Douglas County will give $410,000 to support an effort to provide free legal assistance to low-income people facing eviction from their rental homes.
The Douglas County Board voted Tuesday to make the expenditure. The money will come from the county’s 2020 federal pandemic relief funds. It will go to the Nebraska Volunteer Lawyers Project for its eviction mediation assistance program.
The project, which started in Lincoln and then launched in Omaha during the pandemic, is an effort of the Nebraska State Bar Association. It connects volunteer attorneys with people facing eviction in Douglas County Court. The money will pay for two full-time facilitating attorneys and an administrative assistant for three years, said Laurie Heer-Dale, director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Among other tasks, the two staff attorneys will recruit and schedule volunteer lawyers and make sure they have the training and resources they need, Heer-Dale said. The staff attorneys also will attend eviction court hearings in Omaha, greet tenants and connect them with attorneys, and help tenants complete paperwork to participate in the program.
Douglas County Board member Maureen Boyle sponsored the resolution.
“It’s a win-win-win,” she said.
More tenants will have legal representation, and thus be less likely to lose their homes. The attorneys can help the tenants work out arrangements with their landlords that could lead to landlords receiving rent payments, or if the tenants have to move out, a less severe process than an immediate eviction.
The vote was 5-0. Board members Mary Ann Borgeson, Jim Cavanaugh, Mike Friend and P.J. Morgan joined Boyle in voting yes. Chris Rodgers attended the meeting virtually but could not vote.
“One big reason (for the resolution) is because it gets back to basics and just taking care of people,” Boyle said.
She also noted that her late father, County Board member Mike Boyle, “would have been 100 percent in support of it.”
The money comes from the county’s $4.1 million allotment from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The County Board had designated the money to be distributed as rental assistance to renters affected by COVID-19 who live within Douglas County but outside the city limits of Omaha.
The organization distributing those funds, Christian Outreach Program Elkhorn, has distributed about $2 million of the money so far. Federal guidelines allow using a portion of the money for tenant legal assistance, county officials concluded.
In August, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert directed $50,000 of the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program money to the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Also Tuesday, the County Board designated $17.5 million of the county’s $111 million allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act to needs in the seven board districts — $2.5 million in each.
Under the resolution, County Board members will identify expenditures in their districts and recommend them to the board committee in charge of spending the federal money.
Boyle and Rodgers co-sponsored the resolution. It passed 4-1. Borgeson and Friend joined Boyle and Rodgers in voting yes. Morgan abstained.
Asked about safeguards to prevent political patronage, Boyle said the committee will vet the proposals, as will the accountants with whom the county has contracted to ensure expenditures meet federal regulations. Approval from the full board will be required.
“It’s a source of ideas as opposed to a pet project type of thing,” Boyle said. “It’s going through the same vetting process as everything else and it’s out there for the public and everybody to see.”