By Tabitha Mueller
A tenant getting tased and forcefully removed. Landlords changing card readers and locking people out of their apartments. A coronavirus patient sitting in her room, terrified of being thrown out because property managers will not let her come into the office to pay.
These are just some of the stories Christopher Storke, an attorney at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, has encountered as tenants lose their income sources during the COVID-19 pandemic and struggle to pay rent.
“I’ve just been inundated with weekly rental phone calls. One particular property manager throughout Las Vegas is still serving seven days, pay rent or quit,” Storke said. “Maybe once every day I’ll have a phone call … that a particular tenant is being threatened by a landlord.”
Storke said he tries to inform tenants about their rights, resources and whom to contact and works to represent each of the callers. Still, some people do not call back, and sometimes there is little action he can take because a tenant vacated their apartment.
“I would say, right now, that I’m a little overwhelmed because I know that there are many more cases out there that people are not calling,” he said.
Housing rights advocates, organizations and officials working with populations at risk of losing their homes because of the economic effects of COVID-19 hope the situation will improve because of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s executive order a week ago addressing a previously ‘piecemeal’ approach to postponing evictions.
The governor’s order suspended all evictions and foreclosures statewide and halted late fees for as long as Nevada remains in a “state of emergency.” It also stipulated that property owners can work with their lenders and receive flexibility regarding mortgage payments during the crisis, presumably allowing owners to give tenants more leniency in turn.
The state also has earmarked $2 million in funding for rental assistance, in addition to the eviction suspension. The money comes from settlements the state reached with companies in various class-action lawsuits, and will be distributed through the United Way.
But even though the order gave Nevadans, including the more than 163,700 people who recently filed for unemployment, assurance that they will not have to vacate their homes during a health crisis, advocates are still concerned about the potential for landlords to evict their tenants.
“[The governor’s order] was monumental in actually protecting people,” Bailey Bortolin, the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “[The directive provided] really important legal footing that we needed, but that doesn’t mean that the bad actors stopped being bad actors, so we’re still dealing with the crisis on a day-to-day basis.”
She and Storke say legal offices throughout the state are still receiving calls about predatory landlords and that even though the directive extends to people living in weekly rentals, those landlords are still attempting to evict residents.
“[Weekly motels] are still posting eviction notices and late fee assessments in the hopes Nevadans won’t be aware of their new rights,” Bortolin said. “Still other creative abuses include threatening to withhold internet until rent is paid, assessing various new egregious fees and calling them by names other than rent and late fees, turning off hot water and deactivating key cards.”
Spreading accurate information
J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of ACTIONN, a faith-based social justice organization, said that his group is attempting to help residents of weekly motels understand their rights. However, it has been challenging to reach people who are self-isolating for fear of becoming sick and may not have an internet connection.
“There’s still definitely a risk for deceptive tactics, particularly from weekly motel owners … who are going to take advantage of the fact that their renters might not be aware of this,” he said.
Reno City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr, who has been fielding frequent calls for help from people struggling during the pandemic, said one constituent living in a motel reached out to say his landlord was not letting him leave the building unless it was to go to the store.
“I called the manager at the front desk [and] they changed their tune quickly because I gave them information. Information is power,” she said. “[Many people] don’t really know what the orders do … they are fearful of losing housing, and they are being bullied in a few cases.”
Chris Bishop, a property manager and the president of the Nevada Association of REALTORS, noted that the governor’s moratorium was a necessary step to protecting individuals, and said it has increased communication between tenants and landlords. But he still recommended that those who can afford to pay rent do so because eventually, tenants will need to pay their rent.
“This is not free months of rent, it’s basically a deferral,” Bishop said. “They’re able to defer the timeline of when you owe it, but it’s the fact that you still owe it. Just like the landlord will still owe the mortgage payment.”
The governor’s order states that borrowers, lenders, tenants and landlords should “negotiate payment plans or other agreements within 30 days of the termination of this Directive.”
The order does not specify how or when repayment plans are going to work or how soon landlords can start evicting after the governor lifts the state of emergency, but Bortolin said officials could figure out those details in the coming months.
“We needed to enter the order that said, stop trying to evict people. Stop locking people out, stop issuing eviction notices. So I don’t think there was time to put that all into one order,” she said.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Sisolak responded to a question about what happens when the eviction is lifted by reiterating that he has asked landlords to work with tenants when the crisis is over.
“I would like to start thinking about what happens at the end of this,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have that many hours in my day. Right now I am thinking about practicing the protocols that we’ve asked for. Saving lives.”
Those who are still having trouble or need assistance related to the moratorium are asked to file a complaint with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office.
Still some ‘gray area’
Rhea Gertken, the directing attorney of the Northern Offices of Nevada Legal Services, said she was glad that the governor cleared up the confusion surrounding the question of evictions.
But she said there is not clear language addressing individuals who might not have resided in a motel for 30 days or exhibited an intent to remain for 30 days. She added that some motel landlords are claiming that these residents are not protected by NRS118A, which prohibits “self-help evictions” in which a landlord removes a tenant by changing locks, moving belongings or shutting off utilities.
The eviction moratorium includes an exception for tenants who pose a danger to the community, damage property or commit a crime. Gertken also raised the question of what constitutes enough of a threat to evict a tenant during COVID-19 and how tenants should proceed if they do receive a notice of eviction because they pose a safety concern.
“To a certain extent, with the law, you’re not going to be able to get around [some confusion],” Gertken said. “It’s just, it’s in that gray area right now. It’s still so new. It’s unclear what’s going to end up happening.”
Another source of concern for legal aid lawyers is how residents of weekly motels might end up vacating their residence without the ability to return because they are not aware of their rights.
“The eviction moratorium from the governor is not going to allow people who’ve already been evicted to go back in and regain access,” Bortolin said. “It’s important for people to stay in the properties when their landlord’s telling them otherwise, or if their property manager’s trying to be deceptive.”
Storke said he had to inform a family with a young child that because they left a property, they could not pursue legal recourse.
“It’s horrible because I really want to be able to help them, but at the same time, the only recourse I can provide for them is legal recourse,” Storke said. “If there’s nothing available to them, then, unfortunately, all I can do is sympathize with the situation and provide them with as many resources as possible.”
Adrian Ruiz, who spoke with The Nevada Independent last week about losing a room at a weekly motel in Reno after he lost a temp job, is still searching for shelter.
He said he had not heard about Sisolak’s eviction suspension and wonders how it can help him now. He added that he has been reaching out to various agencies but does not have any idea where he should look for help.
“They do not know how to help,” he said on Wednesday. “[My wife and I] are worrying [about] how to feed ourselves, take a shower when Reno homeless service was cut to close to zero. What’re the plans? Until this outbreak is over, I just don’t know.”
Klippenstein said that one of the lessons from Ruiz’s predicament is the necessity for decisive leadership.
“It’s really great that we got the eviction moratorium, and I’m thankful that [the suspension] happened, but it could have happened weeks earlier,” he said. “There were other states that took much quicker action, and I think that it’s just a lesson around … take the time now because folks can’t afford for a delay in that kind of decision.”
Now that an eviction moratorium is in place, Duerr is thinking about what needs to come next at both a state and city level. She worries Reno could face a rent strike where tenants collectively refuse to pay rent until landlords or a governing body meets specific demands.
“One of the things I saw is that people in cities throughout the country are talking about rent strikes,” she said. “I’ve never been a person that would encourage solving a problem with a strike, but I think that the people that are feeling this level of desperate, feel that if the government, whether it’s local, state or federal, do not step up, they have to take matters in their own hands.”
Duerr said the problem extends to landlords, and the city may discuss property tax abatements or tax credits for landlords who provide tenants with rent forgiveness.
“It’s pretty hard for me or even the mayor to recommend a property tax abatement,” she said. “But at the same time, I think we all have to share the pain, all levels of government, property owners, renters, you know, we’ve all got to give in this situation.”
Tenant advocates who spoke to The Nevada Independent pointed to the state’s allocation of $2 million for rental assistance as a necessary piece to addressing the crisis.
“We already have an affordable housing crisis. There are lots of renters who won’t be able to just be like, ‘Oh, I’ll just pay an extra a hundred a month to repay past rent,’” Klippenstein said. “Even pretty reasonable payment plans they might not be able to afford, especially if they’re trying to recover from other things as well.”
Kelly Stevens, the community impact director for United Way of Northern Nevada, said that United Way’s southern organization will receive $1.6 million, and the northern one will receive $400,000.
Five percent of the funding will go toward overhead costs, such as staffing, which means that $380,000 will be going directly to rental assistance in Northern Nevada and $1.5 million will go to Southern Nevada.
Stevens did not mention a cap for the size of the grant a family could receive but said that each family could only receive assistance for one month because of the high rate of need.
The allocation will only go so far to address such a widespread crisis. If households that applied received a maximum of $1,000, for example, then the aid could go toward 380 households in Northern Nevada and 1,520 households in Southern Nevada.
Stevens said both agencies have put out a call for applications from existing rental assistance programs. Then each organization will review applications and determine funding amounts for the agencies that apply. The money from the state will go directly to the selected rental assistance programs.
The Northern and Southern United Ways will post the selected agencies on their websites. Stevens said individuals requiring rental assistance should go directly to the agencies United Way selects.
“We want to try and help as many people as we can,” she said. “Even with the assistance that we have, this is going to be a very difficult time for many Nevadans.”