Platform which demands better conditions and racial justice in housing.

Omaha is lucky enough to have Omaha Tenants United, which is organizing tenants against rent hikes and against slumlords like Dave Paladino. Lincoln is getting its feet wet, too, with local organizers starting the Lincoln Tenant Solidarity Network.

So what now? City council and the mayor are owned by rich people and generally bad at doing anything other than congratulating themselves. But renters? We have the power to unite. We have the power to win.

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