PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/FRANK X. MULLEN: The state's moratorium on evictions ends Sept. 1.

A tsunami of eviction actions will crash across tenants’ doorways throughout the Silver State beginning Sept. 1. There’s no way to stop them.

Nevada officials are scrambling to blunt the force of the wave so it doesn’t leave a greater epidemic of homelessness and ruin in its wake. But even with new laws that created a 30-day stay of eviction actions, a landlord-tenant mediation option and authorizing $30 million in emergency assistance for renters, keeping cash-strapped families in their homes remains a Herculean task.

“Our goal is to mitigate the problem to the extent possible,” said Brad Lewis, director at Nevada Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission. “The goal is to help everyone. We’re in a pandemic and people are dying. Can we help keep people in their homes? Can we help get landlords paid? Can we try to make the situation as good as possible for as many people as possible? There’s no silver bullet here.”

In the last fiscal year, 45,805 summary evictions occurred in Nevada, 85 percent (42,501 cases) in Clark County. Washoe County reported 3,304 evictions in 2019. Those totals may increase three-fold this year. If the estimates are only half correct, the state’s eviction cases still would be two times as many cases the Silver State experiences in an average year.

The Nevada Treasurer’s Office estimates that as many as 130,000 people could be evicted in Nevada over coming months for non-payment of rent. The Guinn Center, a bi-partisan think tank in Las Vegas, estimates as many as 142,000 Nevada households (more than 270,000 people) could soon be at risk of eviction.

Lewis is part of a team working to create a mediation process that needs to be in place sometime next month. He said the details are still being ironed out, but once eviction actions are filed, either the landlord or the tenant probably will have to request mediation. Lists of potential mediators are now being compiled. Hundreds will eventually be needed.

He said once a plan is finalized it will have to be approved by the Supreme Court. The process, he said, may be in place by mid-September. “Time is not on our side,” Lewis said. “The intention is to be ready as quickly as possible.”

Some tenants were already living on the edge

Many renters weren’t in great financial shape even before the pandemic. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that more than 97,000 renter-occupied  households in Nevada are in low income brackets, with 81% “severely cost burdened” by rent.

The Nevada Legislature passed the stay-of-eviction/mediation law at the year’s second special session earlier in August. At the hearing for the bill, SB1, a single mom explained the difficulty of maintaining housing during the COVID-19 crisis.

Erika Minaberry, who has three children, had briefly lost custody of her kids because she lacked stable housing. She got them back after moving into an apartment, but lost her waitress job at the start of the pandemic. She had been collecting unemployment benefits, she told the lawmakers, but those payments ran out.

“For people like myself who have been struggling and just barely made it above water, if there is an eviction moratorium lifted we would be pushed back down under the water. I don’t know how I will make it.” — Erika Minaberry, tenant who testified at the Nevada State Senate hearing.

Renters’ assistance fund won’t cover need

The lawmakers approved transferring $30 million of federal CARES Act relief funds to a statewide rental assistance program, but officials said that won’t come close to covering the need. The $30 million funding is divided among the state’s regions: the Reno Housing Authority got $5 million; the Nevada Rural Housing Authority received $5 million; and the remaining $20 million went to Clark County.  It’s a first-come, first served system and officials report that most of the money is already spoken for.

Clark County added another $30 million to its fund, but is phasing out its application process as the numbers of eligible applicants far outpaces the money available.

That leaves the mediation program as the remaining defense against the coming eviction epidemic at a time when the need is predicted to increase.

“We’re just about to see the tip of the iceberg,” said Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers. “People who are on unemployment were getting an extra $600 per week, but that’s gone (on July 31).”

Delay in jobless benefits magnifies problem

She noted that many renters eligible for benefits have had trouble getting them due to the state’s unemployment department being overwhelmed by the volume of applicants. The state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has been catching up with the demand, but the state still can’t quantify the number of claimants still awaiting benefits.

Bortolin noted that much of the eviction crisis is caused by a once-in-a-century pandemic that overburdened the state’s ability to provide timely assistance.

“We have to be really cognizant of the fact that people would like to pay, but are having trouble accessing unemployment payments,” she said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation to make sure these people are provided with the assistance they are entitled to.”

She also has been involved in the planning for the mediation process, whose outcomes will be more flexible than just a yes-or-no option for evictions.

Mediation will provide options for tenants

“There will be lot of possible positive outcomes that you just don’t have in an eviction hearing,” Bortolin said. “Once you get to (court) hearing the only question is ‘are you behind on rent?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ you’re evicted. There’s no room for creativity.”

The 2008 mortgage crisis provided a model for creative options, she said, such as the “cash for keys” idea, in which residents would agree to vacate a property in exchange for an agreed upon sum of money. The option worked because in many cases that was less expensive than going through a lengthy court-ordered eviction process.

Landord-tenant evictions are different from evictions related to foreclosure actions, but the same sort of negotiations between the two parties could apply, Bortolin said.

 In mediations, landlords and tenants can decide what makes the most sense, she said.

“Some of these people maybe shouldn’t continue in their current situation,” she said. “Some of these landlord-tenant relationships are going to be at their natural expiration, but does it need to be a formal eviction where the tenant now has an eviction record? And if the landlord goes after the tenant in a collection action, that’s more court appearances, more time, and hurts (the tenants’ credit).  Nobody really wins in that outcome.” — Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.

Eviction actions a scarlet letter for consumers

“Is there an amount of money where (the tenant can pay) and just walk away?“ she said. “Has the tenant been connected with rental assistance? If you bring in rental assistance, are there other community assets resources available? If we have a broader conversation about where do we go from here, I think we’ll find a variety of better outcomes than just answering the question of whether the tenant should be evicted or not.”

Bortolin noted that many tenants may not understand the repercussions of an eviction, which becomes a scarlet letter on peoples’ consumer reports.

“Once you have that eviction on your record, in a lot of ways it’s like having a criminal conviction on your record,” she said. “People don’t want to rent to you. It comes up in a credit check and a background check. It really affects your family’s ability to move forward. If we avoid that as much as possible, I think it will improve the greater community’s ability to move forward.”

Court safety is also an issue in pandemic

Although some groups and individual landlords opposed the mediation law, Bortolin said it was necessary for the safety of the courts and the public. In addition, it should streamline the process once the glut of eviction actions starts moving through the system.

“The benefits are multi-faceted,” she said. “The courts are coming at this from a court-safety perspective. We’re not prepared to flood the courts; just look at the numbers. We can’t sustain those kinds of numbers and from a health and safety standpoint we can’t have all those people in the courthouses at once.”

During the legislative hearing, Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty said allowing the 30-day stay of evictions and encouraging mediations should save time for landlords. With the large number of eviction actions expected, “court settings could go out weeks or months before the dispute could be addressed,” he told lawmakers.

“We think there’s lots of opportunities here,” Hardesty said. “One is, of course, to connect landlords and tenants and perhaps mitigate the tenant issues to inform tenants about the availability of rent relief dollars, maybe even to help resolve some other disputes if in fact those surface.”

“Mediation… is frequently successful. Most cases in the system eventually settle and many of those settle as a result of the input or the assistance of a mediation program or a mediator.” — Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty.

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