Legislation would automatically seal records for pandemic-related evictions

Bill would also give tenants more notice

By: - March 5, 2021 5:55 am

Housing justice organizers gathered at the Las Vegas Justice Court earlier this month to speak out against evictions. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

“The people we are serving show up to the courthouse with their suitcases because they just don’t know where they are going next,” said Bailey Bortolin, the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.

On Thursday, Bortolin explained to lawmakers about the emotional turmoil during the Covid-19 pandemic of watching clients, many victims of historic unemployment rates, struggling to remain housed.

Despite federal and statewide moratoriums, rental assistance dollars and mediation programs, she said thousands of people have been evicted in Nevada.

One question that has loomed: What happens to the thousands of renters who have fallen through the cracks and were evicted, subsequently leaving a scar on their records that could prevent them from finding housing? 

Assemblyman Howard Watts is offering a potential solution through Assembly Bill 141, legislation heard Thursday that would automatically seal records for people who received evictions for nonpayment of rent that occurred during the Covid-19 state of emergency.  

“It’s critical to ensure that as we recover from this pandemic that there is not a permanent mark on their records that’s creating a barrier to prevent folks from finding new housing,” he said. 

The pandemic also underscored problems renters faced finding new places to live, especially when facing an eviction, which prompted Watts to include a section that would also lengthen the notification period for no-cause evictions.

Tenants residing in a property for one to three years would receive a 60-day notice rather than 30 days while those renting longer than three years would get a 90-day notice. 

Bailey said in many recent cases, people get a 30-day notice and moving out in that time frame, during a pandemic, “is just not doable.”

“They can’t move out in 30 days, and start to panic,” she said. “They reach out for help and ask what they can do. The answer is you can file an answer with the court and ask for more time. We think by giving people more time from the outset we’ll reduce that tension and the need to go to court and request more time in the first place.”

In a nearly four-hour hearing, the legislation proved to be contentious and set up a potential fight between apartment groups, property managers and landlords, who fear the measure goes too far, and legal groups and housing organizers who want stronger protections.

Mackenzie Warren, a lobbyist with the Nevada Apartment Association, argued the section lengthening the notice period was reactionary and had nothing to do with the pandemic. 

“As an industry, we have been under the eviction moratorium for nearly a year and we strongly feel now is not the time to tinker or interfere with current law,” Warren said. “These extensions would have a devastating blow on Nevada’s scarce short term housing inventory and affordability.”

The Nevada Apartment Association and the Nevada Realtors Association proposed an amendment to strip the bill of notification adjustments and limit automatically record sealing to those who submitted a declaration from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The concern, expressed by Bortolin and Watts, was that many people still aren’t aware of the CDC declaration and would be left out under the amendment.

“To this day, people still don’t know there is a CDC declaration, Bortolin said. “All they know,” she said is that “they are being evicted, in a crisis and need help.”

“We triage from there. It’s something we grapple with everyday, that we cannot meet the legal needs, and we are helping as many people as we can,” Bortolin said.

The urgency to offer renters with some protections comes as Nevada’s latest moratorium, authorized by Gov. Steve Sisolak in December, is set to expire March 31, which could set off  another wave of evictions. 

Quentin Savwoir, the deputy director of Make it Work Nevada, noted that national data shows women of color, especially Black women, are burdened with evictions at higher rates than other groups and could be more vulnerable to consequences.  

The results, he told lawmakers, would reverberate in other areas of their lives. 

“When Black women are evicted, it drives them further into neighborhoods that lack adequate resources to raise their families,” he said. “According to sociologist Matthew Desmond, when a Black mother with an eviction on her record moves, it is often to a neighborhood that is significantly further away from amenities like a park, a grocery store or a health care clinic. All of these things proves it’s more than just a housing issue, but an economic justice issue and a racial justice issue.”

Studies from the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, national models from housing groups, and economists have warned there would be a tsunami of evictions without extending eviction moratoriums or providing federal and state intervention. 

“We are on the cusp of a crisis,” Watts said. “The Guinn Center found that over half a million Nevadans are at risk of eviction due to the pandemic.”

A report from the Las Vegas Justice Court showed 4,263 eviction filings in November, almost double the 2,387 cases it saw in November 2019, alarming some lawmakers and legal groups. The filings transpired despite the CDC moratorium being in effect. 

Warren doubted the estimates by the Guinn Center and characterized citing the organization’s projections as “dangerous.” 

She countered the Guinn Center’s data, which has been referenced by lawmakers and elected officials statewide, with numbers gathered internally by the Apartment Association, specifically from Ovation Property Management, which manages about 9,000 company-described luxury units in Southern Nevada. 

“Of those 9,000 units, just 3 percent, that’s 267 tenants at one the largest operators, that are at risk of eviction,” Warren said. 

Some opponents to the bill argued landlords and property owners would comprehend the toll Covid-19 has put on renters, and would be more inclined to work with applicants with evictions that stemmed from the pandemic. 

“The market takes care of itself and as the market changes so do we. Landlords adjust accordingly,” Warren said. “We believe an eviction on your record during the years that follow Covid will not act as a scarlet letter on your record.”

Some lawmakers disagreed. 

“People can’t wait for the market to correct itself if they are looking for housing today,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers Armstrong. “How long before the market corrects itself and what happens in the interim?”

Opponents also suggested “bad actors” who have exploited the system and opted out of rental obligations could potentially be protected if the legislation passed. 

Watts argued it is better to protect someone in that hypothetical situation if it also meant covering “all the people who were simply overwhelmed by this crisis who didn’t know they needed to file information in order to access these protections.”

“I want to make sure we cover everybody who slips through the cracks,” he said. 

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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.