Sparks props up eviction mediation while Supreme Court mulls statewide rules

Guidelines for alternative dispute resolution programs to be heard Tuesday

By: - September 18, 2020 5:42 am

Long before the pandemic, legal aid groups and housing rights activists called for reforms to Nevada’s quick eviction process, which they say is not only one of the fastest in the nation, but a landlord-friendly procedure that puts excessive burdens on tenants. 

Now with the historic rise of unemployment, dwindling rental assistance, and hundreds of thousands of people struggling, many fear a wave of evictions is expected to sweep through Nevada despite Gov. Steve Sisolak extending the eviction moratorium and an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delaying mass evictions until Dec. 31. 

The state and its localities are now trying to set up or expand programs to minimize the damage when that wave eventually crashes

On Monday, the Sparks City Council voted to allocate $85,000 of coronavirus relief funding to go toward creating an eviction mediation program, stepping in while a state effort to establish a similar program is still being ironed out

“Mediation programs aren’t anything new,” said T Tran, a consultant who is overseeing the Sparks’ program. “There are several throughout the country. It’s just Nevada just doesn’t have that program.”

The Northern Nevada COVID-19 Eviction Prevention Program went operational this week as a way to give landlords and tenants resources to circumvent the eviction process. 

“There is a section for landlords and there is a section for tenants where they can go in there and fill out the questionnaire, we get it, and then we can review that case and start working,” Tran said. “We can see if there is a payment arrangement that makes sense, if they’ve tried all the resources that are available. A lot of people, they don’t realize there is aid out there. They just assume they don’t qualify for a variety of reasons.”

In an email, Julie Duewel, the community relations manager with the City of Sparks, said the goal of the program is to kick in even before eviction paperwork is filed in a court. 

“The renter mediation program is designed to help encourage tenants and landlords to enter into mediation before the eviction process is started to save time, money and court time. Really a proactive approach,” she said. 

Plan A or Plan B?

During a second special legislative session this summer, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1 authorizing an alternative dispute resolution program which would halt an eviction for up to 30 days while landlords and tenants enter into a mediation process. 

The Nevada Supreme Court, which was charged with producing the rules for the mediation process, has scheduled a Sept. 22 hearing on the drafted rules. 

Two drafts of rules are being proposed to determine when the court could refer summary evictions to mediations.

Both proposals outline basic practices in the mediation process, including what type of information and resources are available for both tenants and landlords and how and when hearings are conducted. 

The second proposal includes additional provisions. According to the draft, a tenant wouldn’t be able to enter the mediation process if they:

  • Already entered into a written payment arrangement or lease agreement;
  • Requested mediation with the same landlord in a summary eviction action within the last 15 months;
  • Applied for rental assistance, regardless if it was approved or denied.

Landlords would have up to five days to file an affidavit to contest the mediation.

In order to enter mediation under the second proposal, a tenant must also provide a statement that includes: 

  • Details on how COVID-19 has resulted in being unable to pay rent;
  • Proof they’ve engaged with landlords in “good faith to resolve the dispute” and haven’t entered into a repayment agreement;
  • Information on whether rental assistance was sought.

“Exhibit A (the first proposed rule) is one that advocates and legal services groups are in favor of because it allows for tenants to apply for eviction mediation early on,” said J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of the Reno-base housing advocacy group ACTIONN. 

“The other one is driven by” rental housing industry lobbyists, he said. “If you have received rental assistance of any kind you would be disqualified from receiving mediation. A landlord would have to opt into mediation even if the tenant requested it. The landlord could say ‘no’ and not enter into mediation. It makes it really difficult for tenants to start the process in the first place.”

Under the CDC’s order halting evictions, renters must submit a declaration to their landlord showing they sought government assistance for rent, were attempting to make partial payment, would likely become homeless if evicted or unable to pay rent because of unemployment or other income issues. 

The Nevada Supreme Court draft rules reference the governor’s eviction directives, but the rules don’t mention the CDC’s order and its requirements to postpone eviction proceedings. 

It’s also unclear how the proposed rules being considered by the Nevada Supreme Court will impact the programs like the one in Sparks.

Duewel, the city spokesperson, said either way the goal is to help “save on court costs both for both landlords and tenants.”

“SB 1 is meant to open the lines of communication and allow for alternative dispute resolution,” Duewel said. “This helps to give courts time to figure out details such as why the tenant is having problems paying and if it’s COVID related, etc. Basically, buying time to get through details. The hope is that a resolution is met and the eviction process will not have to happen.”

Tran, the consultant advising Sparks, said amid so much uncertainty the community needs a program that can be equally helpful to tenants and landlords.

“There is a lot of confusion regarding rents, late fees, what assistance is out there, how people can file evictions and when,” Tran said. “We are out there explaining here’s what you can do and here’s what you can’t do on both sides. We know there are bad players in any facet of business. We want to inform landlords that ‘hey, we know your tenants are not paying rent but you have to still fix their water heater.’ I’ve also seen tenants who bought a brand new car but didn’t pay rent for four months. It’s getting out there and saying there are consequences but this is about getting out in the community to soften the blow and to help the people who need the assistance.”

Now that the program is operational in Sparks, Tran has reached out to the City of Reno about bringing the program there. 

Aric Jensen, the revitalization manager with the City of Reno, said the city is expected to put out a request for bids next week seeking a similar mediation program.

In August, Jensen added, the Reno City Council approved $200,000 for the City Attorney’s office to help in the eviction mediation process. But Karl Hall, the city attorney for Reno, said they are waiting for the Nevada Supreme Court to finalize the rules for the dispute program before proceeding.

Meanwhile in Southern Nevada, the Neighborhood Justice Center has been helping out with some eviction mediation. 

“The Neighborhood Justice Center has always been able to mediate eviction cases so we’re just stepping that program up,” said April Thomas, the court division administrator. “We do have the ability to mediate evictions and we were ready to do that Sept. 1, and then the moratorium was extended. Our goal is to continue assisting landlords and tenants who would like to mediate as it relates to past due rent, especially as there is rental assistance money through the CARES act. That is our goal.”

Many think mediation programs are a good start, but argue there is still more policy Nevada needs to adopt to protect renters and reform the eviction process. 

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 151 in 2019 that extended the eviction timeframe by a few days, limited late fees for unpaid rent to 5 percent and allowed people evicted to retrieve essential items such as medication and baby formula — the latter two items were added to the bill at the last minute and received fierce pushback from the rental industry.

Klippenstein said legal groups and housing rights organizations want more to be done. 

“The two big things would be to end 30-day no-cause evictions and extend the timeframe” for tenants to receive notice before being served a no-cause eviction, he said. “I think we need to outright get rid of summary evictions that don’t afford legal opportunities for tenants to contest unjust evictions.”

Klippenstein also proposed Nevada creating a legal right to counsel for those entering eviction court, something they aren’t currently given.

“In Nevada, you might not even get your day in court because you might get your summary eviction signed by a judge before you even appear before a judge,” he said. “Even if you appear before a judge, you don’t have a right to counsel so you could have a lopsided power dynamic.”

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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.