Housing advocates ask lawmakers not to ‘water down’ tenant protections

By: - April 26, 2021 5:58 am

Millions of Americans are at risk of being evicted with the end of the moratorium. (Getty Images)

When it comes to tenant protections and the eviction process, housing activists and indigent defense lawyers have long argued that Nevada, like most states, has a lopsided power imbalance that favors landlords. 

Even when tenants and landlords both have something to lose, the stakes just aren’t the same, said Bailey Bortolin, the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.

“What the tenant has on the line is where they are going to sleep tonight and if they are going to have a roof over their children’s head,” she said. “Oftentimes, landlords have something on the line too. It’s important, but it’s a profit. It’s the business. Businesses are important. It’s not the same risk as not knowing where your children are going to sleep at night when something goes wrong.”  

A slate of bills focusing on tenant protections and the eviction processing advancing in the legislative session could tackle some of the imbalance and respond to problems underscored during the pandemic. 

Senate Bill 218, one of the more robust tenant protection bills, mandates a three-day grace period before charging late fees on rent, puts stipulations on when landlords can collect rental application fees, limits hidden fees associated with rentals and sets up a better process for tenants to retrieve their security deposits.

Senate Bill 254 prevents some formerly incarcerated people from being discriminated against when seeking housing. 

Assembly Bill 141 would automatically seal records of summary evictions for nonpayment of rent that happened during the pandemic, while Assembly Bill 161 would conduct an interim study on Nevada’s summary eviction process. 

The proposals, seen as modest by some, are opposed by industry and landlord groups who say the legislation would “cause havoc and chaos.

Quentin Savwoir, the deputy director of Make it Work Nevada, worried legislation is being watered down for the sake of “compromise.” Make it Work is part of the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, composed of civil rights groups and social service providers advocating for greater tenant protections.

Savwoir said Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson told members of the Housing Justice Alliance  that legislation needed to strike a balance between protecting tenants and protecting landlords. 

Frierson also sponsored Assembly Bill 308, which was praised by Nevada Realtors and the Nevada Apartment Association and would mandate grace periods on late rent similar to SB 218.

“I know when you’re an elected official it’s important to strike the right balance, but I just don’t think enough consideration is being given to the fact that we are facing record unemployment or that we are facing a housing crisis that’s tantamount to what we see in Southern California.” Savwoir said. 

The compromise, he continued, usually comes at the expense of low-income communities and people of color. 

“We’ve been consistently on this compromise train and I think what’s most discouraging about compromise is that Black and brown folks bear the brunt of what compromise looks like,” Savwoir said.  

The risk of retaliation

When it comes to addressing where people live, there are two policy issues at play, Bortolin said. The first part is addressing the affordable housing stock, which Nevada consistently ranks poorly at creating and providing. 

“The reason we have so many abuses in the landlord-tenant space is because of the overall lack of affordable housing,” Bortolin said. 

She added that when a landlord “holds the roof over your head” and rental options are scarce, tenants are forced to conduct mental calculation on advocating for their rights at the risk of homelessness. 

“That’s something we see all the time,” she said. “When people are evicted and when these relationships do terminate, people are experiencing temporary homelessness because of the lack of availability, not that they have no dollars they can pay with, but that oftentimes there is nowhere for them to go. That makes people very reticent to stand up to their landlord or assert their rights or any of the tools available to them, because it doesn’t seem worth the risk of retaliation.”

Two legislative proposals would have enabled local governments, if they chose, to collect fees from developers to aid in the creation of affordable housing. Both bills, highly criticized by developers and builders, died days after getting a hearing without a single vote. 

In the absence of proposals that help create more affordable housing, organizers have pointed to the next policy priority: bolstering tenant protections. 

State Sen. Julia Ratti said SB 218 builds on protections passed in 2019 that slightly extend the eviction timeframe and cap late fees for unpaid rent to 5 percent. Following the bill’s passage, some property owners in Las Vegas unilaterally changed rental conditions around late fees.

In response, SB 218 would require a three-day grace period. But the legislation goes further in adding tenant protections.

The proposal clamps down on landlords charging fees — like lightbulb fees or dishwasher fees — not clearly defined in the lease agreement, and prohibits a landlord from charging every prospective tenant a fee to submit an application even when there isn’t a chance for them to get the property. 

“We’ve seen some property management charge a $25 fee to process electronic payments (to pay rent.) They also charged $25 for cash,” Bortolin said. “Things like that need to be addressed and are in SB 218.”

Savwoir said these hidden fees often keep people in poverty. 

“It makes me think about how expensive it is to be poor,” Savwoir said. 

Amended language toned down the bill and softened some of the language around hidden fees as long as they are “reasonable” and listed on the first page of the lease. Landlords would be able to charge an application fee to only one applicant at a time per unit. 

“We put a lot of tenant protections out there,” Bortolin said. “Even though we are moving forward with less of them, the ones we’re moving forward with, it’s clear and documented why we need those changes.” 

Even though SB 218 passed on a party line vote in the Senate and is headed to the Assembly, Savwoir is worried for its fate, and not just because landlord groups are fiercely opposed.

His concerns are based around Frierson’s introduction of AB 308, which Savwoir said is not as progressive as SB 218, and embraced by groups like Nevada Realtors, which have worked to stifle other tenant protections. 

“When I saw the presentation of the Speaker’s bill and he was presenting alongside our critics, it gave me pause,” Savwoir said. “It made it seem like the fight would be that much harder … It creates concern that Sen. Ratti’s bill is in the Assembly because I see potential for it to be watered down even further and we can’t have that.”

He said the Housing Justice Alliance is ready to “fight like hell to make sure the bill continues in the Assembly without being watered down even further.”

SB 254, proposed state Sen. Dina Neal, would prevent some landlords from looking at a prospective tenant’s past convictions, with the exception of people convicted of sex crimes.

Private owners renting rooms in their homes are exempt. 

Separate legislation proposed by Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez, protects prospective tenants from source of income discrimination by preventing landlords from denying applicants who rely on public assistance.

The bill never got a hearing, but part of the language was added into SB 254.  

“It’s going to be absolutely positively important we have this bill,” Savwoir said. “Even if it’s not as bold as it could be, considering how much we’ve lost this isn’t one we can afford to lose.”

Neal’s bill passed the Senate on a party line vote.

Over the summer during the second legislative session, lawmakers, responding to nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, vowed to make criminal justice reform a priority and declared racism a public health crisis.

Savwoir said SB 254 addresses both. 

“We’re trying to mitigate and right some of these policy wrongs that have allowed racism to become a public health crisis,” he said. “A lot of the bills that would have done that didn’t make the cut. This is the one that still has some life in it. Even if it isn’t as great and bold as we would have wanted initially, this is what we have and what we will keep fighting for.”

Response to the pandemic

Federal and state eviction protections, rental assistance and eviction mediation programs have not fully stopped people from people locked out of their homes. 

“We were working with a woman who submitted her CDC paperwork on April 15 who had a constable knocking at her door,” to lock her out on April 19, Savwoir said. 

The eviction now on her record, Savwoir said, is the Scarlet Letter “E” and will prevent her from finding additional housing. 

“When there are 20 people applying for one opening, the person with the eviction record is never going to get selected,” Bortolin said. “That allows predatory housing models to creep in and serve that population.”

AB 141, sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts, was a remedy to the overwhelming number of evictions that would automatically seal records.  

“What is in AB 141 is absolutely critical to the recovery plan and ensuring people don’t have eviction records that make it even harder to secure new housing as they recover from this crisis,” Bortolin said. 

The original bill had a section lengthening 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.

That section was stripped from the bill prior to passage in the Assembly, which Savwoir said was “devastating and disheartening.” 

“It’s not necessarily common for tenants to be under lease,” he said. “What that provision was going to do was make sure families could land somewhere else safe and sound and not have to scramble to gather their things and belongings and just plop down somewhere else. The tiered approach was based on how long they were at a property.”

Evictions have been a growing problem in Nevada and nationally for years, but the pandemic underscored just how problematic the process is for renters in Nevada. 

“Never have I had so many people question our eviction laws and why they are structured this way,” Bortolin said. “That’s including judges, lawyers, regular people and advocates. I think the pandemic has put the question in a lot of people’s minds.”

The most egregious process, unique to Nevada, is a summary eviction procedure that allows landlords to force tenants out of their residences without a court hearing. 

“We are the only place in the nation that has this eviction structure and it lacks the due process of a mandatory hearing,” Bortolin said. “So the burden is on the tenant to file an answer in order to have an opportunity to have a case reviewed by the court with a hearing.”

Through AB 161, Assemblywoman Selena Torres proposed putting an end to Nevada’s summary eviction process.

“It is akin to requiring someone to sue themself for an opportunity to mount a defense,” Torres said during the bill’s hearing. “If a tenant does not file an answer with the court after they receive a seven-day notice, the landlord can get an order for eviction summarily.”

Instead, lawmakers converted the bill into an interim study. The bill is currently being evaluated by the Assembly Ways and Means committee. 

Even though many proponents of changing the summary eviction process wanted more than a study, Bortolin said it might be more realistic considering the pending eviction crisis. 

“When session ends, it will line up with the lifting of the governor’s eviction moratorium,” she said. “Having those two things coincide, the reality is we are going to see mass evictions. We are going to have an evictions crisis on our hands. It’s going to be a volume like we’ve never seen before. It would be difficult to implement an overhaul to a system that’s going to be inundated.”

The study also sets up another fight over eviction laws in the 2023 legislative session. 

Bortolin said the interim is a way to have a conversation “in the way we haven’t had a formal opportunity to do before.” 

“While it’s always a little deflating to turn something into a study I do think there will be so much value to having a conversation that will lead to recommendations and a real self-reflection of Nevada’s eviction laws,” she 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.