Omaha looks to improve eviction outcomes through tenant right to counsel

The city hopes to follow the lead of a few others across the country.
Omaha's City Council approved a housing action plan -- the question is can the city require attorneys to be available for eviction cases?
Published: Dec. 14, 2022 at 7:05 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Crystal Phipps has never been evicted before. She’s lived in the same Omaha house paying rent for nearly four years. But with $1,400 past due, a court date was inevitable.

“The best outcome I hope is that someone helps me because I need it. I really do,” Phipps said. “I know I can’t afford no attorney. I cannot. I really can’t. I cannot.”

Phipps was assigned one through Legal Aid of Nebraska. Her attorney, Jenessa Cruz-Alfaro, was there to help negotiate. Through a payment plan, Phipps and her 8-year-old granddaughter will get to stay in their home — and the landlord gets paid too.

“A lot of times we’re trying to get the best possible outcome for both parties, and a lot of that can be achieved by mediating or negotiating a mutually beneficial resolution,” said Scott Mertz, the director of Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Project.

The Legal Aid of Nebraska and the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Tenant Assistance Project (TAP) provides free legal counsel in Douglas County. Volunteer attorneys work on behalf of tenants facing eviction. But with roughly 100 eviction hearings a week, they need help themselves.

“We need more attorneys. We need more program capacity to continue this into the future,” said Lia Bies, the managing attorney for TAP.

Omaha's new Housing Affordability Action Plan is working to ensure tenants facing eviction have a lawyer.

A part of the newly approved Housing Affordability Action Plan advocates to expand TAP and make a tenant’s right to counsel a local law. That plan was passed by the Omaha City Council on Tuesday night by a 5-2 vote. One of the council members in opposition was Aimee Melton.

“The city doesn’t have the jurisdiction to do that. So we actually have something in our plan that we don’t have the power or authority to do,” said Melton, who represents District 7.

Although other cities across America have, Omaha’s housing manager, Greg Paskach, pointed to New York City, San Francisco, and Boulder, Colo., which have city laws establishing a right to counsel for tenants.

He said the action plan is just a guide to bolster eviction prevention services in Omaha. The Housing Affordability Action Plan’s timeline for accomplishing its goals related to eviction prevention is listed at 5+ years. Whether it’s through local law, or public or private funding, the people in Courtroom No. 20 just know eviction prevention is needed.

“It’s a good thing that people like them are helping us, people that can’t afford stuff like that,” Phipps said.