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Has new tenants' rights bill been the coup — or the catastrophe — that observers predicted?

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Economy & BusinessLegislature
A workman walking towards an apartment building under construction

Ask representatives from the legal aid community, and they’ll say the Legislature passed housing laws this session that have curbed evictions. Ask representatives from the Nevada Association of REALTORS, and they’ll say those same laws are prompting landlords to ramp up fees and squeeze out the supply of affordable housing.

A capstone bill to expand tenants’ rights was among the most controversial of the 2019 session, and triggered a coordinated backlash campaign that tried — unsuccessfully — to pressure Gov. Steve Sisolak to veto the measure.

“When you're the party that holds the power, it's not advantageous to you to let go of that,” legal aid services lobbyist Bailey Bortolin said about the landlord community in an interview on the IndyMatters podcast. “But I do think that most of these changes are things already being done by the vast majority of good landlords. And we're really trying to set a baseline that all landlords have to do at least x, y, and z.”

The marquee tenants’ rights bill this session, SB151, extended the timeframe renters have to fight back against an eviction, from four and a half days to seven judicial days. It also caps late fees at 5 percent of the monthly rent, gives tenants 24 hours from the time they were notified of an eviction before they’re physically kicked out, and allows them five days after an eviction during which they can return to the home to retrieve personal belongings left behind. 

Bortolin recently celebrated with a tweet noting that evictions in Clark County are down since the bill took effect July 1. Statistics she pulled from the court show there were 2,075 eviction filings in July, down from 2,704 in June and 2,968 last July. 

“Giving people time to catch up works,” she wrote.

But there are still signs of angst over the changes the Legislature made. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in July that several property management companies were sending letters to thousands of local renters threatening to remove grace periods that allowed tenants to pay their rent up until the third of the month. The companies blamed the new bill, but at least one has since retracted the plans.

The head of the Nevada State Apartment Association suggested to the Nevada Current that a reason rents in Southern Nevada rose 5 percent from the first quarter of 2019 to the second is because the Legislature broached the topic of rent control. The concept of allowing — not requiring— local governments to adopt rent control policies was brought up as a possible amendment to SB103 during the legislative session, but never became part of the bill and didn’t become law.

“I think the number on the bill is being used as cover to seek additional profit and to seek additional fines and penalties,” Bortolin said. “But I can't connect them to what this bill actually does. And again, by giving people a chance to breathe and have a couple more days, the goal is they'll be able to stay in the property and remove the need for the eviction altogether, which really benefits everybody.”

Keith Lynam, president of the Nevada Association of REALTORS, says he predicted the backlash that’s played out this summer.

“The message is, ‘we told you so,’” he said on the IndyMatters podcast. “We told them that security deposits were going to go up. That harms the Nevada tenant. We told them that timelines were going to get tightened [for] everyone. That harms the Nevada tenant. We told them that when you put these restrictions on a Nevada homeowner, you are going to lessen the likelihood that they're going to keep their home on the market for rent. They're just going to sell it.”

He conceded that large property management companies, sometimes located out of state and in charge of thousands of units, can be problematic. He has advocated for a “bifurcated” system that would put more strictures on the big fish in the rental game, while exempting small players who may have one or just a handful of rentals, although he said the idea hasn’t gained traction on the other side.

“We have felt strongly from the beginning that we're talking about the multifamily, big units that don't have that personal touch. We think there needs to be a separation of the two,” he said. “Not every landlord is a multimillion dollar person. They are, a lot of times, just as susceptible to the financial strains that any of us are. They get sick, they're going to have trouble, but they've got two mortgages now that they need to pay.”

Bortolin and Lynam also have different perspectives on how the bill itself went down. REALTORS were opposed to SB256, a bill by Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela that included a host of tenant protections and died in the Assembly after narrowly passing the Senate on an 11-10 vote. After it died, some of its provisions — including the cap on the late fees — were melded into the prevailing bill, SB151, in the final hours of the session with little debate or warning to the public.

“Democrats really looked at what are we accomplishing in this housing crisis? What are we doing to help tenants in these situations?” Bortolin said.  "And they had selected a few provisions that had been considered elsewhere and moved them into SB151.” 

Lynam, however, says the amendment was “ramrodded, you know, under the darkness of night and here's the defense I've heard is — well, it, it happens all the time. Well, it doesn't make it right.”

Bortolin said the booming economy and rising rents are putting particular strain on seniors on fixed incomes. Nevada’s law allows for “summary evictions” that can be far faster and offer much less recourse for tenants than other states’ laws allow, Bortolin said.

“We've all seen this power imbalance for years and years and years. We've seen evictions gone wrong. We've seen landlord strongholds,” she said. “We see the worst of the worst and it's not necessarily new, but I think it's easier to relate to with the affordable housing crisis because it's happening to your neighbors and your friends and your family.”

Lynam said his association is looking out for both landlords and tenants. What he wants to see, he said, is an acknowledgement that landlords are not always the bad guy.

“Are there bad landlords? Absolutely. Are there bad tenants? Absolutely,” he said. “I have yet to hear anyone that's been a proponent in any of these [bills] say what I just said — that we've got bad tenants too.”

Riley Snyder contributed to this report.

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