North Las Vegas Justice Court sees about 30 to 40 eviction cases during each docket. (Photo: Michael Lyle)
During Tuesday’s slate of eviction proceedings, North Las Vegas Judge Belinda T. Harris asked landlords the same two questions: How much does the tenant owe? Are they voluntarily accepting rental assistance?
It’s been nearly two months since the expiration of a statewide protection pausing evictions if rental assistance applications were pending. Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo last month vetoed legislation that would have extended the protection.
Harris is one of three court judges in North Las Vegas Justice Court, which handles landlord-tenant disputes within the city. The court holds eviction proceedings three times each week, with each justice hearing cases one day a week. Harris holds eviction court on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and usually hears 30 to 40 cases during each time period.
Cases are overwhelming for nonpayment of rent but landlords can request for nuisance evictions for property damage or lease violations or no-cause evictions, when a landlord can evict a tenant without a reason after their lease expires.
Few landlords who appeared before Harris Tuesday said they will voluntarily participate in the CARES Housing Assistance Program, the county-wide rental assistance program commonly referred to as CHAP, now that there is no law requiring it.
The amounts landlords sought to recoup Tuesday varied from $1,400 to $17,000.
After addressing the landlords, Harris’ turned to the tenant: Do you have any means of paying this total amount?
Shuffled among the tenants and landlords this afternoon in the packed courtroom was Melinda Porter, who owes about $7,000 of unpaid rent. She is unable to pay the full amount.
Following her hearing, Porter said the experience is embarrassing and something she would never have imagined.
Porter, who works as a manager at Walgreens, has lived in her apartment for four years and never struggled to pay rent even as it increased from $885 to $1,235.
That changed in February when she contracted Covid and wasn’t able to return to work until April. Because of missed work, she was unable to afford her rent and fell behind.
“I was surprised when I got an eviction notice because I had been emailing and talking to (the apartment manager),” she said.
She offered to pay $4,000 ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, but the property wouldn’t accept partial payment.
“I got approved for another apartment, it just won’t be ready until the 5th,” she said. “I might have to be at my sister’s house until it’s ready.”
Her hearing, like the majority of the day’s proceedings, was quick, lasting less than 90 seconds.
Harris gave Porter until July 25 to vacate or face an eviction.
Porter was not the first tenant to receive the same fate Tuesday. She won’t be the last.
“That’s why I’m here”
Since the start of pandemic in 2020, Nevada has set up several eviction protections and rental assistance to prevent an eviction crisis.
In addition to allocating federal relief dollars into CHAP to provide rental assistance, lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 486 in 2021, which prevented evictions from proceeding while there was a rental application pending. The law sunset June 5.
The Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, as well as social service providers, warned lawmakers ahead of this year’s session a crisis was brewing, especially with CHAP funds being scaled back.
Jonathan Norman, the statewide policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said there was a plan to contend with this crisis.
Senate Bill 335 would have extended the pause of evictions while rental application was pending while Assembly Bill 340 would have switched the order of summary evictions to require landlords file with the court first.
Lombardo vetoed both.
“I’m curious what his plan is to deal with the coming eviction crisis,” Norman said. “There was a plan presented. It was SB 335 and AB 340. Now it’s incumbent on him and his team to talk about what the plan is for our community.”
Norman was also among the crowd Tuesday observing proceedings.
“We heard countless cases (today) where landlords are unwilling to wait on CHAP and tenants are being evicted,” Norman said. “That could have been an avoidable eviction. We don’t know because the application wasn’t processed before the court hearing.”
With the law expired, he said it’s on local officials to ensure “timely rental assistance hits the streets when it makes a difference for people.”
“If we’re not getting those resources at the moment they matter then, we really need to rethink how we’re approaching this,” he said.
Next to Norman in court sat Democratic Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong, who sponsored legislation this recent session to reform the eviction process.
“I don’t want to be siloed from the reality of what’s going on,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Watching Tuesday’s proceedings showed just how much people were struggling.
“When our rents are increasing and income is not, what we’re seeing is citizens increasingly spending 50% or more of their income to pay for housing,” she said. “Any hiccup, any car break down, any hospital bill, any one of these puts people in the position to become homeless. If you get one month behind and you can’t keep up and then you’re two months behind and then three months behind.”
Even before Covid exacerbated the state’s housing crisis, Summers-Armstrong said the state always struggled with evictions.
The state’s summary eviction process is unique and requires a tenant to be the first to file with the court after receiving a paper “pay or quit” notice from landlords.
“We were seeing high eviction rates in 2019 before I was ever elected,” she said. “We knew in 2021 this was a problem and our community partners were raising an alarm during Covid.”
When she heard Lombardo, speaking during a panel with the The Nevada Independent in January, say he would be open to reforming the summary eviction process, Summers-Armstrong said she “thought there was an opening” to bring forward AB 340.
The legislation, she said, was “narrowly tailored.”
In his veto message, Lombardo said the bill “makes Nevada an inhospitable environment for residential lessors.”
“I thought (AB 340) hit the right notes,” Summers-Armstrong said. “It was specific so we could at least have a process that mirrors all other civil matters.”
She said she “was extremely disappointed” with the veto, but “not surprised though.”
Judge Harris said more lawmakers should come observe the court.
“People who make the laws need to see how those laws are being interpreted and the effects on people, their constituents,” she said. “They should come and see.”
‘What judges should be doing’
During proceedings, Harris said judges are allowed to use judicial discretion to stay an eviction up to 10 days. If a tenant is older or has a disability, they can stay an eviction up to 30 days.
On Tuesday, Harris granted the weeklong eviction stays for most tenants who were present and there for nonpayment of rent. Evictions were automatically granted if a tenant didn’t show up.
As long as people vacated the property by July 25, Harris wouldn’t put the eviction on their record. The outcome allows landlords to reclaim their property while giving tenants a chance to move and avoid an eviction on their record.
“I use my judicial discretion and want to give people the opportunity to get their items and vacate the property,” she explained in an interview. “Most of the time, people do that. They get their items and leave. It’s a clean break. I just want to give people the opportunity to gather their belongings.”
Norman praised Harris for going “out of her way to not put evictions on people’s records.”
“That’s what judges should be doing,” he said.
Aaron MacDonald, the lead attorney for the Housing Justice Program at Legal Aid, said Harris is the only judge he has seen to grant a stay of eviction.
“This is not the norm and not common practice for Las Vegas Justice Court,” he said. “In LVJC the tenants must surrender and fully move out before the hearing or the court grants the eviction at the hearing and typically gives the tenant the date they will be locked out.”
That typically means lockouts will occur two business days later, explained MacDonald, because constables don’t service notices on Fridays or weekends.
In the cases landlords are participating in CHAP, Harris rescheduled the court date for a “status check.”
That was the case for Vertanya Nelson, a 61-year-old woman who owes nearly $1,400 in rent.
Since her landlord agreed to participate in CHAP, Harris moved the case until Aug. 15 to see the status of the rental assistance application.
“You need to make sure you participate in the CHAP program,” Harris told Nelson. She also told Nelson to go to the senior center next door to get assistance for filling out paperwork.
Like many others in court, this was the first time Nelson had fallen behind on rent. She has lived in her apartment nearly six years.
“I was working as a member specialist at Sam’s Club,” she said. “I fell on hard times because of an injury.”
Living in income-restricted housing, she pays about $700 for rent. But after she fell recently and hurt her leg – Nelson now uses a cane to get around – she hasn’t been able to work. She is hoping to get approved for CHAP to make up for unpaid rent.
Most of the cases Harris heard Tuesday resulted in stays or evictions, but there were a few rare cases where the landlord didn’t show up to the hearing. When that happened – as it did for Govans Bravo – the case was dismissed.
For those tenants, the threat of eviction still looms, as the landlord can send another pay or quit notice at any time.
Harris warned Bravo, whose case was for nonpayment of rent, that she needs to catch up quickly or vacate the property.
Bravo worked two jobs – as a Mandalay Bay housekeeper making $21 an hour, and as a Jack in the Box team supervisor making $12 an hour – to support her five children.
When businesses were shut down in 2020, she lost her job at Mandalay Bay. With just one job, she relied on family support to get by.
Earlier this year, she contracted Covid and lost her job. She fell behind on rent, which jumped from $1,690 to $1,895 in December.
Though she was recently hired as a reservation manager with U-Haul, it has taken time for her to catch up.
“It’s hard out here,” she said. “Maybe they should raise the pay in jobs.”
With the rent increase, she knew she wanted to leave for another, more affordable apartment.
Bravo was surprised her landlord didn’t show up to court, but is thankful she has a little more time to figure out where to go.
“I’m trying to move, it’s just getting the funds to move,” she said. “I’ll try to figure something out and do what I have to do.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.