Covid-19 and housing: ‘A crisis on top of a crisis’

Need for assistance too big for state to handle on its own

pretty expensive really
(Nevada Current file photo)

Before a global health pandemic shut down industries, skyrocketed Nevada’s unemployment rate and left thousands unable to pay rent for months, Nevada had a housing crisis and offered little protections for tenants. 

Now, lawmakers, state agencies and groups working with renters are trying to assess further damage inflicted by the coronavirus crisis.

Christine Hess, the executive director of the Nevada Housing Coalition, said since the start of the health pandemic organizations from The Urban Institute to the National Low Income Housing Coalition have tried to forecast the amount of rental assistance states are going to need to ensure people have stable housing.

Those estimates indicate “based on job loss data from April, Nevada’s monthly cost to support those in need could be between $27 and $29 million,” Hess said. 

The amount, she added, could be an underestimate because it doesn’t include other variables such as people ineligible for unemployment assistance or those who were already homeless or in unstable housing prior to the crisis. 

Regardless, the void created is far too big for the state to fill on its own and would need further federal assistance, she said.

While the state and local governments are using federal dollars to provide rental assistance and keep many Nevadans afloat, housing advocates such as  J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of the Reno-base housing advocacy group ACTIONN, noted even after the pandemic is over the housing crisis won’t be. 

“It’s easy to forget but we were already in a historic housing crisis before this hit,” he said. “This is a crisis on top of a crisis. I think big bold solutions are really the only way to get out of it. Rental assistance is important but we know that without stronger tenant protections and more tools at the state and local level to truly build affordable housing, we are in a much deeper hole than we were in before. Without those tools and protections, we won’t dig ourselves out.”

Putting ‘teeth’ into rental assistance protections

At the end of June, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a gradual lift to the eviction moratorium he put in place March 29. 

According to the new directive, evictions based on “nuisance,” violating controlled substance laws, or because of excessive waste on a property can begin Aug. 1, while evictions for nonpayment resume Sept. 1.

Additionally, the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office is helping develop a statewide rental assistance program by mid-July. The program takes $50 million from federal coronavirus relief funds, $30 million for residential rental assistance and $20 million for commercial relief. 

“I don’t know if $50 million will be enough, but the fact that (the state is) standing up this rental assistance program and phasing out evictions is really good,” Klippenstein said.

September 1, he added, is a reasonable date to lift the eviction moratorium only if the rental assistance program is fully operational and assisting applicants.

“My concern is we would run into a similar challenge that we ran into with unemployment, where we had lots of people trying to get assistance with limited capacity to verify to get money to landlords, and there would be a huge backlog,” Klippenstein said. 

The Attorney General’s office has also encouraged, but not mandated, repayment plans between landlords and tenants. The state recommends plans be set up for 15 percent of monthly rental payments. 

Christopher Storke, an attorney with the consumer rights project at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said the organization has been trying to educate as many tenants as they can about their rights surrounding the new directive and any repayment plans.

One component he is trying to relay to renters is how repayment plans crafted prior to the new directive might be obsolete. 

“There was some amount of duress put on these tenants to sign these agreements because a lot of property managers were threatening evictions if they did not sign it or threatened to make their lives more difficult,” he said.

Throughout the eviction moratorium, Storke heard from tenants who received misinformation from landlords. He doesn’t anticipate that ending. 

With a special session of the Legislature expected to start July 8, Klippenstein wants lawmakers to “put more teeth” on the repayment process to create something standardized that provides more protections. Sisolak has so far indicated the session will focus on budget shortfalls, and possibly criminal justice reform in light of recent protests. 

“Without additional protections, there are a lot more people who can still be taken advantage of,” Klippenstein said. “Even if they get rental assistance, it might not catch them up. And then we pay the landlord who goes ahead and evicts a weekly resident anyway.”

Legal groups are also worried landlords and property managers, in particular those at weekly and extended-stay motels, will use nuanced-based evictions as a work around to get rid of tenants. 

“Those occurred even during the original directive where landlords were trying to find a way to mold their particular circumstance to have that tenant fall within the realm of what they could possibly evict the tenant for based on the governor’s directive,” Storke said. “I know I will see an increase once those exceptions are phased out.”

‘A tragedy on top of a tragedy’

Lacking stable and secure housing was a crisis on top of a health crisis. But the former, some advocates say Nevada could have been avoided. 

The affordable housing crisis and the quest for minimal tenant protections were brought up throughout the 2019 legislative session, but housing advocates argued lawmakers didn’t go far enough to enact meaningful reforms. 

Legislation passed that slightly extended the time frame for evictions even though Realtors lobbied hard for Sisolak to kill the bill after a provision was added that would allow people to retrieve essential items after an eviction and limited late fees for unpaid rent to 5 percent.

The state’s inability to enact substantial tenant protections and create affordable housing, Klippenstein argued, only exacerbated the health crisis at a detriment to both renters and government agencies, including the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office. 

“As (lawmakers) were trying to deal with unemployment, as they were trying to deal with tracing and testing they had this huge thing on their shoulders with evictions,” he said. “That I’m hoping is the lesson. We were in such a poor spot entering this crisis. The amount of work we had to put in to get some basic (rental) protection should mean we should cover more ground and not wait for another crisis to do that.”

As it has done with other injustices, Klippenstein said Covid-19 exposed how hard renters have it, in particular weekly renters. 

“It was something we all knew wasn’t great,” he said. “We all knew (weeklies were) exploitative and a last resort for someone who couldn’t afford a more traditional rent. Because we couldn’t provide another option, we would just stomach the fact that some of the most vulnerable folks in our community are being exploited by essentially slumlords. There are already so little regulations around the conditions they have to be kept in but there aren’t other options.”

Even as social service workers and attorneys noticed renters being exploited during the pandemic, he added the only thing that could really be done was to “report and shame” bad landlords and property managers.

“There is so little accountability when it comes to weekly motels,” Klippenstein added. “It’s this deal that we’ve made that since we can’t build the political will to develop affordable housing or truly protect renters we just accept this really poor system.”

With all the stories that have come from renters along with all the work and funding it took to ensure many stayed afloat during the crisis, he hopes lawmakers will make the needed reforms in the next session.

“The old status quo wasn’t good and we need a new normal,” he said. “If this historic health pandemic isn’t this huge disruption to make us take a harder look at what we’re actually doing, that’s just a tragedy on top of a tragedy — if out of this all we can do is just band-aid our way back into this already broken system.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.