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New Moratorium Takes Effect As Evictions Surge

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(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A rental sign is posted in front of an apartment complex Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Phoenix.

Governor Steve Sisolak just signed a new eviction moratorium this week, which will be in effect until March.

But before that, legal experts and renters say landlords were sending out eviction notices to thousands of Nevadans – and Las Vegas courtrooms were packed with people fighting to stay in their homes, despite the high rates of COVID-19 infections.

All that was happening while a federal eviction moratorium was in effect.

Part of the problem, according to Bailey Bortolin, policy director at Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, was the way that different courts were interpreting the CDC's eviction rules.

"In the Las Vegas justice court, we saw judges taking a what was a really broad order that wasn't written specific to Nevada law and really narrowly applying it to allow for a lot of exemptions and a lot of ability to grant evictions for other reasons that I would argue were subterfuge of the actual issue that this person couldn't pay rent because of the pandemic," she said. 

Then, if someone appealed that decision to the District Court, that court was taking a broader view of the moratorium and not enforcing evictions.

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However, the process to use the District Court's order to stop the eviction is difficult to navigate and has a very short timeline.

Bortolin said the governor's action this week will clear up some of that confusion because it is based on Nevada statutes, while the CDC rules were very broad and didn't match up with the state's laws.

"It is really important and it's going to change a lot of outcomes for people that he did step in and do something about this at the state level because there was a very real equity issue that we were facing," she said.

She said the new rules signed by the governor will do a much better job of protecting Nevadans.

Under the CDC rules, renters can qualify for protection because their income has been impacted by the pandemic. They also have an income below $99,000 a year as an individual. They also have to have nowhere else to go.

If they check all those boxes, they fill out a form stating those qualifications then give it to their landlord.

However, Bortolin said the governor's order goes even further.

"The governor's does say that the landlord has to present evidence as to why they believe tenant does not qualify for the protections or present evidence as to a reasonable expectation that they will be foreclosed upon if they can't evict this tenant," she said.

She said that before the evidence rules landlords would try to evict tenants whether they could or not under the CDC rules because they didn't really have to prove too much in court.

"Now there is the real possibility of penalties and sanctions from the court that you're abusing the process if you move forward," she said, "Hopefully this will be a better system going forward."

One of the people the new order from the governor could help is Tonya Tucker. She lost her job because of the pandemic, and her landlord has spent the last few months trying to get her out of her apartment.

She has received rental assistance, but the landlord is still trying to get her out. Tucker's landlord is using a no-cause eviction process, which Bortolin said is just a way to get around the rules. 

"It's another avenue to get to an eviction that some judges interpreted as not being blocked off by the CDC moratorium, even if you were someone who qualified for the protection," she said.

A no-cause eviction means a landlord does not need to explain why they're asking a person to leave, but they must provide a 30-day notice for monthly rentals and a seven-day notice for weekly rentals.

Tucker said she has applied for rental assistance again.

"I'm pending a decision now," she said, "I've gotten it before. I'm sure they're going to pay but everything takes time because there are so many people needing help."

Besides the broad wording of the CDC guidelines, Bortolin said another problem with the eviction process in Nevada has been the Justice Court itself.

She said the courthouse has been crowded because the court didn't move to full online filing and virtual hearings. She described the situation as "dangerous."

"But what else could people do? I think was the question I kept coming back to," she said.

Bortolin said the civil law help center inside the courthouse was moved to remote assistance only, but before that, they had people coming to them with eviction notices asking if they could really be evicted because they had just tested positive for COVID-19.

"They shouldn't be doing that. That's not safe and that's not fair to our county employees and the public and the other people that are being called into that court to defend themselves from losing their roofs," she said, but she understands why they had to be there. 

The Clark County Commission tried to get answers about why the court had not moved to a virtual model for eviction hearings, but the court representatives did not attend.

Commissioner Justin Jones said the court did provide the commission with written information that answered some of their questions, but he would like to see the court move more online. Jones said holding in-person hearings and filings puts a lot of people at risk.

"That not only puts the people who are facing eviction or other proceedings in harm's way, but it also puts the court staff in harm's way," he said, "We at the county are definitely concerned about that."

Jones also said that there are county employees working at the courthouse, and they're put at risk when Justice Court continues to hold in-person hearings. 

Overall, the county is concerned about the spike in evictions because if people have nowhere to go, and they end up homeless, it lands on the county to help them.

Jones said it is easier to address the problem on the front end and keep people in their homes than on the back end and get people homeless services.

The commissioner understands the difficulties of the other side of the situation as well. He owns a handful of rental properties in Southern Nevada and in other states. 

He called the landlords who refuse to work with tenants on payment plans "heartless."

"Most of the landlords have really tried to work with their tenants in a difficult time, but there is definitely a small percentage of those who are honestly not trying to work with their tenants during these difficult times," he said.

Jones said he knows it is difficult for landlords too, but he believes they should try to be as forgiving as possible right now.

A woman in Sparks was hoping for a lot more forgiveness from her landlord, but that didn't happen. Jessica, who not want her last name used, lost her job because of the pandemic and has not been able to pay her rent.

She has also been struggling to get rental assistance from anyone.

Jessica said her landlord gave her a seven-day no-cause eviction notice, but when she asked about it, she was told that was an error and they wanted her out right away.

When she tried to talk to them about a payment plan, the landlord gave her vague answers. So, before they could evict her, Jessica left.

"I was forced to move out to a ranch with a bunch of friends, which wasn't ideal, but I have a 5-year-old son and I'm a single mom. So, I had to do what I had to do," she said.

Now, she has to commute into Sparks from the ranch, which is 45 minutes away, to take her son to school three days a week.

"Going from being employed pretty much since I was 16 to nothing, being a single mom, going through a divorce, all of it has affected me on a personal level," she said, "I feel like I have zero control and not so much faith in my government right now. I hate to say that but it's true."

Guests

Bailey Bortolin, policy director, Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers; Tonya Tucker, Las Vegas resident fighting eviction; Justin Jones, commissioner, Clark County Commission; Jessica, Sparks resident forced out by her landlord

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