Multiple obstructions stand between immigrants and rental assistance

Members of Make the Road Nevada demonstrating at the Regional Justice Center this summer. (MTRN Facebook photo)

Like many people during the pandemic, Cristina found herself abruptly unemployed for the first time in five years after the embroidery business she worked for closed down. 

But the $1,500 a month in rent she pays, which has kept her and her three children, ages 13, 17 and 18, housed during the health crisis, was still due each month. 

“I was left without a job for two months, but my brother helped me a little so I’ve been able to pay my rent,” she said. “I applied for some rental assistance programs and they did reply at first, but stopped responding after … In my situation I didn’t get help from the government despite having children who are U.S citizens. I didn’t get any kind of help.”

Cristina, who eventually got help from the nonprofit Make the Road Nevada, isn’t the only person who’s struggled to get rental assistance. 

Groups representing the immigrant community have noticed many of their members struggling to get assistance allocated from coronavirus relief funding, and worry language barriers and immigration status have become obstacles in obtaining relief. 

Clark County launched an updated website Oct. 15 that allows renters in need of assistance to access the CARES Housing Assistance Program.

“The County doesn’t have a Spanish-language website for people to be able to apply through,” said Bliss Requa-Trautz, the director of the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center. “A lot of people are seeking assistance, but they don’t have an effective avenue to access, and are facing initial barriers to accessing, the program.”

Erik Pappa, a spokesman for Clark County, said he wasn’t sure if there was any discussion to create a Spanish-language website, but said there plans to be a push to get information out to the Hispanic community before funds expire Dec. 30.

He also said people can submit questions in Spanish directly to the county. 

“A helpline has been established and we will be pushing out information to the Hispanic community, specific to rental assistance, in the coming weeks leading up to the Dec. 30 deadline,” he said last week. “We have a couple of staff responding to questions in Spanish but staff are not able to fill out the applications for the applicants. We are getting a lot of applications from all segments of the community and staff are very busy processing those.”

Nevada has an estimated 210,000 undocumented people, according to the Pew Research Center – about 7 percent of the population – and a high Spanish-speaking population. Groups say from the start, state and local governments should have been giving more attention to how immigrant communities are excluded from resources.

“There is a lack of professional development for existing service providers to effectively serve what constitutes 10 percent of the workforce,” Requa-Trautz said. “At the same time, you could argue the existing social service infrastructure is insufficient to the general county needs as well.”

Indirect barriers

Beyond the immediate obstacles to applying for rental assistance, groups have also cited animosity toward the immigrant community as another hindrance. 

“The political instability and racism of the current, soon to be former, administration has been a deterrent to individuals who need and qualify for assistance,” Requa-Trautz said. 

Among the many policies implemented by the Trump Administration, the change to the public charge rule, which denies resident status for immigrants who rely on public assistance like Medicaid or housing subsidies, has had a chilling effect. 

The rule, which has been the subject of multiple and conflicting court rulings, prohibits immigrants from applying for green cards if they’ve used resources like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing vouchers, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income.

The rule doesn’t apply to immigrants with  Temporary Protected Status, DACA recipients, victim-based visa holders or people who are seeking or have been granted political asylum. 

However, Enrique Acuña, an attorney with the Consumer Rights Project at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said misinformation and general confusion has still prevented many from applying even if they might be eligible. 

“When there is a language barrier, plus when you have it in the back of your head this public charge issue is going to create another hurdle for you sometime in the future, those two things together make for an insurmountable barrier.” Acuña said. “Even a lot of my permanent resident clients who are wanting to become citizens at some point are worried about accepting any type of public assistance, whether it’s Medicaid or food stamps, when it does not impact their chances to become citizens.”

For those who plan to apply for permanent residency in the future, they fear seeking rental assistance to prevent eviction would jeopardize the application process.  

Although the incoming Biden administration is poised to reverse and amend Trump administration policies, there is still a lot of uncertainty. 

“There is an exception for disaster relief, so anyone who receives financial support related to disaster relief, the use of public benefits wouldn’t count against them whenever determining if they are a public charge,” Acuña said. “Some attorneys could argue one way or another that funds for housing caused by the Covid pandemic falls under this public emergency or natural disaster exception. We just don’t know though, so there is a risk.”

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium on evictions is expiring at the end of the month, and going with it is the ability for people to apply for rental assistance from coronavirus relief dollars. 

With time running out and uncertain policy ahead, families are becoming more desperate. 

“As eviction proceedings move forward, the balance between fear of long-term impact and the immediate fear of homelessness sort of shifted the panorama,” Requa-Trautz said. “I’ve seen that shift recently as the eviction crisis has really opened up in recent weeks — that the immediate need is outweighing the long-term fears.”

Nevada: The summary eviction state

Even if people are able to overcome barriers to get rental assistance, and even with moratoriums and eviction mediation that provide a net to prevent some from losing housing in a pandemic, LaLo Montoya, the political director for Make the Road Nevada, said getting help isn’t easy.

And they are racing up against Nevada’s quick eviction process.

“Despite our efforts to keep people in their homes, as advocates we like to tell people there are rental assistance programs and eviction mediation, but those are things that take time to apply,” he said. “A summary eviction normally takes seven days. When you get that as a tenant and you don’t know about the information, you just pack up and leave. This state, when it comes to due process, it’s already flawed from the beginning. We don’t have enough time to help people. The way evictions occur, the odds are stacked against tenants already.”

Nevada, he continued, is the only state that has a summary eviction process, something housing advocates and civil rights groups have asked lawmakers to fix. 

“It creates a power imbalance between tenants and landlords,” he said. “That’s really creating missteps in due process. For services providers and advocates, it’s tough to intervene. From the beginning the due process is flawed when it comes to helping people fight an eviction in the first place.”

Groups in Nevada and nationwide warn unless steps are taken quickly, mass evictions will leave thousands of Nevadans and millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, houseless as Covid cases rise. 

“I think the first and immediate thing that needs to happen is for elected officials to take emergency action to halt evictions,” Requa-Trautz said. 

Montoya added if judges won’t stop evictions, Gov. Steve Sisolak needs to issue another moratorium. Suzan Baucum, Chief Justice of the Justice Court, told Sisolak that he would need to impose “any type of categorical restriction on evictions” rather than simply leaving it up to the courts. 

Cristina was able to get a new job and with some assistance from Make the Road has been able to pay rent. 

But her troubles aren’t over. 

In December, her monthly rent raised from $1,500 to $1,600, an increase that is already hurting. 

She doesn’t know what the New Year will hold for her. 

“I’m in a house but they’ve raised my rent again. I’m thinking next year I’m going to look for another house that’s not too expensive,” Cristina said.

Jeniffer Solis contributed to this story.

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.