In her more than 30 years with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Barbara Buckley told lawmakers Monday, she has never experienced a year like 2020, which was marked by record unemployment rates and an eviction crisis.
“Not 9/11 when the planes stopped flying to our tourist economy, and certainly not the last foreclosure crisis,” said Buckley, the former Assembly Speaker who serves as executive director of Legal Aid. “It’s a year that’s been marked by suffering like I’ve never seen.”
The tenant protections put in place to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, including the state’s eviction moratorium, are ending at the end of the month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s order expires June 30.
The question looming for months, asked by social service providers, housing justice advocates and indigent defense groups alike, is how does the state safely exit the moratorium without creating another crisis?
Nevada has received more than $360 million in rental assistance, which includes $165 million from the American Rescue Plan. Groups working with vulnerable tenants see the money as an opportunity to provide more relief to those still struggling to make rent payments and avoid an eviction.
But in order for those funds to be properly used, they urged lawmakers to pass Assembly Bill 486, which would offer some eviction protections by connecting eviction proceedings with the rental assistance application.
“It’s time to get ready for the post moratorium world, the recovery world,” Buckley said. “Thanks to federal assistance, we’re in a unique position of having $360 million in rental assistance. That’s money to pay the landlords who have suffered this past year, large and small. This gets them paid and stops a mass wave of evictions from occurring. We have that opportunity.”
No action was taken on the bill Monday.
AB 486, which was introduced last week, was originally supposed to go into effect July 1 if it passed, but an amendment Monday changed the timeframe so it would take effect immediately on passage.
“A July 1 effective date would fail to protect the most vulnerable because we would have a gap of 30 days between the expiration of the moratorium and these protections going into place,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who presented the bill.
Yeager said tenants have been “falling through the cracks and have been evicted” while their rental applications were still pending, which is why the legislation would prevent an eviction from going forward while assistance is being assessed.
The legislation would require landlords to inform tenants about rental assistance and court mediation whenever issuing an eviction notice.
The bill also directs eviction cases to court meditation except nuance cases, such as property destruction, instances where the property is being sold, when squatters have to be removed, or commercial evictions.
“Communication and relationship with some landlords and tenants have completely broken down,” Buckley said. “They don’t trust each other, but with a skilled mediator we can bring these parties together and get the landlord paid. The landlord can still ultimately evict if future payments aren’t made. But a smart landlord is going to want to get the amount they are owed.”
For landlords who have renters who haven’t applied for assistance, AB 486 would create an online program where they can fill out forms that would be sent to social services agencies that would then contact the tenant.
The Nevada State Apartment Association, along with Nevada Realtors and other property managers, opposed the legislation because it “violates property rights” of landlords. The association also criticized Clark County for its slow distribution of rental assistance.
Clark County announced last week it hired additional temporary workers to help with rental assistance applications and has about a 9,000 application backlog.
“An expedited process must be a priority otherwise all this bill has accomplished is a headline,” said Apartment Association President Suzy Vasquez. “Struggling Nevadans, tenants and landlords alike, are not better off or more whole.”
Buckley said because there is so much assistance available, it “would be a disaster if we just went forward and evicted people in our rocket-docket style without marrying the $360 million.”
“What’s going to happen after the eviction crisis is every single one of these tenants is going to be sued for back rent, for fees, for interest, for attorneys fees,” Buckley said. “We have $360 million to avoid that from happening.”
Legal Aid, along with other groups, are already planning for the moratorium expiring and how to go forward if the bill is passed, which has included hiring more lawyers to help renters.
“We are going to set up pop-up (sites) for tenants who haven’t yet heard about rental assistance or how to respond to an eviction,” Buckley said. “On site, tenants can get help responding to eviction notices and applying for rental assistance so we can get the applications processed before the eviction.”