Ben Iness, the coalition coordinator with the Housing Justice Alliance, calls for eviction oversight during a press conference at the Las Vegas Justice Court. (Photo: Michael Lyle/Nevada Current)
While observing eviction proceedings Tuesday at Las Vegas Justice Court, Ben Iness of the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance was struck by the final words from the judge following the majority of cases where a summary eviction was granted: “Good luck.”
“In that courtroom, tenants have no solutions and no recourse to navigate such a life shattering and life altering crisis,” said Iness, the coalition coordinator for the alliance. “All they are left with is good luck and well wishes.”
Though eviction proceedings are public, most people have little insight on the process, and judges handling the cases operate with little oversight.
The Housing Justice Alliance, which includes groups like the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the ACLU of Nevada, is launching an eviction monitoring program to shed light on the eviction process.
The alliance, which gathered Tuesday at the courthouse to announce the program, is planning to start weekly shifts at Las Vegas Justice Court by the end of the month.
“I think it’s critical to justice that people know what’s happening and that judicial officers know the public is engaged in those issues,” said Jonathan Norman, the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers. “I think it’s important for judicial officers to know the community is paying attention to what they are doing.”
Prior to the pandemic, Iness said Nevada struggled to come to terms with its housing crisis, which has been compounded by a lack of affordable units, little tenant protections and a summary eviction process that requires tenants be the first to file with the court.
In an attempt to prevent mass evictions during the pandemic, lawmakers passed a bill in the 2021 Legislative Session that paused eviction proceedings while rental assistance applications were being processed through the CARES Housing Assistance Program or CHAP. The bill sunset June 5.
Lawmakers passed several tenant protections during the recent 2023 session, including Senate Bill 335, which would have extended the 2021 protection.
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed that bill, and the vast majority of the others.
In his veto message of SB 335, Lombardo wrote it would “create onerous burdens in Nevada’s residential renting market by requiring even more hurdles for a landlord to evict a non-compliant tenant.”
“Not only would this make the eviction process more time consuming, it would also make it more costly – potentially worsening availability and accessibility to residential properties for those looking to rent,” he wrote.
Iness said vetoing those bills, on top of the rising cost of rent, has made the eviction crisis worse.
The annual Southern Nevada Point-in-Time homeless count, which was conducted in January prior to eviction protections expiring, showed homeless rates increased by 16%. The results, which were released in August, showed a 54% jump among families with children.
“There is a direct connection between what’s going on in our eviction courts and the rise of homelessness,” Norman said. “We have to ask what policy choices we made that led to that homelessness.”
Many of those cases of homelessness, Norman said, started with an eviction.
“I don’t think we can disconnect and say let’s have a new shelter for homelessness if we do not address how people slip into homelessness,” he added. “That’s happening in our justice courts around the state.”
Iness said groups affiliated with the Housing Justice Alliance will be organizing members to do weekly court watching to collect tenant stories, as well as data on court proceedings.
Their findings, he said, will eventually be brought to local governments and state officials with a call to action.
Organizers also want elected officials to observe alongside them in order to better understand issues that are arising in eviction court.
Over the summer, several officials, including U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford and Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong, observed proceedings in North Las Vegas Justice Court.
Assemblywoman Erica Mosca, Assemblywoman Venicia Considine, Assemblyman Max Carter, all Democrats, along with County Commissioner William McCurdy and Las Vegas Councilwoman Nancy Brune observed court proceedings Tuesday ahead of the press event.
McCurdy said after the morning’s proceedings he plans to reach out to judges and hearing masters about how they use their discretion in proceedings.
In a previous interview, North Las Vegas Judge Belinda Harris said judges are allowed judicial discretion to stay an eviction up to 10 days, which she deploys in her cases as long as a tenant shows up for the hearing. Evictions are granted automatically when a tenant doesn’t show up.
Attorneys and housing organizers have noted such grace periods are not offered often in Las Vegas Justice Court.
McCurdy said that “after viewing what’s happening, I think the next thing is to reach to officials about adopting this philosophy” to use their discretion to stay an eviction to give tenants more time to move out.
“While 10 days may not sound like a lot, it could be the difference between you losing all your stuff and not,” he said. “I think we can give a little more grace to people who are experiencing a tough time.”
Many observing Tuesday expressed surprise at the speed of the proceedings, which can last less than two minutes in many cases. They were also struck by how many people had pending rental assistance applications and still were evicted.
“We saw the vast majority of tenants in court today having CHAP applications and landlords said no I’d rather get them gone,” Iness said. “It was devastating to see, and heartbreaking, the ripple effect it will have in a family’s life.”
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