Urban Affairs

Right to counsel for public housing residents considered

Omaha public housing residents would be provided legal counsel at no cost to them during termination hearings and eviction cases under a bill heard Feb. 6 by the Urban Affairs Committee.

Sen. John Cavanaugh
Sen. John Cavanaugh

Under current law, a housing agency resident has the opportunity to contest the termination of their tenancy in a hearing conducted by the agency. LB1046, introduced by Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh, would create new requirements for that process and for related eviction proceedings if a premises is located in a metropolitan class city. Omaha is the state’s only metropolitan class city.

Under the bill’s provisions, counsel would be appointed for the resident prior to the termination hearing unless the tenant already is represented. If the resident does not request a hearing and the housing agency files an eviction, the county court would appoint counsel to represent the resident during eviction proceedings.

A resident could waive court-appointed counsel or retain their own counsel. The city would pay for any court-appointed counsel.

LB1046 also would require a housing agency to include a statement explaining the resident’s right to counsel in a written notice of termination.

Cavanaugh said most tenants lack legal training and have little understanding of their rights, creating a power imbalance in eviction proceedings — particularly when the entity seeking eviction is a government agency.

“Providing a civil right to counsel in the instance where the evicting authority is a public housing agency is a small way to balance the scales,” he said.

Public housing residents facing eviction likely will end up homeless, Cavanaugh added. Avoiding those evictions would keep some of society’s most vulnerable people in their homes, he said, reducing the need for homeless shelters, unemployment benefits, emergency medical care and other services, saving the city and state money.

Cavanaugh said a similar right-to-counsel initiative in Baltimore cost approximately $6 million to implement but saved the city $36 million.

Erin Feichtinger, policy director for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, testified in support of the bill. Omaha Housing Authority eviction cases were approximately 8% of the total evictions filed in Douglas County Court over the past two years, she said. On average during those years, more than 80% of OHA evictions were filed for nonpayment, Feichtinger said, the majority of them for amounts of less than $1,000.

In addition to this “startling” number of evictions, she said, OHA recently began charging residents a $150 fee for serving an eviction notice and an additional $200 to $300 if an eviction case goes to court.

“I am not intending to say that OHA is inherently bad,” Feichtinger said, “rather that when a government agency is acting in a way which causes harm, we should put checks in place for oversight and accountability.”

Also in support was Scott Mertz of Legal Aid of Nebraska. He said OHA tenants — many of whom are single parents, elderly or individuals with a disability — often do not engage in the federally required grievance process, which is intended to resolve conflicts outside of court and avoid evictions when possible.

“With the aid of an attorney,” Mertz said, “tenants can better navigate this process and assert their rights and preserve their housing, all without going to court.”

No one testified in opposition to LB1046 and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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