‘Outmaneuvered:’ Housing justice advocates reflect on session, look to future

By: - June 21, 2021 6:00 am

(Photo by Maria Ziegler on Unsplash)

Before the pandemic hit, Quentin Savwoir, the deputy director of Make it Work Nevada, would often go into the community and hear about economic issues such as the lack of child care options, pay equity issues and insufficient paid leave policies. 

While those obstacles haven’t gone away, COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown that resulted in historic unemployment rates brought up another long unresolved problem in Nevada: housing security. 

“Our kitchen table conversations and wellness checks became less about, ‘I can’t afford child care’ and more about, ‘I don’t have a job, I need personal protective equipment and I’m about to be put out of my house,” Savwoir said. “Story after story after story was about someone having some type of experience with their landlord or with the justice court.”

Nearly 45% of Nevada residents rent. 

For years, groups, nonprofits and service providers have shared stories about how the state’s quick eviction process, few tenant protections and diminishing housing stock have left many renters struggling to stay housed.

The pandemic just made it worse.  

Cities across the country, faced with similar challenges around affordable housing and inadequate tenant protections, have seen coalitions pop up to offer solutions and lobby on behalf of renters. 

Nevada is following suit. 

“Coming out of the 2019 legislative session, we noticed there wasn’t a collaboration or level of representation of tenants in the building,” said Christine Saunders, the policy director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Ahead of the 2021 session, the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, which includes statewide groups like PLAN, Make it Work Nevada, Faith in Action Nevada, Make the Road Nevada and the Nevada Homeless Alliance, formed to be a collaborative force. 

“We didn’t win all of the things we brought forward,” Saunders said. “I certainly think we built power as a coalition and that people now expect there to be a level of pushback so it’s not just the realtors association and the apartment association in the building anymore.”

The groups are still debriefing the session and working on their next efforts to create more tenant protections at the state and local level. 

“We want to change the narrative about housing in the state,” Savwoir said. “We need to start talking about housing differently.”

‘We continue to be outmaneuvered’

Going into the session, Saunders said there was a push for bills that not only address the eviction crisis caused by the pandemic but to “balance the power between tenants and landlords.”

Organizers lobbied behind proposals to prohibit source of income discrimination, overhaul the eviction process, create a registry of landlords and speed up the process for returning security deposits. All those proposals died

“Our opponents, our critics, have done such a great job to suggest the sky would fall if we gave Nevadans more protections,” Savwoir said. “They outmaneuvered us when it comes to the narrative.”

Part of the work of the housing justice alliance, he said, is to change mindsets around long-accepted landlord-tenant laws. 

“Bad policy is such a culture that we convince people it’s their fault when bad policy doesn’t work out for them,” Savwoir said. “Then we try to change bad policy and (our opponents) say the sky is falling, the world is on fire and everything will end. But that’s not the truth. You’re saying that because you’ve allowed bad policy to fester for decades and now it is culminating in the displacement of thousands of families that as a state we can’t take care of.”

Senate Bill 254, which was often referred to as Fair Chance Housing, would have ensured some formerly incarcerated individuals weren’t discriminated against when seeking housing. The legislation also empowered the Nevada Equal Rights Commission to investigate claims of housing discrimination. 

The legislation was amended throughout the session and progressive groups, including the ACLU of Nevada, called out added provisions as problematic including the bill’s exemption for single-family homes, manufactured homes or “dwellings smaller than four units.” 

While the bill passed both houses, Gov. Steve Sisolak vetoed the legislation June 11. 

“The criminal background check portions of the bill only apply to the rental of a residence in a building that contains five or more dwelling units and that is owned by a natural person,” Sisolak wrote in his veto message. “In other words, it exempts corporate landlords, regardless of whether their buildings contain 1 or 500 dwelling units. It is doubtful that dwellings with five or more units that are owned by a natural person represent a significant part of the housing market. It also exempts single-family home landlords. Thus, it appears that SB 254 would not apply to the vast majority of rentals and is therefore unlikely to make a significant difference in whether people with criminal convictions can obtain housing.”

It wasn’t only measures to increase tenant protections that failed. 

Assembly Bill 331 and Assembly Bill 334, which would have enabled local governments, if they chose, to collect fees from developers to aid in the creation of affordable housing, also died without a single vote. 

During the first and only hearing, Savwoir knew the proposals wouldn’t make it. His fears were increased after seeing developers lobby to kill both bills. 

“I thought it was masterful how they were able to kill Assemblywoman (Shondra) Summers Armstrong’s bill to create affordable housing,” Savwoir said, referring to AB 334. “They framed it as a dramatic increase in rent. They ran Facebook ads incessantly. They controlled the whole conversation from start to finish. We continue to be outmaneuvered because they are wealthy and they have the infrastructure to create those stories and create that fear and put legislators in the position that if they do vote for it they aren’t doing the right thing. Even the follow up (after the bill died) was, ‘Thank you Speaker Frierson for protecting affordable housing.’ I hated it, but it was masterful.”

Because of the pandemic, Benjamín Challinor, the policy director of Faith in Action, said a lot of the legislative focus had to become reactive and address the crisis at hand. 

“When we were talking to people on the ground who were hurting, we heard they were still getting predatory fees or landlords were returning the security deposit,” he said. “But we started to hear more and more that people were behind on their rent and getting eviction notices. That’s how we shifted focus. It became about connecting people who are at-risk of losing their house tomorrow with the right resources. It went from tenants’ rights to keeping people in their homes.”

In that aspect, there were still some legislative wins. 

Assembly Bill 141 automatically seals records for evictions based on nonpayment of rent that occurred during the state of emergency. The bill originally had a section lengthening the period of no cause evictions that was eventually amended out. 

Assembly Bill 486 connects evictions to the rental assistance process and pauses an eviction when a tenant’s application is pending. 

Following the session and the passing of both bills, Challinor said organizers are focused on the implementation of the legislation and connecting renters with assistance. 

“There are still lots of folks who need assistance and hundreds of millions of dollars that are earmarked to help,” Challinor said. “We are working to make sure people get current on their rent so they don’t have to leave their homes.”

Members of the group were optimistic of change to Nevada’s eviction process when early on in the session Assemblywoman Selena Torres introduced Assembly Bill 161 to ban summary evictions, a process unique to Nevada that automatically grants an eviction without a court hearing if a tenant doesn’t respond to a notice. 

The bill was quickly reworked into an interim study, but didn’t advance. 

However, Challinor said legislative changes to the interim study process through Assembly Bill 443, means summary evictions could still be examined ahead of the 2023 session. AB 443 created Joint Interim Standing Committees based on already existing legislative committees.  

“It’s essentially up to the chair to determine what they need to study,” Challinor said. “I think there are only a handful of things they are required to study. It gives us the opportunity to continue the work with the community during the interim and continue the work with the legislature to make sure we can study what we can do (around evictions) and put the results in a bill.”

That change goes into effect July 1. Challinor said they are waiting to see how the joint committees operate but assumes either Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager or Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible will chair the interim committee. 

There is no guarantee that the committee will explore the eviction process. 

“There is some concern but our organization feels confident there will be a good number of members on the committee who care about these issues,” Challinor said. “Both the chairs in the past have shown support for tenants’ issues.”

Community organizations, he added, are prepared to lobby the committee if need be. 

“We are still bringing community members who are still being hurt by unfair practices and being preyed on,” he said. “We will make sure that they are hearing from those members who are being affected by these issues.”

With the next legislative session a year and a half away, some members of the alliance are starting to brainstorm what could be done at the local level.

“I think we need to start showing up at advisory board meetings. I think we need to start showing up at every County Commission meeting and City Council meeting,” Savwoir said. 

“I think we have to keep the pressure going year round in local jurisdictions.”

Nevada is a Dillon’s Rule state, which means the powers of local government are restricted to that which the state expressly gives them. Because of this, groups say they are still figuring out what can be done at the local level when it comes to protecting tenants and creating more affordable housing.

“We are trying to understand what we can do at the local level because there are so many different pre-emption rules and we have to navigate those waters and figure out what is within the scope legally at the local level,” Savwoir said. 

Saunders has seen other cities such as Oakland address things like the eviction process and Fair Chance Housing on a local level. 

“When we ask the county and the city if they can do that, they say no,” Saunders said. “But you ask the state and they say the city should do it. It gives the folks the runaround. It’s confusing. We are looking to get more clarity and have allies at the state and county level we are working with.”

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Michael Lyle
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.

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