City to tackle abandoned homes, vacant lots

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August 30th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The city of Omaha is working through a host of ideas to tackle abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle’s landlord taskforce presented its recommendations to the city Thursday.

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During his State of the City address in February, Mayor Suttle announced his administration would tackle crime by going after abandoned homes and lots. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

During his State of the City address in February, Mayor Suttle introduced a new effort to stem crime in Omaha: step up enforcement of housing codes and demolish abandoned buildings and vacant homes. How are those ideas related? Suttle says it’s simple. “Criminal activity tends to occur in areas where landlords neglect their property and have major building code violations,” Suttle said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Omaha has far too many abandoned or neglected properties, Suttle said. There are 600 properties currently on the waiting list to be demolished. Others are deteriorating because of neglectful landlords or problem tenants, he added, and some fester because of loopholes in city ordinances and lagging code enforcement.

Councilman Ben Gray says abandoned properties are the source of a majority of complaint calls received by his office. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

In March, Suttle put a task force together, made up of city council members Ben Gray and Garry Gernandt, who represent North and South Omaha, police officers, city prosecutors, planners and residents, to come up with ways to tackle problem properties. After missing its initial deadline of 90 days, the group presented their recommendations Thursday. And they have several. The task force has 71 ideas, which range from stepping up prosecution to boosting awareness of the problem.

Mike Getty, special prosecutor for the city, said the thinking was outside the box. “The thinking was sometimes completely off the wall,” Getty said. “So, as you read through this, you’ll see some ideas that are maybe strange or outlandish to you. But we don’t want to discount any of those ideas either.”
Getty said those ideas can develop into “extremely useful” tools outside of prosecuting landowners for code violations, and instead, “cure the problem.”

Mayor Suttle says Omaha has far too many abandoned homes and vacant lots. The city has 600 houses currently on a waiting list for demolition.

Some of the ideas include amending the city’s “nuisance” ordinance to be more proactive. Another would create a new city ordinance that allows landlords to hand over their eviction rights to the city. Councilman Ben Gray said the idea has merit. “Some people may look at that as strange,” Gray said, “but in a number of instances, some of our landlords are afraid of their tenants.” Gray said assigning eviction rights to the city might make landlords “feel a little bit more safe.” (To read the full report, click here)

He added neglected and abandoned properties top his constituents in North Omaha’s lists of concerns, and those types of complaints far outnumber any other calls his office receives.

Other recommendations include allowing the city to post “closed property” signs without the landowner’s consent in cases where the owner is absent, has died or has abandoned the property. That would allow police to enter the building when criminal activity is suspected. Another would help prevent landlords from cashing insurance checks after a property fire and walking away. Suttle said too often the owner “walks away with the check and the city is left with the problem.”

The mayor emphasized the city will focus on working with landlords to come into compliance and will only prosecute landlords who refuse to cooperate. He said about 25 top “problem landlords” have been identified.

Councilman Garry Gernandt, who represents South Omaha, implored media and neighborhood associations to help get the message out that “there’s there’s not to be bulldozers tomorrow morning at the front door tomorrow.”

“This is a work in progress,” he said.

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