Ted Conkie, 71, and his wife, Mary, 84, were stunned when a final eviction notice appeared on the door of the Sparks duplex they’d lived in for 23 years.
They had nowhere to go.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Ted said. “All the (previous) legal papers were confusing, and we’re not lawyers. We never missed a payment in 23 years, but our lease expired. The new owner doubled the rent. We had no idea what to do after the constable came (on May 16) and told us we had to leave. … I told Mary, ‘I guess we’ll have to go live on the river.’”
That’s where the Conkies might be today if not for the kindness and generosity of strangers. A dedicated community organizer, a helpful Facebook group, a few former neighbors and a host of people they didn’t know paid for motel rooms until the couple moved into a subsidized senior housing apartment on June 1. Mary said she and Ted were lucky that those people cared enough to help—but she knows that what happened to her isn’t unusual.
“These big rent increases and evictions are happening all over,” Mary said. “Lots of people are in the same boat we were in.”
She’s right. The federal and state moratoriums that kept many evictions at bay during the COVID-19 pandemic expired last year, and lockouts are rebounding. Statewide, there were 33,747 eviction filings in fiscal year 2021, an increase of 3,545 filings over the previous year, according to the Nevada Supreme Court. Thousands more are waiting in the wings.
The Guinn Center, a public-policy think tank in Las Vegas, estimated in July 2020 (when COVID-19 moratoriums were still in effect) that more than 118,000 Nevada households were facing eviction. As of June 2021, a Pulse survey concluded that 128,000 renters in the Silver State were behind on rent, and 40,000 households thought they might be facing eviction within months. The National Equity Atlas, a demographic-data site, puts the number of potential evictions in Nevada at 46,000 households—about 9% of the state’s renters.
The actual number of evictions may be even higher. Under the state’s summary eviction process, thousands of pay-up-or-quit notices are taped to doors by landlords absent a court’s involvement. There’s no way to track those.
“There’s a whole world of evictions happening that we know nothing about,” said Jim Berchtold, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, to lawmakers at a legislative hearing on June 10.
A few tenant protections are in force. Nevada has an eviction mediation system, and rental assistance funds are still available, but not unlimited. Tenants can currently forestall eviction proceedings while their rental assistance applications are being processed, but those programs will soon run out of money.
Even if the Conkies had been aware of the assistance programs, it wouldn’t have made a difference. When their lease expired, they were informed that it would not be renewed at $750 per month. Ted Conkie said the new landlord told him his unit would rent for $1,400 per month or more. The couple’s combined Social Security income is about $2,200 per month.
“Even if the rent was $1,200, that’s more than my whole (Social Security) check,” Mary said.
The new owner notified the couple on Jan. 30 that their lease would not be renewed, and they were given 90 days to move out by April 30, the day their lease expired. Confused by the process, they hunkered down and didn’t take any action. Once they got the lockout order, they reached out to Nevada Legal Services and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, but little could be done.
Elvira Diaz, a PLAN community organizer, helped the couple file a motion to reconsider the case, but it was too late; it was a done deal. When the Conkies returned from court May 18, they found the landlord had changed the locks on their door. PLAN provides educational services, but not direct support to tenants, so Diaz took matters into her own hands. She told the couple: “You won’t be homeless, even for a day.”
To make good on that promise, Diaz paid for the couple’s motel room and solicited donations from her family and friends, as well as Mary and Ted’s former neighbors. She also got the couple on waiting lists for assisted housing. Posts on the Reno-Sparks Mutual Aid Facebook page also garnered donations and other assistance for the displaced tenants. Ted and Mary stayed in motels from May 17 to May 31 in rooms ranging in price from $70 a night to $270 on weekends.
When Ted talked to the landlord about the eviction, the man asked him if he thought he and Mary would be living there until they died. “We did think that,” Ted admitted.
It’s not unusual for tenants involved in evictions to be frightened and bewildered, Diaz said. In the Conkies’ case, “they had no idea what to do. They didn’t know the process or where to turn to.” In addition, she noted, long-term tenants are sometimes in denial that they are about to lose the home they have known for decades. The couple had 90 days notice, but when they said they “couldn’t believe” they were about to be thrown out, they meant that literally.
Most tenants facing lockouts under Nevada’s summary eviction process for nonpayment of rent have days, not months, to make other housing arrangements. A summary eviction begins with the landlord serving the tenant with an eviction notice. Then, the tenant might choose to leave the property, comply with the notice by paying the rent or fixing a lease violation, or file an affidavit with the court to dispute the notice and get a hearing before a judge.
A ’backward’ system
For decades, critics of the Nevada summary eviction system—which is unique among the 50 states—have complained the process is backward and counterintuitive. That’s because it’s up to the defendant, the tenant, to initiate the involvement of a court.
“It is the only legal proceeding of any kind that I’m aware of that requires a defendant to initiate a court action by first filing an answer,” Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) told a meeting of the Assembly Judiciary Committee in April. “It is akin to requiring someone to sue themselves for an opportunity to mount a defense.”
Andy Romero, an organizer with Make the Road Nevada, told lawmakers: “Aside from bypassing our legal system, summary evictions also cause damage and tension within our family dynamics. The uncertainty that our families face with these types of evictions causes not only a toll on the heads of households, but also on our children, who are already experiencing a global pandemic. What we need isn’t more evictions or a longer moratorium; what our community needs is a bold policy to protect tenants and their families.”
A bill that would have ended the summary eviction systems failed to get any traction in the 2021 legislative session. Instead, the bill was amended to authorize another study of the procedures. Lawmakers, however, did pass Assembly Bill 486, which requires judges to stay eviction actions while tenants are involved in the rental assistance approval process. In Washoe County, the mediation/assistance program has reduced the instances of non-payment cases.
“Now, a small majority (of our cases) are nonpayment evictions,” said Tara Zimmerman, grants and programs manager for Washoe Legal Services. “It is a frequent issue, but is not the primary anymore. Most of the people we’re now seeing for nonpayment cases have already applied and received, or been previously denied, (rental assistance) money.”
Serial eviction notices
Although tenants are sometimes able to have an eviction action stayed or dismissed, some landlords are serial filers: If one type of eviction fails, they come back with other types of eviction actions.
“That’s very common,” Zimmerman noted. “For example, one of our attorneys currently has six active clients who received two to four notices, sometimes all at once.”
Frustrated landlords who are waiting for rental assistance have tried to file nuisance evictions, which have no protections under the recent law. “Sadly, it is also not uncommon for rental assistance money to run out, and then the client receives a new nonpayment eviction notice,” she said.
It’s relatively rare for landlords who abuse the system to face consequences. Another Washoe Legal Services case involved a landlord who tried to evict clients for nonpayment of rent while the eviction moratorium was still in place. At a hearing, the judge told the landlord he couldn’t evict the client. Three days later, the landlord served an identical pay-rent-or-quit notice on the same tenant. Washoe Legal Services filed a complaint with the Nevada attorney general and tried to seek damages for violation of the governor’s order. The Reno Justice Court held that the client didn’t have standing to seek damages, or if they did, not in the summary eviction arena.
“The eviction case was dismissed, but then the landlord demanded rental mediation,” Zimmerman said. “The client, feeling overwhelmed and defeated, left the complex prior to mediation. It’s not an uncommon tactic to bombard tenants with notices and hope they will give up, resulting in a default eviction.”
Reno Justice of the Peace Pierre Hascheff, who hears nearly all the eviction cases in Reno Justice Court, said the law staying cases while the application process is pending is now tenants’ main defense. Many landlords haven’t kept up with the changes in the law, he said, and he’s seen a lot of frustrated property owners complain at hearings. “These landlords, especially mom-and-pop landlords, are saying, ‘Look I’m not making my mortgage payments; you cannot let the tenant stay.’ But I don’t have a say in this,” he said.
There are some bad actors on both the tenant side and the landlord side, Hascheff said, especially among landlords who own a small number of units. “It’s their property, and they want it back; they want the tenant out,” he said. “But that’s not how it works under the law. For example, AB 486 says the landlord must cooperate in the rental assistance program and must accept the rent if it’s awarded. Some landlords have refused (the rental assistance payment), but when I tell them in court it’s the law, they comply.”
A few landlords have refused to accept the payments even after being warned. “I had to sanction them,” Hascheff said. “I don’t like doing that, especially if it’s a small landlord.”
The statute allows a judge to fine landlords for attorney fees and up to the amount of back rent involved, which sometimes can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Tenants, meanwhile, are required to make their best efforts to process the assistance applications—something the court can monitor. “In some instances, we’ve learned that a tenant filed an application, but hadn’t done anything else to process it,” Hascheff said. “In those cases, I can proceed with the evictions.”
When rental-assistance money is exhausted, tenants won’t be able to rely on applications to stay eviction actions; the courts will return to pre-pandemic procedures. If the tenant can’t pay the rent or reach an agreement with the landlord, the eviction will be granted.
“I can give the tenant time to move out,” Hascheff said. “The statute says I can stay an eviction for up to 10 days for the tenant to move out. I usually give the tenants some time to do that.”
Some landlords complain that tenants shouldn’t be allowed to have a hearing if they file an affidavit stating that they can’t pay the rent, because that is not an acceptable defense in non-payment cases. Some judges may not grant hearings to those tenants. Hascheff always does.
“A lot of tenants are not able to articulate (their defense),” he said. “Even though the tenant’s affidavit may indicate they don’t have a statutory acceptable defense, like ‘I have no money,’ you’d be surprised how many times when they get to court, the tenant or maybe the landlord hasn’t told me everything (in the affidavits). So I always grant the tenant a hearing, because I want to find out exactly what’s going on and ask if the tenant can make payments today, and ask the landlord if they want the money.
“I think it’s a fair process as long as the parties have the chance to tell the judge what is really going on” he said. He has had tenants who were thousands of dollars behind in rent state on the affidavit there’s no way they can pay. But when they get to the hearing, he said, they have reached out for help.
“They’ve called their relatives and tell me that their family is going to help them pay, or they are getting a tax refund or whatever the case may be, and they will have the money for the landlord by noon tomorrow,” Hascheff said.
During a legislative hearing on June 10, tenants, landlords, lawyers, judges, local government representatives and members of advocacy groups testified about the state’s eviction law and suggested changes to the statute. Some want an end to summary evictions altogether, or want landlords to sue first rather than posting a notice and making tenants file an answer in court.
Suzy Vasquez, the executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, told lawmakers the association is working with the Las Vegas Justice Court on a diversion program for evictions. She promoted a program that would provide education and resources to tenants when they move into a rental unit and when leases are renewed. The association, Vasquez said, would be a partner with legal aid, housing authorities, county social services or other agencies to “provide free financial literacy videos for our residents in the community.”
Several speakers emphasized the importance of identifying preventable evictions, providing education and resources to tenants, and making sure policy conversations about eviction law include discussions of skyrocketing rent increases and housing affordability.
“We can’t have a full conversation if we don’t talk about how rents are increasing,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong, (D-Las Vegas). “If we have a person who is making $25,000 a year at a hotel, they are a solid citizen with a kid or two, and all we are talking about is how we evict them, we haven’t talked about the process of how to re-house them and where they will go if rents everywhere are out of control.”
Happy in a new home
When Ted and Mary Conkie were evicted, they had no idea where they would go. The couple left most of their possessions—and their pets—at the duplex after the locks were changed.
“The constable told us to take what we could and make arrangements to come back for the rest,” Mary said.
In their new apartment in Sparks, they were able to keep one of their three dogs and a cat; the other two dogs were surrendered to the animal shelter. The couple’s appliances and most furniture won’t fit in their new abode. “We left a washer and drier and a freezer full of food,” Mary said. “It hurts so much to lose so much, our home, pets and possessions.”
“But are you happy here?” Diaz asked Mary during a recent visit to the couple’s new apartment.
Mary nodded and smiled. Diaz hugged her. “You’re my granny now,” she said.
The couple’s experience underlines why tenants should take fast action when threatened with eviction, Diaz said.
“When you get a notice, you need to pay attention and act immediately,” she said. “You need to ask for help. Tenants have rights, but they need to act on them. Call Nevada Legal Services or Washoe Legal Services; talk to PLAN or other community groups.”
Given the Legislature’s attempts to address the inequities of the eviction law and the responsibility of local governments to address the lack of affordable housing in the community, Diaz also offered advice to Nevadans who care about those things: “Elect candidates who support housing issues—who care about people, not just money.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This coverage was made possible by our readers’ generous donations to the RN&R’s Independent Journalism Fund, which is administered by the non-profit Tides Foundation.