Nebraska nonprofits advocate for affordable housing, tenants’ rights bills

For the first ever ‘Housing Affordability and Justice Lobby Day,’ eight nonprofits that deal with affordable housing and tenants rights gathered in the rotunda.
Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 7:36 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - This legislative session, there are nearly two dozen bills to help beef up affordable housing across Nebraska.

In a show of solidarity on Tuesday, several nonprofits met with lawmakers, urging them to focus on a number of things including making more funding available, and appointing legal counsel in eviction hearings.

For the first ever ‘Housing Affordability and Justice Lobby Day,’ eight nonprofits that deal with affordable housing and tenants rights gathered in the rotunda. One of those nonprofits is NeighborWorks Lincoln, who wants to increase housing options for people of all income brackets.

Since 1986, NeighborWorks has worked to help expand affordable housing. Wayne Mortensen, the CEO of Neighborworks Lincoln, said they help about 80 families a year find first time homeownership opportunities.

Mortensen said the nonprofit supports several bills introduced this session. In particular, Mortensen said LB 629 and LB 801 would improve the efficiency of a program that creates workforce housing for middle income families and provide additional funding to the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the states preeminent affordable housing program.

“Housing is an issue that doesn’t wait,” Mortensen said. “And it’s been something that we’ve been dealing with for several years in the state of Nebraska and the work just cannot pause. So we continue to do our work and build homes for residents across the state of Nebraska. And hopefully, the state legislature is going to backfill their support behind.”

According to the city’s Affordable Housing Coordinated Action Plan, which was released in 2019, Lincoln could have a deficit of more than 17,000 housing units across all income brackets by 2030.

Mortensen said the proposed legislation could help overcome that.

This session, there are 10 bills aimed to protect tenants’ rights.

One organization has been working to keep people from being evicted. They hope their volunteer work will become more permanent in Lincoln and Omaha with the approval of certain legislation.

Since 2020, the UNL College of Law’s Tenant Assistance Project has helped those facing eviction stay in their homes.

“The legal system works better when the legal system is more fair,” Alan Dugger, who is with the Tenant Assistance Project said. “When tenants have protections and tenants can use them, it results are better outcomes for tenants.”

The project, called TAP for short, is a grassroots effort run by volunteer attorneys, including law students, who represent clients for free.

TAP has served over 2,000 people so far in Lancaster and Douglas counties, and has a 98% success rate of keeping people in their homes. One bill in particular, LB 187, would put what TAP has done in these counties into law by providing court-appointed attorneys for these types of tenants.

“With attorneys on the tenant side, you get far more fair agreements tenants can actually meet, and a lot of times you get repaired relationships,” Dugger said.

The larger issue is tenants having financial challenges. Collective Impact, a partnership between Nebraska Appleseed and Civic Nebraska, said more than 21,000 people just in Lincoln have a hard time affording their rent.

“Spending more than 30% of their income that leads to an increase in evictions, and evictions on your record makes it a lot harder to find more housing. And it just creates a lot of instability,” Lizzie Turner with Collective Impact said.

Advocates also support LB 175, which would provide a clean slate for certain renters, including those whose evictions end up being dismissed.

“That would allow a tenant to petition for ‘clean slate’ relief if they’ve been evicted after three years,” Dugger said. “It would also allow any dismissed proceeding to be sealed automatically. That’s pretty huge, because eviction filings often count as much against a tenant as judgments do.”

Both of those bills have had public hearings, but neither have been voted out of committee yet.