Fearing wave of evictions, lawmakers propose mediation process

State Supreme Court justice describes measure as ‘a short bill for a big problem’

By: - August 1, 2020 6:18 am

Nevada’s eviction laws are among the nation’s quickest and landlord-friendly. (Nevada Current file photo)

Erika Minaberry just got her three children back last year after briefly losing custody because of her lack of stable housing.

At a state Senate hearing Friday discussing proposed eviction protections, she told lawmakers that she has been laid off from her job because of the health crisis, is losing unemployment benefits and couldn’t afford to lose her housing too.

“For people like myself who have been struggling and just barely made it above water, if there is an eviction moratorium lifted we would be pushed back down under the water. I don’t know how I will make it,” she said. 

State and national groups forecast a wave — many say tsumani — of evictions are about to wash over the country that could cause hundreds of thousands of people to become homeless during a global pandemic. 

Senate Bill 1, the first legislation heard by the Senate during the special session that started Friday, would stay an eviction for no longer than 30 days in order for tenants and landlords to negotiate solutions through an alternative dispute resolution program.

“This is a short bill for a big problem,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty told lawmakers.  

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Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty testifying remotely on the evictions bill Friday.

If the legislation passes, the courts would be responsible for determining the rules for the program and guidelines for the mediation process. Hardesty said the goal would be to have the rules for the process established around Oct. 1.

But the statewide moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent ends Sept. 1.

While October was an estimate and the legislation doesn’t specify a time frame for establishing the program, there was no discussion among lawmakers on the consequences of fully implementing the program 30 days after the eviction moratorium expires.

Estimates on how many evictions could take place after Sept. 1 vary. The Nevada State Treasurer’s office estimates nearly 135,000 households could be at risk of eviction while the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities forecasts it could be 270,000 households.

In the last fiscal year, Hardesty noted there were 45,805 summary evictions throughout the state. He warned the courts could see three times as many cases and become overwhelmed once the eviction moratorium lifts. 

The legislation would take some pressure off the courts. 

The hearing didn’t offer specifics of what mediation could entail. One option for the process, Hardesty noted, could be to direct people to statewide rental relief funds, which began accepting applications late July. 

Nevada Treasurer Zach Conine, who testified in support of SB 1, previously said the $30 million of coronavirus relief funding directed toward rental assistance wouldn’t be nearly enough compared to the need. 

Republican lawmakers worried the bill would hurt landlords and questioned why there wasn’t a sunset provision in the legislation. 

“My concern here is this is a statutory provision that deprives landlords of their right to evict under existing law,” said state Sen. Keith Pickard. 

Hardesty said the sheer volume of cases would make it unlikely landlords would get their cases heard right away. Instead of tenants and landlords just waiting for a court decision, the program could provide an alternative and result in a quicker resolution. 

“If you have this kind of caseload, it’s difficult to know when a judge could get to the case,” he said. “In the meantime, under the existing statute the status quo is maintained and the tenant stays in, possibly not paying rent. The landlord is not able to get them out until they can get that court hearing. Under the 30 day period, yes the eviction would be stayed but hopefully it would enable the parties to get together and accelerate the process voluntarily.”

Democratic state Sen. Julia Ratti added the program, as well as the 30 day stay on eviction, would only kick in if the eviction is contested. 

Since there isn’t a foreseeable end to the pandemic or the ensuing economic crisis caused by it, Hardesty added he didn’t see any need for putting a proposed end date for the program.  

Nevada Realtors, which previously has opposed expanding tenant protections or easing the eviction process, was neutral on the bill. Its primary concerns were making sure  the mediation program only applied to evictions for nonpayment and that the program was voluntary. 

The legislation received support from groups including ACTIONN, Make the Road Nevada, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, Battle Born Progress, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the Nevada Homeless Alliance and the ACLU of Nevada. Their main concerns were that without any protections put in place immediately, many across Nevada, in particular people of color and low-income communities, would be forced out of their housing in the middle of a pandemic.

“Right now Legal Aid Center is receiving literally hundreds of calls every day, mostly from tenants who are panicked about the prospect of being evicted when the moratorium is lifted in September,” said Jim Berchtold, an attorney with the Consumer Rights Project at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “Based on the data that we’ve seen and on our own on-the-ground observations, we believe that Clark County is absolutely facing a flood of evictions that threatens to clog the courts and damage tenants and landlords who have already been hurt and are struggling.” 

A representative from Southern Nevada Eviction Services, which provides eviction assistance for landlords and apartment complexes, said the bill was unfair to landlords who have “been denied access to the courts for six months.” He was one of two people who testified in opposition to the bill. 

While those speaking in favor of the bill recognized it was a needed solution, J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of the Reno-base housing advocacy group ACTIONN, reminded lawmakers of the need to do more to address Nevada’s growing affordable housing crisis and lack of tenant protections. Both were issues prior to Covid

“This is a good step in the right direction but we need much bolder legislation moving forward,” he said.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.