Four months into the pandemic, OTOC leaders recognized that housing instability was a serious public health issue. Eviction court had been open since the moratorium issued by Governor Ricketts on evictions expired at the end of May, and even federally-funded housing project tenants would become vulnerable again at the end of July.
OTOC leaders conducted research and found that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a startling 47% of renters in Douglas County were rent-burdened, meaning that they spend over 30% of their monthly income on rent. With 46,557 new initial claims for unemployment in Douglas County filed between 3/21-6/13, OTOC argued that there were more rent burdened residents than ever. A new report on evictions in Omaha clearly demonstrated how minority and low-income neighborhoods in North and South Omaha became hotspots both for COVID-19 infections and evictions.
OTOC worked with the County Commissioners to develop a rental assistance program for those who have been hit especially hard during this pandemic. The Douglas County Board of Commissioners responded July 14th with a finalized plan that allocated $10 million of the $166 million of Douglas County’s CARES Act funds for rental assistance. Influential in this decision was the engagement of leaders from Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) who met with many of the Commissioners to discuss the imminent threat of COVID-19 related evictions and how CARES Act funds could help keep impacted families in their homes.
Said OTOC leader and member of Augustana Lutheran Church, Gloria Austerberry:
"Under normal circumstances, evictions are detrimental for families. In the context of the pandemic, evictions hurt the whole community by removing the ability to practice social isolation safely in their homes...
Preventing them whenever possible protects children especially, and all the institutions like education, social services, and health care that serve them. We are pleased that the Commissioners have prioritized keeping people in their homes and are doing their part to keep our County healthy and safe.”
[Photo Credit: Brendan Sullivan, World-Herald]
Midland Voices: Rental Challenges Are Enormous. Counry Board Can Help Greatly, Omaha World-Herald [pdf]
There's a fight in federal court over the Omaha rental registry which was supposed to go into effect January 1st. Negotiated carefully with extensive input from Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and local landlords, the registry would allow City inspectors to review a property, even those without a filed complaint, as one step to stop slumlords from taking advantage of tenants.
The registry was negotiated months after 500 refugees were forced out of apartments with 2,000+ code violations. Months before it was set to go into effect, the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association filed a suit against it.
OTOC leaders are now publicly challenging landlords to work with the community to ensure dignified housing for all Omahan residents.
Eleven months after leveraging enough votes across the state to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, state legislators have manufactured delays and complications hindering its implementation. In response, OTOC leaders and allies traveled to the Capitol to call on legislators to "honor the vote" and fulfill the will of Nebraskan voters.
At a press conference outside, OTOC leader Dr. Carol LaCroix, a family physician, questioned why the governor’s administration was erecting barriers to care and significantly delaying implementation of expansion. In the hearing itself, OTOC leader Mary Spurgeon (photo above) itemized the harm done by failing to expand Medicaid for the seventh year, pointing out that the altering of the law, passed as Initiative 427, constituted a failure by the governor and legislators to carry out constitutional duties.
Following the hearing, OTOC leaders delivered copies of their testimony to the governor and senators. Leaders are now urging constituents to contact their senators on this issue.
OTOC Leaders Testify Against Delays and Complications of Medicaid, Omaha Together One Community
In advance of a vote that may occur as early as April 2nd, OTOC and the Apartment Owners Association of Nebraska (AAN) intered into negotiation about areas of agreement to jointly present to the City Council and Mayor. The AAN represents the owners of half the rental properties in Omaha.
The invitation to negotiate occurred after 40 tenants, landlords, community organizations, social service organizations, pastors organized by OTOC spoke in favor of reform at a four-hour city council hearing on March 12 (in photo above). OTOC leaders Karen McElroy, Rosie Volkmer, Gloria Austerberry, Dennis Walsh, Susan Kuhlman and Paul Romero laid out a comprehensive narrative that covered the history of substandard property rentals in the city, the failures of the current complaint-based system and the extensive research in support of rental inspection programs. At the request of City Council members, OTOC submitted recommendations of what ought to be amendments to the Mayor's proposed ordinance.
OTOC leaders urge supporters to continue to pressure their elected representatives to support a system of landlord registration with proactive inspections to ensure that all people have access to healthy homes.
After 500 tenants were forced out of their homes due to residential code violations by their landlords, Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) leaders launched a campaign to ensure decent living standards for renters.
OTOC research actions on housing code violations soon revealed that the vast majority of violations occurred in low-income, predominantly minority communities with disproportionate numbers of elderly and refugee residents -- many of whom are reluctant to complain. OTOC leaders are now pushing for local changes including required registration of all residential rental property and proactive inspections by the City of Omaha.
At recent press conference, Dennis Walsh of OTOC argued, "Registration and inspection creates a healthier market not a more expensive market.”
Having helped shape Legislative Bill 85, which would require cities like Omaha to implement these reforms, Walsh and other OTOC leaders are mobilizing at the state level to ensure dignified housing.
Beckas Beat: Do We Live In a Perfect World?, FOX 42 News
New Website 'We Don't Slum' Aims to Put Pressure on Problem Landlords, Omaha World-Herald
Landlords, renters clash over idea of rental inspections in Omaha and Lincoln, Omaha World-Herald
OTOC Fact Sheet on LB 85, OTOC
With access to health care on the line for 90,000 Nebraskans, OTOC leaders worked hard to expand Medicaid for those with no health insurance. After efforts to secure enough votes to overcome a filibuster in the Nebraska Unicameral proved unsuccessful, OTOC partnered with allies in 2018 to secure a place on the November Midterm ballot for 'Initiative 427' as a way to secure Medicaid Expansion in Nebraska. On November 6, 2018, the effort succeeded.
Over the course of the year, OTOC leaders mobilized 50 individuals who secured 3,500 signatures in the effort to get the initiative on the ballot. OTOC organized 17 civic academies in Omaha congregations and public libraries to help build an educated constituency and, in efforts to educate the public, published seven Opeds, including four in the Omaha World Herald. In the final days leading to the vote, the World Herald selected OTOC to counter final arguments by a team including the former Governor, Attorney General and a member of Koch Brothers Nebraska.
Leaders testified at State hearings, leveraged commitments from winning Congressional candidates to protect Medicaid Expansion if Initiative 427 were to pass, and organized a fall accountability assembly in which all seven Unicameral candidates committed to implementing Medicaid expansion.
Initiative 427 won with a margin of 41,594 votes statewide. Counties where OTOC focused -- Douglas and Sarpy -- were critical to overcoming vote deficits elsewhere. In Douglas County, alone, 111,630 residents voted FOR Initiative 427, approximately one third of the statewide total, and far exceeding the margin of victory.
OTOC leaders are now turning their attention to implementation of Medicaid expansion, to ensure it reaches those who most need it.
Imperative That Nebraska Pass Initiative 427 and Expand Medicaid, Omaha World Herald
Medicaid for Public Health, Omaha World Herald
In an effort to stand with immigrants, Nebraska Lutheran Bishop Brian Maas, Catholic Archdiocese Chancellor Rev. Tim McNeill, and College of St. Mary President Maryanne Stevens joined Omaha Together Organized Communities (OTOC) in a column calling on Congress for an 18-month extension of 'Temporary Protective Status (TPS).'
TPS allows immigrants and refugees like OTOC leader and 20-year resident Wilfredo Rivera (featured in photo above) to avoid deportation. This issue affects 400,000 immigrants nationally, not including their children.Read more
After working for the last 6 years to increase City funding to demolish 800 condemned buildings in Omaha, Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) testified in favor of $1.1 Million included in the proposed 2018 City budget for demolition of condemned structures, up from just $250,000 in 2012 when OTOC started pushing for increases. As a result, the backlog of abandoned houses has been brought down from over 750 to less than 125.Read more
Leaders also engaged candidates for the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) to secure commitments to work with the organization to move more quickly towards clean energy sources.Read more