Tenants waiting for rental assistance at risk of eviction after legislative protection expires

By: - June 9, 2023 6:01 am

(Nevada Current file photo)

When Jada Kirkwood and her 56-year-old disabled mother logged on for a virtual eviction hearing on Tuesday morning, they figured the case wouldn’t proceed since an application for rental assistance was pending.

Kirkwood had no idea that at midnight Monday an eviction protection lawmakers passed in 2021 that paused cases while applications were being processed expired. 

In this year’s legislative session, Senate Bill 335, that would extend parts of the eviction protection, passed the legislature, but has yet to be sent to Gov. Joe Lombardo’s desk, let alone signed into law. 

In the meantime, the 2021 law had expired, and the judge ruled Kirkwood’s eviction could proceed

“The judge said at midnight (the protection) expired and the eviction would be turned over to the constable,” Kirkwood said. “At the end, she said ‘best wishes to you.’ My mom turned and we looked at each other. I can see in her face the question, ‘what are we going to do?’ ”

Aaron MacDonald, the lead attorney with the Housing Justice Program at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said Kirkwood wasn’t the only tenant caught off guard Tuesday. 

“I sat through the first two hours of the court’s docket (Tuesday) and tenants were surprised,” he said. 

For the last two years, he said, applicants waiting for assistance through Clark County were told “they would be reviewed for rental assistance before any eviction hearing takes place.” 

“They had cooperated in the process and provided all documents,” required by Clark County, MacDonald said. “They were expecting protections and a stay of the proceedings. But unfortunately because (the law) sunset they were evicted.” 

Clark County was unable to provide an updated number of how many applications are pending for CARES Housing Assistance Program, CHAP. 

At the time of publication, Kirkwood, a client of Legal Aid, hadn’t received a 24 hour lockout notice. 

Adding insult to injury, she received a call Wednesday from a CHAP case worker asking for a few more documents but confirming her rental assistance application for about $7,000 of unpaid rent would be approved.

“CHAP is going to pay the rent but we’re still getting evicted because the judge couldn’t wait one day for us to get a caseworker,” Kirkwood said. “Now I just have to figure out what to do with mom and I’m going to have an eviction on my record.” 

‘Untenable and unsustainable’

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, both state and federal eviction moratoria were put in place to assure renters, many who were unemployed due to a shutdown to prevent the spread of Covid, weren’t ousted from their homes. 

Ahead of both moratoria winding down in 2021, legal aid attorneys and housing justice advocates worried there would be a tsunami of evictions despite ample rental assistance available at the time.

Assembly Bill 486, passed in 2021, was the solution.

The bill prevented an eviction if tenants had applied for the CARES Housing Assistance Program, CHAP. The legislation expired June 5.

Legal Aid along with county officials urged lawmakers earlier this year not to let the protection sunset. 

Sponsored by Democratic state Sen. James Ohrenschall, Senate Bill 335 extends the 2021 protection. Additionally, the legislation creates enabling language so counties can set up eviction diversion programs. 

After Las Vegas Justice Court Judge Melissa Saragosa told lawmakers in April the protection created procedural issues that have “crippled the court process,” the bill was amended to address concerns and limit its scope. 

““In the middle of the proceeding, if (the application) is denied and we get information from social services that an application was denied, before we get to a hearing (the tenant) files a new application and things start all over again,” Saragosa told lawmakers. 

The bill now prevents tenants from using the defense unlimited times. 

Instead, if signed into law, eviction proceedings would pause for up to 60 days while applications are processed. If applications are denied, the eviction case proceeds

The legislation passed both houses on nearly total party line votes, with only Democratic state Sen. Skip Daly crossing the aisle to Republicans in opposing the legislation.

The bill is one of many that have been passed but not yet sent to Lombardo’s office. 

“We’re fearful if SB 335 doesn’t get signed that it will make rental assistance untenable and unsustainable,” MacDonald said. “There isn’t going to be the ability to review people for rental assistance before an eviction hearing takes place.”

Rent through the roof

Kirkwood and her mother moved into the Paramount Apartments in 2020.

Even during the pandemic, Kirkwood still remained employed as a restaurant server and paid the $1,225 rent on time without any issues. 

It was after her mother, who is disabled following a car accident years ago, began experiencing a variety of health issues that things began to change. 

Kirkwood said her mom has been in and out of the hospital since 2020, including twice contracting clostridium difficile colitis, a bacterial infection referred to as C. Diff.

To make rent, Kirkwood worked two server jobs along with their mother’s disability check of $1,400. 

Because she was taking care of her mother, she struggled with consistent hours as a server and fell behind on rent, which had been raised to $1,275 in 2021.  

At the encouragement of her property manager, Kirkwood applied for CHAP in early 2022 and was able to get current.

Then in August 2022, the rent was raised to $1,545.

“We never expected them to raise the rent like that,” she said.

Rents have increased in part of Nevada more than 20% since the start of the pandemic, exacerbating the state’s housing crisis. 

Lawmakers declined to advance Senate Bill 426, a statewide rent stabilization bill that would have capped an increase at 5% each year for landlords who own five or more units. The bill allowed for landlords to seek exemptions from increases if the unit had capital improvements.

Legislation to stabilize rents for seniors and cap increases at 10% from July 2023 to December 2024 passed, but Lombardo vetoed the measure

Along with her rent increasing, Kirkland saw every bill increase, including utilities. She said there were months her power bill was $300. 

While looking for other server jobs with additional hours and more consistent scheduling, Kirkwood said she has earned money doing hair, nails and make-up on the side. It still wasn’t enough.

Once again, Kirkwood fell behind on rent payments in February.

“They don’t take partial payments,” she said. “I would try to call and tell them I could pay $1,200 and the rest in a few weeks. They told me it had to be the full amount.”

Her eviction notice came in March, sending Kirkwood into a panic. After reaching out to Legal Aid, she was encouraged to apply for CHAP again.

CHAP was set up in 2020 using federal relief dollars to provide rental assistance for those impacted by Covid. 

Wide-scale rental assistance ended in January this year, and the county limited the program to those going through eviction diversion and those living on fixed incomes.

Now in order to qualify for rental assistance, applicants must meet all eligibility requirements:

  • One member of the household living on a fixed income;
  • Seen their rent increase within the last year;
  • Received an eviction notice;
  • Experienced a change in circumstances that resulted in an inability to pay rent.

Kirkwood figured she met all the requirements so applied in March. She hadn’t received any update until Tuesday. 

Data provided to Nevada Current in March showed the county had received 1,099 applications since “fixed income” CHAP began in September 2022. At the time, 175 applications had been approved while 359 had been denied.

In addition to expanding eviction protections, lawmakers also passed Assembly Bill 396 to allocate $12 million over the biennium to Clark County to ensure the limited rental assistance program remains funded. 

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate and 36 to 6 in the Assembly with six Republicans opposed, also needs to be signed into law. 

A need for speed

With the expiration of statutory protection from eviction while applying for rental assistance, MacDonald said remaining state laws afford tenants a few options if an eviction is granted, including filing an appeal.

A successful appeal could temporarily prevent an eviction and give more time for SB 335 to be signed into law and protect tenants who are in the assistance application process. 

“We’re hopeful the county is going to come up with a solution to quickly process these applications before eviction hearings take place,” MacDonald said. “It’s necessary because now that there is no stay of the proceedings, (the county) needs to process them before the hearings take place to keep these folks housed and get rental assistance in the hands of landlords on behalf of tenants.”

In addition to the bill extending some eviction protections, Lombardo has yet to sign Assembly Bill 340, which would change the state’s summary eviction process. 

The current system, unique to Nevada, has been lambasted for years by attorneys and housing organizers since it requires tenants be the first to file with the court after receiving a paper pay or quit notice from a landlord. 

MacDonald said if both eviction bills pass, the state would be in a better position to protect tenants facing lockouts. 

“By signing SB 335 the governor will help keep elderly and disabled folks in their homes while the market levels out and they come up with a long term solution to keep these tenants housed,” MacDonald said.  

There is no guarantee Lombardo will sign SB 335. 

In the meantime, Kirkwood is still figuring out what to do following her eviction being granted. She’s working on moving her mother into a senior assisted living center. Even if she is approved, the move wouldn’t happen until August. 

With a lockout looming, that leaves nearly two months of uncertainty. 

Adding to the unease, Kirkwood’s mother is scheduled to have another surgery in July with no guarantee she’ll have a place to live afterward. 

“She said to me, ‘I guess I can live in my car,’ ” Kirkwood said. “I told her we can’t live in the car.”

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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.