Does Clark County have the authority, desire to pursue rent control?
State officials argue counties have the ability. Commissioners aren’t so sure. And in the meantime, renters struggle.
The state is expected to finish reviewing applications for the first half of $500 million in federal funding in August and award allocations in September. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)
When Gina Glass moved six years ago to Las Vegas from Orange County where she was paying more than $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, she let out a sigh of relief that her housing costs would go down.
Her monthly rent was initially $1,350 in 2016 for a four-bedroom house, which she shared with her sister and their three children. By 2019, rent had crept up to $1,475, a still manageable amount.
Months into the pandemic, her landlord gave them a renewal notice: rent was jumping 35% to $1,998. The family was forced to move.
Rent prices across the state have increased more than 20% since the beginning of 2020, according to an analysis by rent.com.
Like many Nevadans, as well as people across the country, Glass has struggled to find affordable housing all the while seeing her paycheck slashed due to Covid-related budget cuts.
“I come from California where there is rent control and a lot of protections in place for tenants, where things like this wouldn’t necessarily happen,” she said.
The crisis created by spiking rents has been discussed and despised from one end of the state to the other, including during meetings of the Clark County Commission and Reno City Council.
Frustrated local officials have called landlords greedy, but they argue Dillon’s Rule, a governance principle to which Nevada adheres that limits local powers to those expressly granted by the state, prevents them from taking action on their own.
But some state officials think a 2015 law gave counties a functional version of home rule that could potentially allow jurisdictions like Clark County to implement measures to stabilize rent rates.
Commissioners have broached the topic of rent control, a politically controversial proposal in a state where elected officials and the real estate industry have worked in tandem for decades. They have not taken follow-up action.
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom said he doesn’t believe the county has the legal authority to do so, and he didn’t know if commissioners have requested a formal opinion on the matter.
“I know commissioners have talked about it but I don’t think anyone has been directed to propose a rent control ordinance or even do legal research to see if it’s doable,” he said. “Speaking for myself, I don’t feel there is a desire to do it.”
In addition to not knowing if there would be enough votes to pass rent control, Segerblom added he hasn’t “seen a real desire to do it even among the public.”
“People are calling and complaining about rent but there is no interest group calling for a rent control plan to my knowledge,” he said.
‘They want to be able to pay their dang rent’
Earlier this year, someone asked Quentin Savwoir, an organizer with the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, to help them look for an apartment.
The alliance, which includes Make It Work, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Culinary Union, has been collecting stories about housing insecurity and pressuring elected officials to enact greater protections for tenants.
“I called three or four places, including a two bedroom where I used to live,” Savwoir said. “The apartment I used to have at Nellis and Sahara, I used to rent for $980. That same unit rents for $1,580. She can’t afford that.”
Without action preventing landlords from increasing prices – Nevada Realtors Association sent out a letter last fall encouraging landlords to “raise the roof” – housing organizers say nothing will stop rent rates from climbing.
Many in the Housing Justice Alliance have called on state and local officials to consider all options to limit rising costs of housing, including rent control.
“I wouldn’t even call it rent control,” Savwoir said. “I would call it rent balance because none of the people we are talking to are saying they want rent control. They are just saying they want to be able to pay their dang rent. I don’t want it to become a political conversation. People are trying to live and that’s the bottom line. We lose perspective of how we can change people’s lives when we start looking at things in a political binary.”
Not surprisingly, the real estate and apartment industries have a different perspective.
“(We) were asked by lawmakers to offer payment arrangements (and) not to increase rents for two years,” said Susy Vasquez, the executive director of the Nevada Apartment Association, in an emailed statement to the Current. “(We) did not have the ability to evict due to the pandemic and many good landlords complied. We are now moving forward.”
Vasquez said landlords have had to deal with rising costs just as much as renters. She called rent control a short-sighted solution.
“Show me a rent control policy anywhere in the world that actually works and I’m open to working on it. But there isn’t one,” she said. “Rent control will only work if the entire world agrees to place a cap on everything. Otherwise, the world moves forward and many who ‘benefit’ from rent control are either relegated to remaining in the same home, in the same neighborhood or abuse the system meant to protect.”
Housing justice organizers believe that, at the very least, rent control is an idea worth exploring.
Armed with federal relief dollars provided by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), lawmakers at the state and local level have proposed solutions, including directing funding for affordable housing projects and authorizing more rent relief programs for vulnerable tenants.
Gov. Sisolak in February committed $500 million of ARPA dollars to develop and preserve affordable housing, but the proposal still needs to be approved by the Interim Finance Committee.
The Reno City Council also approved two affordable housing projects last month.
Clark County, which is also allocating ARPA dollars for housing development, discussed using $4 million to fund a new program to prevent tenants living on fixed incomes at risk of eviction and homelessness.
“Officially we are just trying to build more housing stock and trying to build some type of a fund for people on fixed incomes or living on social security so if they get $1,000 a month and their rent goes up $200 we can make up that difference,” Segerblom said.
Savwoir said while programs designed to catch renters are needed, attention needs to be placed on a more permanent fix.
“We have hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to help rebuild our world post pandemic and I’m just worried we are not using the money in ways that could sustain long-term change,” he said. “I know the county is supplementing senior increases with some of the dollars. That’s great. But that’s not a permanent solution.”
Commissioners have recently implored state lawmakers to step in and offer a more permanent fix.
“To be clear, no amount of money that we dole out is going to stop rents from rising,” said Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy. “The only thing that’s going to stop rents from rising is legislative action.”
During the 2019 legislative session, then state Sen. Julia Ratti said she consulted with the Legislative Counsel Bureau – the Legislature’s lawyers – and was told LCB had “determined that local governments were empowered to pursue many of the strategies that were identified and discussed, including the concept of inclusionary zoning.”
Inclusionary zoning authorizes local officials to mandate that when builders construct new housing developments they must also provide a set amount of affordable and/or low income housing.
Legislative Counsel Bureau Legal Counsel Kevin Powers confirmed in an email to the Current that they provided lawmakers an opinion that “local governments have the authority to adopt affordable housing measures under Nevada’s modified Dillon’s Rule.”
“However, LCB Legal is not authorized to provide additional information regarding that legal advice to members of the media or the public, unless LCB Legal receives the necessary authorization to do so by the appropriate members of the state legislative branch,” he wrote. “In the absence of such authorization, LCB Legal cannot provide you with any additional information regarding its legal advice relating to this matter.”
Lawmakers have pointed to 2015’s Senate Bill 29, which said: “a board of county commissioners may exercise any power it has to the extent that power is not expressly denied by the Nevada Constitution, the United States Constitution, the laws of Nevada, or granted to another entity for the effective operation of county government.”
Segerblom and fellow Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick were both in the state Legislature at the time and voted for the bill.
The legislation carved out exceptions for imposing taxes, limiting local government’s civil liability, imposing duties on another governmental entity, regulating business conduct and imposing service charges.
In recent months Kirkpatrick has been one of the most outspoken critics of Southern Nevada landlords. “I have never been a fan of rent control, but I’m starting to be a fan all day long because now this is just about greed,” she said during a commission meeting in February.
Despite numerous requests, Clark County through its communications office wouldn’t answer if it has conducted legal research into its authority.
Kirkpatrick didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
‘You can either choose to pay this or you can leave’
When Celeste Williams pulls into HELP of Southern Nevada a little after 6 a.m., she braces herself for the long lines of people needing housing assistance.
The doors open at 7 a.m., but well before then the parking lot is full of cars.
“There is a line out the door waiting for us so people can get resources and get them houses or connect them with another agency to help,” said Williams, the organization’s director of family housing services. “It’s not enough. We don’t have enough to even give the amount of need there is.”
Clark County Manager Kevin Schiller warned of a “secondary social service pandemic” being created from the housing crisis.
That reality is borne out at HELP of Southern Nevada.
The number of people coming for assistance has doubled, if not tripled in the last year, Williams said.
“We have people coming in saying, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to live next month. I don’t know how I’m going to afford anything,” she said. “They ask if we have any other options or do we know places that will take a second or third chance because they got evicted.”
It’s not just the number of people seeking help with housing.
Williams said the clients coming in are those who haven’t required assistance before and “who would never be homeless.”
“We are meeting families who are sleeping in their cars,” she said. “We are meeting large families. We have a family right now that we just emergency housed after a school contacted us because the children who go to the school told them. The school paid to get them into a weekly (motel) and then reached out to us.”
In previous years, Williams added, there might be 1,000 to 2,000 people in Southern Nevada waiting on the community queue to be placed in housing, whether it’s rapid rehousing or supportive housing with wrap-around services.
Now it’s more than 3,000 people countywide who have assessed and are waiting for placement.
Rising rents, Williams said, have made it difficult to house people.
Apartment complexes the nonprofit has worked with for years have begun increasing prices out of their range, impeding HELP’s ability to house people.
“We masterlease an apartment and pre pandemic an apartment for one of our programs we were paying $1,000 a month,” she said. “They chose, when it came to the end, not to release with us unless we were willing to start paying $1,500.”
She declined to disclose the complex.
HELP, like many service providers, receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay clients’ rents but they are restricted to paying fair market rents.
“Our grant, we can’t pay more than $1,215 for a two bedroom,” she said. “You just raised all the way up to $1,550. We can’t do that. There was no rhyme or reason. It was, ‘You can either choose to pay this or you can leave.’ ”
Increasing prices have also jeopardized clients who previously got stable and were able to take over their lease.
“We had someone the other day who was doing great,” she said. “They got Covid, stayed home, paychecks started getting smaller, they couldn’t pay the rent, fell behind here and there, things got overwhelming and they walked in and said, ‘I don’t even know how to do it anymore.’”
Problems aren’t limited to just social service providers.
After she moved out of her home in 2020 when rent jumped to nearly $2,000, Glass found a two-bedroom apartment. Her sister moved out of state, so Glass was able to go into a smaller place to share with her two daughters.
Glass founded Dreamsickle Kids Foundation to help people, including her daughter, living with sickle cell. But during the pandemic, she said the nonprofit expanded its services during the pandemic and began helping people fill out applications for CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP).
“It’s tough out there,” she said. “We help people who have fallen on hard times and need things. Sometimes people might get a perception that this is affecting certain people. But it really affects everyone.”
She never expected she would be one of the families to fall behind on rent.
Due to budget cuts, she started going without a paycheck during the pandemic.
Glass has applied for numerous jobs without any call back.
Since her youngest daughter has a compromised immune system due to sickle cell and requires regular treatment, she sought employment at call centers or other places with flexible employment options.
“I can’t necessarily work traditional jobs like I did in the past because my daughter’s health is unpredictable,” she said. “She can be great today and tomorrow we have to go to the hospital for three or four days. I need something that’s flexible in order to be there for her. She’s not a teenager so I don’t want to leave her at the hospital alone. There is no one who could sit with her if I go to work.”
Along the way of helping struggling families, Glass began to fall behind on her rent when her organization was unable to pay her salary
“After CHAP had paid the rent, I was supposed to start picking up the rent in December,” she said. “It was very surreal and humbling to have to go through CHAP as a person who has never been in this situation. If I don’t pay any other bill, I have to make sure the rent is paid. You have to have a place to live. To get to the point that I now needed the assistance I was helping other people get was a full circle moment.”
The program paid July through November, and Glass knew she would need to take over rent in December.
Without warning, she said the price jumped from $1,500 to $1,790. With additional fees attached to the lease for maintenance costs and services tenants couldn’t opt out of, she was on the hook for $2,178.
“I’m not paying $2,000 for an apartment,” she said. “Even if I could afford that, I won’t pay that.”
The apartment hunt, which took more than a month, was a struggle, but she eventually found a place in Henderson at $1,565 for her and her youngest daughter – her oldest, now 19, moved out.
She is currently taking a stipend from the nonprofit and expected to get her full salary back later this year.
She fears another rent increase is on the horizon.
Like Glass, Williams can’t help but wonder if it’s time for the state to explore rent control.
“The one thing that isn’t going to make any policymaker or property manager happy, but the one recurring thing we don’t have in Nevada that other states have is a cap on how much you can raise someone’s rent,” Williams said. “That really affects someone.”
No legislative action until 2023
Some state lawmakers have tried to explicitly authorize all local governments to enact policies pertaining to affordable housing.
A bill Ratti sponsored in 2019 would have given counties and cities the authority to take action on matters of housing affordability. The bill would have given municipalities the ability to collect fees from developers in lieu of building affordable units, but Ratti said legislation would also allow local governments to consider other policies like rent control.
“People asked if I would be bringing forward a bill to address things like inclusionary zoning, accessory dwelling units, local housing trust funds, rent stabilization, density bonuses, expediting zoning and affordable housing,” she said. “My answer to everyone was that those were matters best left up to government and local government already had the power in NRS to pursue all of these affordable housing strategies.”
Many housing advocates feared without language expressly giving them more authority, municipalities wouldn’t act. The bill was fiercely opposed by realtor groups and developers.
Senate Bill 398 passed the Senate along party lines.
The bill was voted out of the Assembly Committee of Government Affairs, seemingly destined for a vote on the Assembly floor, but days before the session ended it was placed on the chief clerk’s desk where it died without explanation.
McCurdy, then an assemblyman who co-chaired the government affairs committee, said he didn’t know why the legislation died.
“It was a great policy,” he said. “Looking at today, it would have provided additional tools for local governments to address many of the issues we find ourselves dealing with today.”
Organizers pointed to oversized influence by developers and realtors behind the bill’s death.
As concerns around rent rates and affordability issues grow, some organizers have wondered if the housing crisis warrants a special session – a maneuver used 33 times in state history to address a broad range of issues, from the Covid-19 crisis to authorizing a tax to build the National Football League a stadium in Clark County, to granting subsidies to Tesla in connection with the company’s decision to construct a battery factory in Storey County.
At the very least, some housing justice organizers have argued lawmakers could grant local governments more power to address the housing crisis, whether it’s through inclusionary zoning policies, rent stabilization or other tenant protections.
While Savwoir said the idea would “make his heart happy” he understands the political reality of having state lawmakers call a session ahead of the midterm elections.
“I’m of the mind that a special session isn’t in the cards but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask for it,” he said.
While Clark County Commissioners have asked the state to step in, McCurdy said he hasn’t talked with any lawmakers about the potential of a special session to address housing affordability, which could include expressly giving municipalities authority to use measures like rent stabilization.
“It’s all about just the consensus it takes to pull something like that together,” he said. “I think there should be an evaluation of what’s happening. I would trust the legislature to make that decision.”
While it’s more likely that any legislative efforts won’t be proposed until the 2023 session – with no guarantee of passing – Savwoir worries about what happens in the meantime.
“I think we continue to see the existing housing crisis just get bigger and more concerning,” he said.
Savwoir commended the focus on developing affordable housing, but said there is still a need for greater tenant protections and that “both trains have to leave the station at the same time.”
“It’s not going to be enough without the other,” Savwoir said. “We can build 20 million affordable houses right now, but you will still have lopsided power dynamics. You still inevitably have a housing crisis because you are not creating protections for folks to stay in their homes.”
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