When Markeshia Brown was served an eviction notice in November after she fell $3,000 behind in rent, she sent her landlord a declaration from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because she thought it would protect her.
She was wrong.
The CDC’s order is supposed to protect hard-hit and struggling families from being locked out of their homes during the pandemic, but on Thursday Brown and her family were forced out.
“I got a paper on the door yesterday saying I would be locked out in 24 hours, but I didn’t know I had a court date or anything,” she said. “I gave my CDC paper. I did what I was supposed to do.”
Brown is one of thousands of people who have had their evictions granted by the Las Vegas Justice Court in recent months at a rate that has alarmed lawmakers and service providers.
In November the Las Vegas Justice Court reported 4,263 eviction filings, almost double the 2,387 cases it saw in November 2019.
There were 3,055 eviction filings in October when Gov. Steve Sisolak’s extension on the moratorium ended — the number was 2,636 in October 2019.
Suzan Baucum, the Chief Justice of the Las Vegas Justice Court, is scheduled to appear before the Clark County Commission Tuesday to answer questions about the rising eviction rates, as well as the safety of the courthouse as coronavirus cases continue to surge.
“For whatever reason, they feel like this is something really important to do in the middle of a pandemic,” said Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones. “I don’t understand it at all.”
The county, he said, has looked at using its emergency powers to adopt the expired state eviction moratorium locally and limit constables’ authority to force people out of their home on behalf of landlords. But the Clark County District Attorney’s office said such initiatives are beyond the county’s purview, and only Gov. Steve Sisolak has the power to reinstate and extend a moratorium.
“We’ve been very frustrated trying to figure out how to influence the Justice Court to limit what they’re doing,” Jones said. “Perhaps public shaming is the only way to accomplish the goal.”
The Nevada Current reported last week that Sisolak’s office had asked the court to “pause” evictions, but Baucum, in a written reply, denied the request on the grounds the governor “has imposed no current requirement for eviction cases to be postponed.”
“Judge Baucum’s response was very clearly to thumb her nose at the governor,” Jones said. “That’s the same thing the Justice Court has done with the District Court.”
After the Justice Court has granted evictions, some renters have appealed to the District Court and had their decisions reversed. In several cases, the judge has cited the CDC moratorium in its decision.
Bailey Bortolin, the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, notes that in order to appeal an eviction granted by the Justice Court, people have to pay $250 to prevent a lockout while their case heads to District Court.
Despite rulings from the District Court reversing evictions, the Las Vegas Justice Court hasn’t been deterred.
“The numbers are disconcerting,” Jones said. “The numbers are high especially at a time Covid is raging and at historic levels for positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations. It’s troubling we are not doing more. It’s particularly disconcerting that the county has tens of millions of dollars in CARES Act dollars for rental assistance, yet people are being evicted from their homes for nonpayment of rent. If we at least allow people to pursue rental assistance first, then I think it would be a better process and more compassionate.”
The CDC’s moratorium, Jones added, was issued to help keep people in their homes so they can shelter in place and limit community exposure to Covid.
“We know from CDC data and our own social service data that eviction is a cause for Covid-19,” Jones said. “You have people who are evicted who end up in congregate shelters or with family members, so you’re cramming more people in a home. That was the whole basis for the CDC’s eviction moratorium.”
The county is also expected to hear about safety concerns at the Justice Court.
“You have the District Court that has taken precautions to limit all in-person hearings and perform all filings online in order to reduce Covid transmission,” while the Justice Court is hearing eviction proceedings in person, he said. “That is a Covid spread concern.”
‘My landlord was hounding me and harassing me every day’
Brown and her family woke up to a constable at her door ready to carry out the eviction. “I just thought, ‘this is crazy. You’re really going to put me and my kids outside in a pandemic,’” she said.
In addition to her kids, 17, 12, 10 and 3, Brown’s mother and nephew also lived with her.
Since March, Brown had been trying to find stability after she was laid off from her housekeeping job at Caesars Entertainment.
“It’s been hard ever since trying to maintain with four kids and keep food in the house,” she said. “Every little bit of money I received was going toward my kid’s needs like food and household stuff like tissues. And I have boys so they eat. I have to constantly buy food or go to the food pantry so my kids don’t go without.”
She filed for unemployment, but said she got locked out of her account. It took two months before she was able to speak with someone over the phone to figure out what to do next.
“I was finally able to file unemployment but was denied,” she said.
That led Brown to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) Congress passed in March.
“I got all my information in, talked with one of the ladies and was told I would get a certain amount of money,” she said recalling a July conversation with the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR). “She said the payment should be to me soon. I got denied. I got the email saying I was denied and I don’t know how. I worked. I’m not understanding. It’s a pandemic. How would I get disqualified from PUA.”
Despite being unemployed during a pandemic, nothing stopped her $850 rent coming due each month, which quickly accumulated to about $5,000.
“My landlord was hounding me and harassing me every day,” she said.
With help from Nevada Partners, a non-profit affiliated with the Culinary Union, Brown was able to pay down her back rent, and eventually got a new job in September as a home health aid. But it only provided two or three hours of work a day.
“My client just passed away so I don’t have any work right now,” she said.
After reaching out to the Culinary Union to see what other assistance she could apply for to pay down $3000 that had since accumulated, Brown was referred to the United Labor Agency of Nevada, one of the providers allocating rental assistance.
“I was in the process of sending them check stubs and other information,” she said. “But that was on Monday.”
Late Thursday afternoon, Brown was reaching out to nonprofits about getting rooms for the night. She doesn’t know what happens Friday.
Quentin Savwoir, the political director of Make It Work Nevada, said stories like Brown’s are all too common.
“We’re hearing, other organizations are hearing, that landlords are just altogether refusing to acknowledge the CDC paperwork,” he said. “You have landlords who are refusing to comply with rental assistance organizations, where they aren’t completing forms so payment can be made … Do these landlords want to be paid or do they just want to disrupt and upend people’s lives? It seems like the latter.”
Jones said the county has worked with landlords directly along with the Nevada Apartment Association to try to speed the process of allocating rental assistance.
“There have been those who don’t want to participate,” he added. “(The County) passed an emergency ordinance back in August that prohibits discrimination based off source of income. That includes income from rental assistance programs. If a landlord is refusing to take rent because it comes from a rental assistance program, then they’re in violation of the ordinance.”
Bortolin along with other legal groups and nonprofits working with low-income and vulnerable renters have been sounding the alarm that the worst is yet to come.
“When you look at these numbers, it’s really 150 percent of the filings we saw last year when there was no crisis, no mass unemployment, people weren’t suffering in the middle of a pandemic,” Bortolin said. “These numbers only account for the people who have fallen through the cracks of three layers of protections: the CDC protections, the rental assistance program and the eviction mediation program. This is an indicator that if all those protections are removed and no one does anything, what does our community look like in January.”
Even if people leave their homes, whether voluntarily or after being locked out, often they don’t have anywhere else to go.
“People are telling us they have nowhere to go, that there is no one who will accept rental applications from them and there is no room at the shelters,” Bortolin said. “They are sleeping in their cars with their kids. They’re asking for bus tickets to California to see if someone can help them there. People are desperate.”