Commentary

Talk is cheap. Too bad rent isn’t.

The Clark County Commission should stop hand-wringing and start acting

March 31, 2022 5:30 am
Marilyn Kirkpatrick

“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,” Clark County Commissioner Marilyin Kirkpatrick said. That one time.

In its recently released report to members on “Advocacy Accomplishments” for  2021, the National Multifamily Housing Council – the apartment industry’s lobbying organization in Washington D.C. – could barely contain its satisfaction: “A year of advocacy paid off” in the form of nearly $50 billion in rental assistance to keep landlords whole.

Why, even if Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda hadn’t been Manchinemaed to death, thanks to landlord industry lobbying, “key tax policies” such as low capital gains tax rates and the infamous carried interest loophole that disguises income as capital gains – both very dear indeed to an industry where the largest players are owned by investors –  would have been preserved in the legislative package, the group proudly explained.

Or as Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick put it during a commission meeting a few weeks ago, “If I read one more thing in the paper or on Facebook that landlords got the shaft… They did not.”

“We paid them all,” Kirkpatrick added, referring to the nearly quarter of a billion dollars in federal rental assistance that was administered – and ultimately herded to landlords – in Clark County alone.

But if there’s one thing industries don’t like, it’s that darned government telling them what to do – no matter how many billions of dollars the government gives an industry. So when it wasn’t trying to skirt state and federal eviction moratoriums during the pandemic, the apartment industry was whining about them.

And last summer, as eviction moratoriums were lifted and it appeared that some semblance of normalcy, or new normalcy, was beginning to settle over the economy, the landlord industry indicated it had been harboring some bitterness and resentment, not so much against federal, state or local government, but against the people who literally pay the rent.

“Raise the Roof: No Rent Caps in Nevada” proclaimed Nevada Realtors in August. “There’s currently no rent control or rent stabilization laws in Nevada” the industry association said in a newsletter. “So landlords can raise the rent as much as they like.”

Rents that have been rising by 25% or 35% or more in recent months suggest landlords didn’t need much in the way of encouragement. 

Granted, gas prices have risen even faster, and are 67% higher than they were a year ago. But quick, what’s the biggest part of the Consumer Price Index which is used to gauge inflation? If you answered gas, bzzz you’re wrong. If you said housing then ding ding ding you are right. And it’s not close. Shelter accounts for about a third of the CPI.

(Seriously while everybody is yelling at that mean old Joe Biden to snap his fingers and lower gas prices they should tell him to snap his fingers and lower rent prices while he’s at it.)

But Nevada Realtors are right. There aren’t any rent control laws in Nevada.

Only California and Oregon have statewide rent control laws, and both of those were enacted just since 2019. In a handful of other states cities and counties have enacted rent control or rent stabilization. People usually think of New York, San Francisco or other coastal cities when they think of rent control, but voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul passed rent stabilization measures last year.

Rent control and/or rent stabilization proposals have also emerged in communities in Florida, New Jersey, Colorado and at least a half dozen other states. 

Don’t ask don’t know

Are cities and counties in Nevada legally authorized to enact rent controls? Local elected officials have a very strong position on that subject, and that position is they would prefer not to know because they don’t want to talk about it.

At that same meeting where Kirkpatrick expressed frustration with landlords complaining about how hard the pandemic was on them, she also said “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.”

Also at that February meeting, Kirkpatrick along with commissioners Justin Jones and William McCurdy, urged the state, as Jones put it, “to step in.”

Assuming Gov. Steve Sisolak and state legislators don’t want to enact statewide rent control (ha as if), the clearest way for the state to step in would be to clear up any confusion and pass legislation explicitly authorizing local governments to enact rent control, inclusionary zoning and additional renter protection measures.

Since Nevada insists on acting as if it’s some Dakota or other where the Legislature only meets every other year – and this is not one of those years – lawmakers would not be able to empower local governments until the Legislature convenes nearly a year from now.

But skyrocketing rent is a crisis, and demands a crisis response. If Nevada leaders can call special legislative sessions to hand out public subsidies to Californians named Elon Musk and Mark Davis, they should be able to call a special session to help Nevadans whose lives are being wrecked right now by, to borrow Kirkpatrick’s word, “greed.”

Unlike the price of gas or groceries, the rising cost of rent is something Nevada officials can do something about. Or try to.

But facing what nearly everyone expects to be an electoral bloodbath this year, Democrats from Gov. Steve Sisolak on down the ballot have their tails between their legs and are scooting to the comfort of poll-tested micro-palliatives they think are so innocuous even Republicans won’t bother to make ads about them.

Rent control, by contrast, would be, eww, controversial.

And so when the Current recently asked about the power of local governments to enact rent control, and whether Clark County officials were having conversations with legislators about clarifying the county’s authority to act on the housing crisis, county commissioners effectively responded with crickets

Commissioner Tick Segerblom claimed no one was calling for rent control, which is false and he knows it.

McCurdy made soothing noises about “consensus” and expressed faith in his former colleagues in the Legislature to take it upon themselves to do the right thing, a profoundly dubious premise for which there is scant precedent.

Kirkpatrick’s staff scheduled time for an interview, twice, and despite several follow-up emails and calls over the course of a week, and notification of when the story was going to run, Kirkpatrick never was available for comment. 

Her remarks in February about landlord “greed” seemed impressive and refreshingly candid, especially for a member of a commission where the top priority over the years has been bowing to the requests of the real estate and development industry.

Now Kirkpatrick and her fellow commissioners are avoiding the issue, or trying to cutely pretend it isn’t an issue.

Clark County commissioners, and their Washoe County cohorts, for that matter, should have confirmed if they had the authority to enact renter protection measures months ago (years ago, actually).

Presumably the answer is in line with the prevailing consensus – a murky “maybe” that assures if a county enacts anything the apartment industry will sue. 

And that’s why Kirkpatrick and her fellow commissioners should remove their self-fashioned muzzles and directly call on Sisolak and the Legislature to clear up the matter once and for all by convening a special legislative session and explicitly empowering local governments to help Nevada working families by reining in landlords as soon as possible.

By failing to do so, commissioners are strongly suggesting their tough talk about greedy landlords and expressions of sympathy for struggling renters is merely performative.

Too bad cheap talk doesn’t pay the rent.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.

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