Class-action lawsuit claims Omaha Housing Authority violated tenants’ rights for years

A federal class-action lawsuit filed Thursday alleges the Omaha Housing Authority continuously violated the legal rights of low-income tenants over the last seven years. 

Current and former tenants suing OHA claim the public housing provider illegally overcharged them for rent, denied them the right to contest rent hikes and sought to boot them when they could not pay.  

In some cases, the federally funded agency tried to evict extremely poor tenants instead of offering rent exemptions entitled to them by federal law, the 54-page complaint alleges

The contents of the lawsuit mirror the findings of a Flatwater Free Press investigation published in December. 

OHA CEO Joanie Poore declined to comment on the lawsuit citing pending litigation.

The agency should pay back tenants it harmed and reform its policies to ensure residents know their rights in the future, said Diane Uchimiya, director of Creighton University’s Abrahams Legal Clinic, which filed the lawsuit along with local firm Car & Reinbrecht and the San Francisco-based National Housing Law Project. 

“People have suffered with these violations of law … and they have basically paid rent and paid late fees or been subject to eviction cases and they shouldn’t have been,” Uchimiya told the Flatwater Free Press on Thursday. 

OHA’s “predatory and unlawful actions“ threatened some of the city’s most vulnerable renters with homelessness, National Housing Law Project lawyer Kate Walz said in a press release

Thanks to our sponsor

‘I just feel I got robbed’

The seed for the lawsuit came from former Creighton clinic director Kate Mahern, a veteran attorney who previously sued OHA in federal court four times. 

While voluntarily representing OHA tenants in eviction court last year, Mahern noticed that a letter informing her client of a $400 rent increase made no mention of the tenant’s right to challenge the decision as required by federal law. 

That client, Rhonda Moses, is now one of the four named plaintiffs in the case brought Thursday. 

After Mahern pointed out the missing grievance clause, OHA dismissed the eviction case against Moses and added the clause to its template for rent-change letters, Flatwater previously reported

Moses moved out anyway, fearing it was only a matter of time before the agency would try to oust her again. The certified nursing assistant believes OHA now owes her thousands of dollars — money she needs to keep a roof over her head. 

“My rent should have stayed the same for the whole six years (I lived there) because they never let me dispute it,” Moses said on Thursday. “I just feel I got robbed.”

Even after the Omaha Housing Authority dropped its eviction case against her, Rhonda Moses moved out anyways, fearing it was only a matter of time before the public housing agency would try to oust her again. Moses is one of four named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against OHA Thursday. Photo by Jeremy Turley/Flatwater Free Press

The lawsuit alleges OHA failed to adequately inform tenants of their “grievance rights” from as far back as October 2016 through September 2023. 

Two other plaintiffs, Shernena Bush and Samantha Hansen, represent a separate class that alleges OHA failed to inform them of exemptions to paying rent. 

The housing authority charges a “minimum rent” of $50 a month to tenants with no or very low incomes, but federal law and OHA’s own policies say the agency must grant a “hardship exemption” to families unable to pay the minimum rent. 

Last year, OHA filed to evict Bush and Hansen for nonpayment of rent two times each, but the cases were settled or dismissed and both still live in public housing. 

The lawsuit alleges that OHA employees never told the two minimum-rent tenants of their ability to apply for a hardship exemption even after they repeatedly asked how they could pay $50 a month without any income.

Bush sold her plasma to stay up with her rent bill but had to stop after her blood’s iron level fell below acceptable levels, the lawsuit says. 

Six current and former minimum-rent tenants told Flatwater last year that OHA never offered them an opportunity to apply for a hardship exemption before they received eviction notices. 

In Illinois, minimum-rent tenants won a settlement last year that required the Chicago Housing Authority to give qualifying tenants rent credits and to erase unpaid minimum rent charges going back years.

It’s unclear how many current and former OHA tenants could qualify to be part of the class-action lawsuit but they may number in the thousands, the complaint says. 

The plaintiffs are asking the court to require OHA to properly inform tenants of their rights to grievance hearings and hardship exemptions. They’re also asking that OHA pay back tenants like Moses, Bush and Hansen who were allegedly overcharged.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys hope to settle the case with OHA, but they’re prepared to go to trial, Uchimiya said. 

Additional Reporting

By Jeremy Turley

Jeremy Turley covers the Omaha metro area. He worked at newspapers across the Midwest before moving to Nebraska. Most recently, he shivered through several frigid winters in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he covered state government and the COVID-19 pandemic for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and a native of suburban Chicago. His hobbies include disc golfing, collecting campaign buttons and using too many em dashes — or so his editors say.

1 Comment

I am two a victim I got eviction notice to be out July 1st 2024 went court promise pay 679.00 by July 1st would love join lawsuit against OHA



Every Friday, we’ll deliver to your inbox Nebraska’s most interesting, meaningful, deeply reported and well-written news stories.