Gov. Steve Sisolak has issued a new directive preventing most residential evictions, but the order isn’t automatic, requires tenants to submit a declaration to their landlords and landlords can still attempt to evict tenants through court proceedings.
During a press briefing Tuesday, the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada gave the new moratorium, which went into effect Tuesday and expires March 31, a positive review as an effort to prevent mass evictions.
An alarming spike in eviction filings at the Las Vegas Justice Court ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ eviction order expiring Dec. 31 has had legal groups and service providers worried people would be forced out of their homes as Covid cases, and deaths, continue to rise.
Unlike Sisolak’s first eviction moratorium issued March 31, which was automatic, tenants must submit a declaration to their landlords, similar to the paperwork required under the CDC’s order.
“You have to take some action to get the moratorium’s protection,” said Jim Berchtold, directing attorney of the Consumer Rights Project at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “Like the CDC order, a tenant has to fill out a declaration attesting they are eligible under the criteria and give the signed declaration to their landlord.”
Also similar to the CDC’s order, the directive only applies to “covered tenants,” which include people who have been laid off or had loss of income, earn less than $99,000 and are at risk of homelessness if an eviction proceeds.
The federal moratorium didn’t protect all renters and the Las Vegas Justice Court reported 4,263 eviction filings in November, nearly double the amount it had in November 2019.
Some evictions had been granted by the Las Vegas Justice Court — and later reversed by the District Court — despite a tenant submitting a declaration.
Suzan Baucum, the Chief Justice of the Las Vegas Justice Court, was supposed to address the Clark County Commission Tuesday to explain the sharp increase of evictions as well as answer questions on safety at the courthouse.
However, she sent a letter to Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick on Monday saying she would no longer be attending the meeting to answer questions.
In explaining her decision, Baucum referenced a Nevada Current article, which reported on the drastic spike in eviction cases at Las Vegas Justice Court as well as the eviction of a single mother of four who was forced out of her home despite submitting a CDC declaration.
Baucum, who didn’t directly address or explain the large numbers the court has seen or the eviction stories, wrote she was “dismayed” by a quote in the story from Commissioner Justin Jones saying commissioners have been” very frustrated trying to figure out how to influence the Justice Court to limit what they’re doing. Perhaps public shaming is the only way to accomplish the goal.”
In the letter, she also explained her interpretation of the CDC guidance, which was drafted in September to prevent people from being evicted in the middle of a pandemic.
“The federal government has imposed its own moratorium on evictions,” Baucum wrote. “However, that moratorium does not prohibit eviction cases from being filed and heard; instead, the federal moratorium only prohibits eviction orders from being issued until January 2021.”
While Berchtold said the CDC’s language was broad and led to different interpretations by landlords and judges, the new directive takes into consideration “Nevada’s eviction procedures and laws, which will hopefully provide a lot more clarity to landlords and to judges.”
“It was pretty vague and left itself open to a lot of interpretations,” Berchtold said of the CDC moratorium. “Some judges were interpreting that pretty narrowly.” The new state directive “is really specific about what the moratorium applies to and what evictions are allowed under the order and what evictions are allowed under the directive.”
Landlords can still seek to challenge a tenant’s eligibility, but they must give a notice to the tenant if they intend to do so.
According to the Nevada Health Response Guidance on the directive, “Landlords who file frivolous challenges or requests for exemption may be sanctioned by the court.” It doesn’t specify further.
If tenants have already submitted their CDC declaration to their landlords, Berchtold said they are already protected under Sisolak’s order.
“The directive specifically says if you have given the CDC declaration to your landlord that the declaration qualified you for protection under this new Nevada moratorium,” he said. “If you’ve already done it, you don’t need to submit it again. If you haven’t done it and you qualify for the protection, absolutely give the declaration to your landlord.”
The eviction process is complicated and most tenants aren’t aware of how the system works. Berchtold said if they are served an eviction notice, it’s not enough to submit a declaration.
“If a tenant gets some kind of eviction notice from their landlord, they still need to respond to that eviction notice by filing with the court,” he said.
Despite Baucum refusing to speak Tuesday, commissioners briefly discussed the rise of evictions and the remaining rental assistance available to county, which expires Dec. 30.
Jeffrey Wells, the assistant county manager, told commissioners he spoke with Las Vegas Justice Court and that they are “fully on board to implement the governor’s directive.”
“They are working on an administrative order as we speak to really fully implement the directive from the governor,” Wells said. “It will be all the way to anything that has been filed but not yet heard.”
Some commissioners wrestled with what more the county could do.
“Even though Justice Court is something we fund, they apparently feel we have no say over evictions,” said County Commissioner Tick Segerblom.
Segerblom suggested the county take action even if the Justice Court sues them.
In the meantime, the county is working to connect people to rental assistance with the CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) before it expires Dec. 30.
Clark County was unable to provide how much money is left in the program, but County spokeswoman Stacey Welling said it is “approaching the ceiling for funding that is currently available.”
However, there are still landlords who won’t accept rent in the form of rental assistance, even when tenants qualify.
Berchtold said if landlords give tenants a seven-day eviction notice, they are required by law to take the money. Outside of the notice, there isn’t much that can be done.
“We have talked to tenants who have applied for rental assistance and their landlords are refusing to take it. We don’t know why that’s happening,” he added. “You would think landlords would be eager to receive money from the CHAPS program or whatever rental assistance program. Legally speaking, there is nothing to compel landlords to take that money.