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Thousands of Nebraskans evicted during moratorium; aid helps some stay home

Tenant says rental assistance 'like 100 pounds off my shoulders'
Posted at 6:01 PM, Aug 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-20 12:40:13-04

OMAHA (KMTV) — This year, more than 4,000 Nebraskans have gotten the note renters dread: word that their landlord plans to evict them. Thousands more are at risk of joining them, mainly people behind on their rent.

Help is available for both groups, especially for tenants who got behind financially during the pandemic, 3 News Now Investigators found. But renters need to know where to seek it out.

For those facing eviction — people headed to Douglas County Courtroom 20 — a new program will make sure tenants face their landlords with legal representation for free.

3 News Now watched tenants on Wednesday work with volunteer lawyers and landlords in the courtroom hallway to negotiate payment plans or move-out dates.

Many avoided eviction judgments, which anti-poverty advocates say leave people with damaged credit and a record that makes it harder to rent their next apartment or home.

The situation this week was far better than in 2020 when only 4.4 percent of tenants facing evictions had lawyers at their side in eviction court.

The local bar association copied a Lincoln effort that got lawyers to wait near eviction court and offer tenants legal assistance at no cost.

Fair housing advocate Erin Feichtinger credits the lawyers with getting renters better results, including more time to pay, more time to move, and applications for available aid.

“The biggest difference is that there’s someone in the middle of this process who can figure out how to problem solve there in the moment,” Feichtinger said.

Support for the legal aid effort is bipartisan. City Councilwoman Aimee Melton was one of several local lawyers volunteering this week. She fell short Tuesday in securing city funds for a paralegal to help.

Douglas and Sarpy Counties, like much of Nebraska, are covered by the latest Centers for Disease Control Eviction Moratorium. The original moratorium slowed evictions in 2020 by nearly 45 percent.

Groups that track Nebraska evictions still see thousands of filings, including more than 2,000 this year to date in Douglas County. They’re seeing them from all over Omaha, including out west.

Statewide, about 2,400 evictions have been ordered so far this year, according to an analysis of data provided by the state court system. More than half of them have been in Douglas County.

“More and more people from places where we’ve never seen people ask for help are … asking for help,” Feichtinger said.

There’s also help available for those getting behind on their rent because of COVID-19, people like Erin Painter, a librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Her partner worked part-time as an artist before his job and hours were cut back. The couple made do on expanded unemployment benefits until Gov. Pete Ricketts stopped accepting the money in June.

“You do the math in your head every night, right,” Painter said. “How much is left on this card? How much is left on that card? How much do I have left in the checking account? What still has to go through? How many days do we have left till we run out of money and how many days is that from when we get paid again? What do we do?”

Painter saw something in an online news feed about rental assistance. The program helps people who meet income thresholds pay for some of their rent and utility costs.

“It’s hard to ask for help when you need it because you’re scared they’re going to say no,” Painter said. “It’s hard to go to somebody with your hat in your hand, when you really need the help."

All she needed to apply was a copy of her lease agreement, proof of lost income during the pandemic, income tax records and copies of their utility bills. She says they got three months of rental assistance.

"Pushing through it and overcoming that pride and overcoming the rigamarole of the paperwork, if you can get through that, the sense of relief is just, amazing,” she said. “Like 100 pounds off my shoulders.”

Randy McCoy, who runs the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, says more people should apply. His group handles rental assistance applications in Douglas County.

He says they’ve helped at least 3,200 households in Omaha, and that they’ve sent out more than $20 million in rental aid since the start of the pandemic.

“Yes, we have set it up to be an online application, although there are workarounds to that,” McCoy said. “You can call 211 and start the application. There are opportunities to drop off hard copies of the documents as opposed to uploading them online. All of the Omaha Public Libraries have drop boxes.”

Renters who live outside of Douglas and Lancaster Counties might need to hurry. The state is urging people in Sarpy and smaller counties to apply by Sept. 30.

The state says it won’t be able to spend enough of the federal money the state has received for rental aid to avoid the risk of the Treasury Department reassigning it elsewhere.

Nebraska has $158 million in emergency rental assistance available, officials say. It is on pace to spend less than $10 million before the deadline. The state needed to spend 65% to avoid review.

Said Harner: “We are really hopeful that we’re going to retain some money, and that they’re going to give us enough to keep the program running for the next year. But we don’t know. And they haven’t provided us with anything definitive. So it’s just apply as soon as you can.”

Nearly 34% of Nebraskans rent. More than half of the state’s renters live in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, in Omaha and Lincoln.

But the federal aid formula set aside more for Nebraska counties outside of the state’s two most populous counties.

The state’s rental assistance program saw its weekly applications climb to a weekly high of about 190 a week in early August, when the original evictions moratorium was set to expire.

It dropped back to 130 when the current one took effect. Douglas County’s program, in contrast, receives an average of about 300 applications a week, officials said.

“What that tells me is people are procrastinating,” Harner said. “They’re hoping, they’re kicking this can down the road and that there will be maybe another save or another thing that means they don’t have to go through this process. But that’s not the case. People need to do the application, especially since we don’t know how long we’re going to have the funds.”

Several housing advocates said the state was being too slow to promote the statewide rental assistance program. But Harner said the program has approved 95% of the people who’ve applied.

She says the problem is too few applicants. She says more need to apply.

Folks who want to apply for rental assistance in Douglas County can visit macchconnect.org. People in Sarpy and surrounding counties can apply at coronavirus.nebraska.gov.

Local landlords 3 News Now Investigators spoke with say they aren’t yet seeing a high number of people not paying rent or relying on the evictions moratorium to do so.

But John Chatelain, who represents the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association, says he worries about the potential financial stress on landlords of limits on evictions.

“Well potentially this could be a huge challenge,” Chatelain said. “As the moratoriums keep getting extended and extended, more tenants are going to realize that they don’t have to pay the rent.”

Painter says she was lucky. She and her landlord worked things out together, including applying for aid. She says the assistance helped her handle unexpected repairs to her car in stride.

She says she hopes others will apply.

“Me before was just tense. It’s like you always have static in the background, that white noise, always,” she said. “Quicker to anger. Quicker to snap. Everything was a big deal. With that stress level reduced, I’m able to take even my car being more complicated in stride.”

Investigative Producer Aaron Hegarty contributed to this report.

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