Housing coalition eyes bills tackling renter discrimination, affordability

Big problems won't be fixed unless housing is, says the Nevada Housing Coalition. (Image by MasterTux from Pixabay)

Banning discrimination against renters based on their source of income. Authorizing local government to preserve or expand affordable housing. Making the process for sealing evictions easier. 

On Thursday, the Nevada Housing Coalition, a group that consists of non-profit organizations, social service providers, businesses and banks, outlined prospective bills being considered in the 2021 Legislative Session to once again address obstacles to affordable housing and tenant fairness in Nevada.

Just one catch: The state’s budget woes mean any proposals and legislative fixes can’t cost anything. 

Nevada has consistently ranked poorly in the number of affordable housing units. Additionally, the state has struggled to implement policies that alleviate barriers renters face when finding housing and staying sheltered.

Both issues were exacerbated by Covid-19 and the subsequent economic upheaval. 

During a pre-legislative planning session last week, the Nevada Housing Coalition framed housing as a prerequisite to fixing other Nevada problems.

“Housing is central to our health outcomes because housing is health care,” said Christine Hess, the executive director of the Nevada Housing Coalition. “Housing is central to our educational success, for the recruitment and retention of our teachers and the stable and safe shelter for our children. Housing is essential for our workers so that our businesses can grow and new industries in our state can lay their foundations.”

Federal relief legislation proposed by the Biden administration would provide $30 billion in additional rental assistance and another $5 billion programs to house those experiencing homelessness.

However, passage of the $1.9 trillion relief bill is uncertain, and in the meantime, the Nevada Housing Coalition is assuming any state housing legislation won’t be considered if it costs money.

But the coalition contends there are still helpful policies the state could implement. 

The roughly 40 bills and draft requests the group is monitoring either deal with access and equity issues in housing, or the production and preservation of units. 

Over the summer, Clark County passed an ordinance to ban sources of income discrimination, such as housing vouchers or Section 8, unemployment insurance, disability benefits, rental subsidies and emergency assistance payments.

Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez, D-Las Vegas, is working on a statewide version.

“Federal rental assistance helps struggling seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and working-class families keep a roof over their heads,” she said. “Currently, renters are denied the opportunity to rent near places of work, near public transportation and in school zones where their children can thrive. They are denied the opportunity to get ahead to the point they no longer need housing assistance.”

While many Nevadans have been able to access unemployment benefits during the pandemic, some landlords have been hesitant to work with renters who rely solely on assistance programs as a source of income. 

“It gives Nevadans whose jobs were disrupted by the pandemic an opportunity to use unemployment assistance and stimulus income as a legitimate source of income for rent,” Gonzalez said.  

Landlords, she noted, can still use screening criteria to determine if a renter has adequate income.

Social service providers and nonprofits have linked the state’s homeless crisis to the lack of affordable units. But they argue it’s not just about building more housing.  

“Even with the existing funding we have, our homeless services system struggles to rehouse people, in large part due to the scarcity of affordable housing stock as well as barriers to housing access such as eviction history, criminal justice history and source of income discrimination,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance.

‘A prior conviction should not be a life sentence’

In addition to banning sources of income discrimination, lawmakers are considering bills to simplify the eviction sealing process and protect those with criminal backgrounds who are often blocked from renting.

Paulsen said criminal history is cited by people experiencing homelessness as “the leading barrier in accessing housing in the annual homeless census.” 

“There are currently no limitations on what criminal background criteria landlords can use to deny rental housing and there is limited transparency on the specific criteria landlords use to deny rental housing around criminal background.”

“A prior conviction should not be a life sentence” of housing instability, she said. 

Some of the bills the Nevada Housing Coalition is following build on measures passed in 2019. 

Lawmakers passed legislation in the previous session that would provide $10 million in transferable tax credits for developers to build low-income and affordable housing. However, the economic crisis caused by the pandemic disrupted the timeline.

New legislation in 2021 seeks to extend the timeline so as to continue to award those tax credits, scheduled to last until 2023, to 2025.

Senate Bill 12, sponsored by the Nevada Housing Advisory Committee, would implement an early notification process to inform local governments when subsidized housing programs are 12 months from expiring.

The notification would not only give low-income tenants more warning if a unit’s affordability is expiring but also give municipalities time to negotiate with existing owners.

But there are more issues that play a role in housing security, including internet access for low-income households and even school discipline practices.

Paulsen said the Homeless Alliance is also following efforts to remedy both issues.

“We identified a need to reform school discipline regulations for students experiencing housing instability and homelessness, including prohibiting out-of-school suspension,” she said.  “Homeless students don’t have a home to go to for off-campus suspension. School campuses provide important connections to safety nets and connections, such as meals.”

A policy change would have schools look at a student’s housing prior to a suspension. If students are identified as housing insecure, Paulsen said this would also give schools a chance to connect students with the Homeless Outreach Program for Education.

While there isn’t any bill draft request yet, Paulsen is also waiting on legislation that enables local governments to raise revenue for homeless services.

The City of Las Vegas asked the 2019 Legislature to let the city generate $20 million to go toward homeless services, but the bill was gutted

Lawmakers instead created a regional working group, which reported over the summer the region’s housing capacity, behavioral health, addiction treatment and case management was underfunded by more than $300 million a year. 

While the final report suggested ideas like imposing a fee on sporting events or new housing construction to fund gaps, other recommendations included more legislative action. 

“We look forward to seeing which one of these recommendations move forward,” Paulsen said. 

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.