Omaha’s public housing residents are facing eviction more often – and sometimes over small debts

Dec. 7, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Mendy Race sits outside her new apartment building in Omaha about a month after OHA evicted her from public housing. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

As Bob Peniska rolled out the doors of Douglas County court, he asked himself a question familiar to many public housing tenants leaving eviction proceedings: Where will I go now?

After nearly a decade at Benson Tower, the Omaha Housing Authority wanted him out. The lifelong Omahan, who is missing his left foot and uses a motorized wheelchair, knew his options were limited.

About a week after he left his apartment to comply with an agreement reached in court, Peniska pitched a worn blue tent near a Casey’s gas station in Carter Lake, Iowa.

For the next 17 nights, he hunkered down in a sleeping bag and watched TV on his phone to help him nod off.

“I ain’t never lived like this,” Peniska said. “I’ll take a closet, man. I just need a room.”

Omaha’s public housing residents have faced the threat of eviction more often this year than any year since 2017.

Their landlord, OHA, has filed to evict tenants more than 400 times this year — 85% of the time over money allegedly owed by tenants.

A handful of tenants received eviction notices for amounts comparable to dinner at a restaurant: $35, $60, $75. In all, more than four dozen tenants owed less than $300, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of court records. Legal fees imposed by the agency more than doubled their debts in many cases.

These are among the findings in this first of several stories on OHA, one of Nebraska’s largest landlords.

Tenant advocates say OHA’s eviction practices conflict with the federally funded agency’s mission to provide subsidized housing to the poorest and often most vulnerable renters.

“Public housing exists because there is a need,” said North Omaha community activist Cheryl Weston. “If you’re not going to provide that, don’t get into it. Get out of it.”

OHA management says the agency is bound by financial realities and federal regulations that require tenants, including the poorest who pay little in rent and often face small-dollar evictions, be treated the same. The uptick in eviction filings is unavoidable, they say.

“We’re here because we care about who we’re serving and how we serve them,” said OHA CEO Joanie Poore. “We’re trying to do that while still complying with the rules and regulations that we have.”

A tenant advocate walks out of Courtroom 20 at the Douglas County court on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Eviction filings this year are up across Douglas County. Tenant advocates are especially concerned by an increase in filings by the Omaha Housing Authority, the city’s largest landlord. Photo by Jeremy Turley/Flatwater Free Press

Bills to pay

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Halloween, Douglas County Judge Marcena Hendrix began reading aloud the names of cases on the eviction docket.

More than two-thirds of the 31 cases came from OHA.

Before 2020, Omaha’s eviction court ran with unsparing efficiency. Few tenants had lawyers and many didn’t show up to court, said attorney Dave Pantos.

But the COVID-19 pandemic spurred federal, state and local policies and programs to keep renters in their homes – and it largely succeeded.

Omaha tenants started receiving free legal representation, and over $90 million in federal rent assistance flowed to the city’s landlords from 2021 to 2023, according to the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH).

Those funds dried up in August.

Eviction filings are up across Douglas County this year, but housing advocates are particularly worried by the sharp increase in OHA filings given the vulnerability of public housing tenants.

The agency’s tenants were disproportionately people of color, single-parent families and people with disabilities, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development data from 2022. The average annual income of an OHA household: roughly $14,000.

OHA eviction filings reached a six-year high this year, and they’re up more than 60% over the agency’s annual average during the pandemic.

Administrators say OHA’s finances and federal rent collection guidelines drive the need to file eviction notices against tenants who haven’t paid rent.

The agency also files eviction notices as a way to communicate with hard-to-reach tenants who are behind on rent, said OHA attorney Brian Hansen.

Poore said the main reason for the increase is that OHA is trying to be more consistent in applying its eviction-related policies.

Prior to her arrival in 2019, nine different property managers decided which cases to refer for eviction, she said. Now, the agency’s legal team and property managers generally file for eviction if a tenant fails to pay rent for three months or racks up a $600 debt.

Pandemic-era rental aid created a false expectation among tenants that a nonprofit would pay off their debts in court, Hansen said.

OHA’s administrators contend that most of the agency’s eviction filings don’t result in tenants actually being evicted. But many tenants end up leaving their units under court-approved deals that require them to move out if they can’t quickly pay off their debts. The agency said it doesn’t track how often this happens.

Small debts bring big consequences

After a long day of studying for social work classes, Mendy Race returned to her downtown Omaha apartment building to find her locks had been changed.

A sign on her door made it clear: Race was being evicted.

“I threw everything down by the door and just bawled,” said Race, who has struggled with addiction, homelessness and a severe case of COPD. “I felt like I was being taken advantage of.”

Officially, OHA initiated the eviction over a $60 debt she owed for replacement keys. Race, who receives only a $25 monthly allowance from the county, said she couldn’t pay it.

Nearly a third of the evictions OHA filed for financial debts this year were for less than $500, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis. Race was one of five tenants who received eviction notices over less than $100.

The practice isn’t new – Flatwater reviewed filings from as far back as 2018 over debts as low as $38.

“It seems like such a fundamentally misguided decision to take,” said Peter Hepburn, a sociology professor at Rutgers University and researcher at the Eviction Lab, regarding OHA’s small-dollar eviction filings. “Morally, I can’t imagine trying to justify that position.”

It also burdens taxpayers who will end up funding more costly homeless and medical services, Hepburn noted.

Hansen said OHA has an obligation under federal fair housing laws to treat all tenants the same, regardless of how much they pay in rent – which is based on their income. Failing to do so could make OHA vulnerable to a lawsuit, he said.

Federal law prohibits different eviction standards based on tenants’ income, said HUD spokesman Brian Handshy. But he added that HUD strongly encourages public housing authorities to limit evictions through repayment plans and rent adjustments.

OHA administrators also noted that filing evictions over small amounts is a more efficient way to remove “problem tenants” than attempting to evict them over a lease violation.

That appears to have been at play in Race’s case. Though her eviction notice made no mention of it, the agency told the Flatwater Free Press that Race’s “poor behavior” was to blame for the court filing that snowballed into an eviction.

Race denied that her behavior warranted her eviction.

Weston, the North Omaha activist, said OHA should be more transparent with its filings.

“It’s an outright lie,” she said. “If you’re putting in it that you’re evicting me for nonpayment, that’s what it should be.”

The legal machine

Though Race’s eviction filing stemmed from a $60 debt, that hole quickly deepened thanks to legal fees charged by OHA.

Those fees used to be as high as $85. Then, two years ago, they jumped more than 400%.

Tenants can now expect a charge of $150 in legal fees just for being in eviction proceedings. That figure climbs to a minimum of $350 if their case goes to court. Most do.

Hansen said OHA increased the fees because evictions were becoming more expensive. The amount was determined based on what private landlords charge for the fees, he added.

When residents started receiving free legal representation in 2021, OHA had to commit more resources to eviction court, Hansen said.

OHA’s legal team grew from two to five employees, though only two — an attorney and a paralegal — work full time on evictions.

The agency charged tenants more than $85,000 in legal fees between January and October. In 2019, OHA projected it would receive only half that amount for the whole year.

OHA Board Chairman David Levy asked administrators at a November meeting to explore options for recouping legal fees without passing the cost onto tenants.

Pantos, the attorney, said in an interview that “they need to be mindful that these are real people whose lives are affected and not just a source of attorneys’ fees.”

Poore said charging legal fees is necessary.

“There’s a real cost to doing business,” she said in an interview.

Flatwater’s analysis found about 90% of OHA’s eviction notices this year have not listed legal fees in the total amount tenants owe. That could give tenants a false impression of the money needed to prevent their eviction.

OHA said in a statement it “will investigate these observed inconsistencies,” adding that the problem could be human error.

The steep housing cliff

Medical problems, job loss and poverty pushed Peniska toward public housing.

A Parkinson’s disease diagnosis ended his truck-driving career in 2001. Complications from diabetes claimed his foot three years ago.

Peniska, 58, got in a fight with another tenant about a year ago — a lease violation that landed him in eviction court a few months later. OHA agreed to let him stay on a probationary basis, but the agency wouldn’t take his rent checks until it was over. (A landlord cannot accept rent from a tenant it may want to evict for a lease violation.)

Shortly after his probation ended, Peniska landed back in court for $2,600 in back-rent, plus legal fees. He saw it as a cruel irony that the agency filed against him for “nonpayment of rent” after refusing to accept his rent for so long.

Peniska said he couldn’t pay off the debt with the $914 he gets in monthly disability benefits, but he thought a couple of nonprofits would cover for him.

In the end, OHA didn’t want the money he owed. The deal offered by the agency’s lawyer gave Peniska two weeks to leave on his own or be evicted.

The agency declined to comment on Peniska’s case, but said it generally may not accept rent after a probationary period if another lease violation occurred.

Just as he was adapting to sleeping outside, Peniska awoke at 3 a.m. one October night to find that rainwater had seeped through a leak in his tent. A few days later, he sought refuge at Siena Francis House.

Peniska’s descent into homelessness isn’t unusual for public housing residents following an OHA eviction filing.

One in seven residents who OHA filed to evict since 2018 has since recorded an entry into Omaha’s homeless shelters, according to data provided by MACCH. That’s not the highest rate of post-eviction homeless shelter entries among Omaha-area landlords, but it is higher than average.

The spike in OHA evictions combined with the end of federal pandemic aid is “going to result in this tsunami of homelessness,” Pantos said. “Anytime the public investment in housing security falls off, those who are most vulnerable will bear the brunt, and I think we’re seeing that.”

Poore said the population served by OHA is lamentably susceptible to homelessness. She added that the agency is working with the city’s homeless services and noted that OHA recently received about 140 vouchers to house people experiencing homelessness.

At Siena Francis, Peniska sleeps on a bunk bed in a crowded room. He said the shelter staff take good care of him, but he hopes to find a wheelchair-accessible house to rent with a friend.

“I’m surviving, but I just need a break,” Peniska said. “I just want a normal life back.”

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