OMAHA, Neb. -- Once Omaha’s leading initiator of evictions, the city’s public housing authority has all but stopped filing cases to remove tenants from their homes. 

The Omaha Housing Authority has not filed to evict any public housing tenants over nonpayment of rent since mid-November – weeks before the Flatwater Free Press began publishing a series of stories that found the agency’s eviction filings hit a six-year high in 2023.

The federally funded agency has filed to evict just seven tenants since Nov. 16 – four for allegedly violating their leases and three who lived in nonpublic housing run by an OHA affiliate. OHA CEO Joanie Poore declined to respond to questions about the recent decline in the agency’s eviction filings.

Prior to the pause, OHA had filed to evict tenants more than 400 times in 2023, usually for failing to pay rent or other fees. Often, tenants who received eviction notices owed relatively small sums of money. 

Tenant advocates said the agency’s eviction practices conflicted with its mission to provide subsidized housing to the poorest and often most vulnerable renters. 

OHA leaders said financial realities and federal regulations required the agency to go after unpaid rent and to treat all tenants the same. 

Dave Pantos, a lawyer who represents tenants facing eviction, said OHA’s absence at court has been noticeable over the last few months. The agency’s inactivity in court has allowed volunteer attorneys to focus more on cases brought by the county’s private landlords, he said. 

Eviction filings in Douglas County were down 20% across the board in January and February compared to the same period last year, according to data recorded by the Tenant Assistance Project. 

OHA’s freeze in eviction filings has provided housing stability to some of the city’s poorest renters, but the recent trend is unlikely to hold long term, said Erin Feichtinger, a tenant advocate and lobbyist for the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

Feichtinger hopes that OHA is “taking a moment to reevaluate their eviction practices” amid increased press coverage of the agency and public scrutiny from advocates. 

About 85% of the evictions filed by OHA last year were over money allegedly owed by tenants. More than four dozen tenants owed less than $300 when the agency filed against them. 

“I’m sorry it took this long, but better late than never,” Feichtinger said. “Going forward, at the very least, let’s try not to evict that many people for that little money.”

The pause in eviction filings isn’t the only apparent shift in OHA’s practices. The agency switched in February to a new debt collection firm that doesn’t report to credit bureaus. The Flatwater Free Press found OHA referred nearly 300 ex-tenants over a four-year span to a different debt collector that did report to the bureaus.

Feichtinger said she’s not sure OHA has demonstrated it is capable of self-enforcing guardrails. That’s why she’s looking to the Nebraska Legislature for a legal change, she said. 

State Sen. Terrell McKinney, a North Omaha Democrat, has led that charge in recent years. He chairs the Urban Affairs Committee, which recently amended two OHA-related bills into McKinney’s Legislative Bill 840.

The amended proposal would give OHA tenants facing eviction the right to a lawyer at the housing authority’s expense, while also eliminating legal fees charged by the agency. The bill, which the committee advanced earlier this month, would also expand the complaint process for tenants and add more resident commissioners to OHA’s board.

In 2021, the agency quadrupled the legal fees it imposes on tenants in eviction court. 

OHA might conduct evictions with more restraint if it knows defense attorneys will be in tenants’ corner, McKinney said. 

Poore declined to comment on the legislation. 

Lawmakers are likely to vote on the bill and its amendments in the coming weeks, McKinney said. 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.