Eviction tsunami hits in three, two, one…

Moratorium ends Sept. 1; providers, legal groups fear the worst

By: - August 27, 2020 6:11 am

(Nevada Current file photo)

Despite statewide rental assistance money most likely gone in Clark County and dwindling in other parts of the state and the fact the Legislature-approved eviction mediation program through the courts is not running yet, the eviction moratorium is on track to end at midnight Aug. 31. 

What happens afterward is uncertain, but legal groups and nonprofits working with renters are fearing and bracing for the worst. 

“I think what we’re going to see is a return to ‘business as usual’ but our economy is nowhere near back to usual, and very few parts of our lives are back to normal,” said J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of the Reno-based housing advocacy group ACTIONN. “Our eviction policies are going to return to pre-covid and we’re not in a pre-covid world by any means.” 

Some have hoped Gov. Steve Sisolak would consider extending the eviction moratorium for the nonpayment of rent through the year, or at least until the alternative dispute resolution program for evictions is intact, and the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation works through the backlog of unemployment claims. 

“One of the things we thought would be more appropriate with the eviction moratorium (lifting) was to connect it with a certain threshold with DETR and unemployment,” Klippenstein said. “I think there has been such a backlog and a lot of challenges there. Our hope was the eviction moratorium would be lifted when they met some type of threshold. Saying, ‘we’ve processed this many claims’ or ‘we’ve caught up to this level so we’re comfortable lifting the moratorium because there are folks receiving financial relief finally so they can work out an alternative repayment plan with their landlord.’”

There is no word on the moratorium being extended, though some speculate the state is worried about the backlash from further prolonging it.

When asked if there were concerns Nevada could be vulnerable to lawsuits from landlords and apartment associations if the moratorium was extended, the Attorney General’s office declined to answer and directed questions to the governor’s office. 

The governor’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment about any part of this story. 

Dr. Nicholas Barr, assistant professor of social work at UNLV, said the moratorium ending could lead to a surge of homelessness. 

He added some estimates indicate 250,000 people are at risk for eviction and homelessness.

Even if some of them were able to get rental assistance or had their unemployment claims approved, thousands of people will still fall through the cracks. 

“I cannot understand why they would let the eviction moratorium expire,” he said. 

While Barr understands working with landlords and addressing their concerns, he said any solution shouldn’t place the burden exclusively on tenants.

“It’s the job of elected officials to meet with groups including landlords to figure out a solution,” he said. “Everybody is going to have to take a little bit of a hit. That’s just how it is. It just simply doesn’t make sense to transfer all of the burden onto people who are the least equipped to handle it, which is low-income renters. It’s just short-sighted. What do businesses and landlords think is going to happen when we have an influx of 100,000 new homeless people? Is that going to be good for their property values? It makes no sense to me.”

‘Document your conversations’

During this summer’s second special legislative session, Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty warned of a flood of eviction cases overwhelming the courts following the lift of the moratorium. 

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1, which would delay an eviction for 30 days while tenants and landlords enter into an alternative dispute resolution program. 

The bill was signed into law at the beginning of August and the court was charged with developing rules to govern the program. But those rules haven’t been agreed upon yet and the program hasn’t started. 

“Time is not on our side but we are working quickly,” said Brad Lewis, director of the Nevada Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. “Although evictions in Nevada aren’t able to be filed until Sept. 1, by the time it is actually filed and answered we’re a little bit into September. So we have several days or a couple weeks to stand up the mediation program in earnest.”

But Lewis also said because of the process of setting up the program, it could be as late as October before the program is going, something Hardesty warned while testifying for the legislation. 

Christopher Storke, an attorney with the consumer rights project at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, sees the tsunamis of evictions hitting much quicker than people anticipate, leaving little wiggle room in the process. 

“The way I view evictions proceeding, the second the first comes around, Sept. 1, you’re going to see a lot of tenants receiving eviction notifications for nonpayment of rent or five day lease violations for failure to pay under a repayment agreement,” he said. “There is a lot of uncertainty going into this phased out eviction moratorium. Come Sept. 1, all we can do is make sure our legal aid organizations are prepared and we are providing as much information as we can to the citizens of Nevada.”

Lewis said the Commission’s working group is developing recommendations for the program to forward to the Supreme Court and “the Court will not be considering the program until the recommendations are forwarded.”

Part of the process, he explained, has been getting input from various parties, including landlords.

“There have been several calls between the legal aid community and the landlord association community as well as Nevada judges who handle evictions in the court system to talk about a concept to reduce the pain coming and figuring out what works for everyone involved, including what works for tenants and landlords and the courts,” Lewis said.

All the rules would go through a public comment period before a final approval. 

Klippenstein said one of the unanswered questions is what happens if a tenant contests their eviction prior to the program. 

Lewis said while the program is being created, the courts are discussing some temporary options, which could vary depending on the jurisdiction.

“For example, in Reno, the Reno Justice Court may have non-sitting judges act as settlement administrators and/or the city may make attorneys available to facilitate,” he said. “Something similar may happen in the rural justice courts. In Clark County, I believe the intention is to direct most facilitations through the Neighborhood Justice Center mediation program.”

But if the intent of the mediation program was an alternative to the moratorium, Klippenstein still doesn’t know why the lift is proceeding on schedule without the alternative resolution program in place.

“My concern is we would see a wave of eviction before the mediation is really happening, and probably the most vulnerable folks would be those with unscrupulous landlords or those way behind on rent and folks who have very little information about a mediation program unless they were informed by the courts or a community organization,” he said. “I’m just concerned our most vulnerable people will slip through the cracks in between Sept. 1 and whenever this program is up and running.”

If lawmakers knew the program wouldn’t be ready prior to the moratorium ending, he continued, “why wasn’t there more support for the courts so it would be ready to go?”

As the moratorium lifts, Storke said tenants should be as prepared as possible and document all interactions with landlords. 

“Right now there is this sense of disparity among landlords and tenants, particularly tenants who have defaulted on their rental payments, and they feel as though they are helpless,” he said. “So they feel afraid to communicate with the landlord out of fear that something may occur during that communication. The bottom line is that it’s going to come down to communication with your landlord. Document your conversations … At the very least it’s going to show the tenant is following up with the landlord.”

‘We could have a much higher demand for social services’

So what happens if people did not receive rental assistance or unemployment and are evicted? 

“To be honest, my hope is it’s not as bad as we’re fearing,” Klippenstein said. “My hope is more folks were able to find some stability than we realize. But the numbers don’t point that way. Without another stimulus package or stronger tenant protections, we could see a huge strain on the safety net.”

The data surrounding how many people need months of rental assistance as well as how many could be vulnerable to evictions has been guesswork at best. 

The Nevada State Treasurer’s office estimated nearly 135,000 households could be at risk of eviction while the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities forecasts it could be 270,000 households.

Earlier in the summer, the Nevada Housing Coalition estimated the cost to support those in need could be between $27 and $29 million per month.

The Nevada State Treasurer’s office announced it was pausing applications for the rental assistance program in Clark County after suspecting the $50 million had run out. During the time it was running, Clark County received 25,000 applications for the rental assistance program, with the majority of people requesting two and three months of help. 

Some who are evicted might turn to couch-surfing or doubling up, living with other friends and family members, Klippenstein said. 

“We could see a huge surge in destabilization of families who haven’t been able to economically recover or find a job,” he added. “For the folks who have been vulnerable and were vulnerable before covid, you’ll see a huge strain on a safety net that just has gotten billions of dollars in cuts from our state. That was the biggest reason why we needed to raise revenue. We could have a much higher demand for social services.”

Barr, again, stressed how many people could be entering homelessness.

“If 100,000 people become homeless in the next few months, we do not have the slack in the system to take care of them,” Barr said. “Emergency shelters aren’t equipped to meet the needs of a lot of the folks we are going to see become newly homeless. That’s fixed-income seniors. Families with children. These are people who don’t normally go to emergency shelters.”

Clark County approved an ordinance that prevents landlords from discriminating against tenants if they have a covid-related eviction. The ordinance could eliminate one barrier for people trying to find housing. 

Barr said it was a good step, but just a “drop in the bucket.”

“It’s better to do (the ordinance) than not do that,” he said. “It would be incumbent upon a renter to prove that happened, and I don’t know how someone who has just been evicted due to covid is going to muster the resources to take their rejected application to court. It’s good they did that. I guess it makes (landlords) think twice before rejecting someone.”

Nonprofits, legal groups and social service providers have long decried the state’s failure to fix its affordable housing crisis and lack of tenant protections. Come Sept. 1, they say those flaws, already exacerbated by covid, will be all the more clear. 

“Again, this all points to how far we have to go when it comes to renters and tenants rights and housing in our state,” Klippenstein said. “It always seems we are more concerned about property rights than human rights. At least our policies lend themselves to that interpretation.”

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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.