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A couple waits near the Juhl in downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

In 2015, Allison Teso packed her bags and moved from Indiana to North Las Vegas to be closer to her mother. 

She made a home for herself and her son in a nice neighborhood near a well-ranked school. Life was going well until the pandemic devastated Nevada's economy, and Teso lost her job as a personal security agent for a startup company on March 15. 

"I feel so helpless … my stimulus check is gone. I got a small severance. That's been gone," she said. "I'm having to pick and choose what bills to pay; my credit score was really, really good. And now it's having to take a hit on maxing my credit card out. And, I just don't know what to do." 

A single mother to a five-year-old, Teso borrowed some money from her mother to make rental payments on her house and has been job searching as she waits for unemployment assistance but without any luck.

"I've been eating saltine crackers for five days now, just so my son has a meal to eat, and we're about to lose everything," Teso said. "When you have a kid, obviously, you want to give them the world, and it's like we don't even know if we're going to have a house next month or the month after."

Teso is one of about 44 percent of Nevada renters in a state with roughly 3,080,000 people and around 1,075,000 households. Experts estimate about 10 to 13 percent of renters, or more than 100,000 households, are behind on rent. Teso is just one of the many thousands facing potential eviction notices during a time when the state's unemployment rate, which peaked at more than 28 percent in April, is estimated to be worse than that seen in the Great Depression 

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Thursday a gradual lift of the eviction moratorium in addition to a $50 million statewide rental assistance program funded by the federal CARES Act. Of that, $20 million dollars of the funds are earmarked for commercial rental relief and $30 million for residential aid.

The phase-out replaces a moratorium on evictions for both residential and commercial tenants Sisolak enacted on March 29 that was scheduled to end on June 30. The order in March superseded a previously court-by-court 'piecemeal' approach to evictions.

Sisolak acknowledged that the backlog of unemployment assistance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims would be considered in the phase-out of the moratorium at a press conference Wednesday.

Evictions and foreclosures for non-payment of rent are set to resume beginning Sept. 1, but the directive reinstates residential summary evictions and unlawful detainer actions before then for causes besides non-payment of rent including waste, unlawful business, nuisance, violations of controlled substance laws and violations of lease conditions — allowing landlords to evict residents of motels and hotels effective immediately

Deferrals and phase-outs for residential properties are more generous than those directed at commercial properties. Landlords of commercial properties can add late fees and additional costs as well as evict as soon as July 1. 

The Nevada Association of REALTORS issued a statement supporting the gradual lift of the moratorium and expressing appreciation for the state’s distribution of a repayment plan template that property managers and mom-and-pop landlords struggling with finances could use in their negotiations with tenants.

“Our goal through this process has been to create a pathway for Nevada property owners to gain access to the courts and mitigate damages, all while keeping tenants in their homes and making sure homeowners have the ability to pay their mortgages,” said Chris Bishop, the president of the association. 

Advocates and lawyers who had feared a sudden surge of eviction proceedings said they were glad the moratorium ending will be a gradual phase-out. They hope individuals waiting for unemployment assistance will receive that before landlords are allowed to issue evictions for non-payment of rent.

"What's scary about the situation is the inability to know what the future holds or what the plan is because it's hard to prepare people for something that's completely unknown and unknowable," said Daniel Hansen, the head of Nevada Legal Services' tenants' rights office in Reno.

In Nevada, two central rental dynamics shape legal questions and play a role in eviction proceedings: weekly motel or hotel rentals and private tenant-landlord relationships, according to Christopher Storke, an attorney at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

In weekly motels, a landlord-tenant relationship only applies to residents who have lived in a unit for 30 days or showed an intent to stay for longer than 30 days. Storke has seen landlords use predatory tactics, such as shifting residents to other properties before 30 days are up, to evict people who may have lost sources of income during the pandemic. 

"We don't deal with every single tenant that has been evicted," Storke said of weekly motels renters who may be experiencing predatory tactics. "I believe that it's a rampant issue throughout the valley — probably any weekly rental that has 'motel' or 'suite' at the end of it."

The argument that residents do not have long-term established intent to stay has prevailed in court, Storke said. He added that he is also seeing other landlord-tenant relationships where landlords were withholding information about the moratorium.

In Northern Nevada, Hansen said that most disputes he has navigated stem from a misunderstanding of the law. Usually, a phone call or legal clarification takes care of the issue.

One of the main issues Hansen deals with in Reno and rural communities is the lack of information and knowledge of tenant rights and landlord responsibilities. He described the situation as an "information battle" with "no magical solutions." Hansen said that his office was working on ways to connect with communities in both Reno and more rural parts of the state where information is less accessible.

Overwhelmed courts

As the state phases out the eviction moratorium, Hansen and other attorneys and advocates are worried about the sheer volume of evictions expected to take place.

"Anybody who can do basic addition and subtraction and looks at the news goes, 'Oh, we've been hit the hardest in the country by unemployment and people don't have any money,'" Hansen said. "Even if there is a moratorium now, the rent obligations are not going to just completely disappear at the end."

Eviction is a manual process that requires tenants to go to the courthouse to avoid losing their homes, according to Bailey Bortolin, the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers. She said having a crowded courtroom during a pandemic is less than ideal.

"There are over 100,000 families that are behind on rent right now. The court can't handle that in a safe or timely fashion," Bortolin said. 

Another danger renters face is the consequence of an eviction record that can prevent renters from finding affordable rental options in the future. With a five-day eviction notice, or a five-day pay or quit, and a three-day nuisance notice, Nevada has a fast eviction process that can quickly leave renters on the street — not to mention scrambling to pay legal costs.

Many renters with an eviction record often pay higher rental prices because some landlords know they don't have many options, Bortolin said. She hopes that the phase-out will allow renters to receive unemployment or rental assistance before a landlord can pursue an eviction.

Bortolin also worries about communities of color and how the phase-out policies will protect them.

"A disproportionate number of people with eviction records and a disproportionate number of people who are finding it difficult to find places to rent are people of color in our community," she said. "So, it's more difficult for those people to come back from having an eviction on their record. And it all plays into the racial disparities that we are facing as a community right now."

On borrowed time

For the tens of thousands of Nevadans who are eligible but have yet to receive payment on their unemployment claims because of delays or pending issues, the moratorium has bought time for them to hold off on rent payment without fear of eviction. 

Stephen Mercer, 32, is one of those gig workers who said receiving his PUA funds is key to avoiding eviction. An independent contractor in sales and marketing in Las Vegas, he said the state owes him close to $15,000.

"Being a couple months behind on rent's no big deal when you have the $15,000 coming in. But the hardest part is … explaining to my son why his dad can't feed him the way that I want to," Mercer said. "I tell him everything's going to be okay, something's going to change, something has to change, and unfortunately we're not seeing any change."

Mercer is about a month and a half behind on rent. He has used up all of his savings and hasn't been told of any resources available for rent assistance. Some friends and family have been able to provide small sums of money that have helped with smaller expenses, such as groceries, but that does not put a dent in the rent, he said.

If evicted, Mercer’s 8-year-old son would have to live full time with his mother, who shares custody. Without any family in Las Vegas, Mercer is unsure of where he would go.

Las Vegas had a 29 percent unemployment rate in May, and Clark County committed about $30 million from the CARES Act to rental assistance with direct funding it received from the federal government. Landlord and tenant stakeholders in Clark County are also working to resolve some of the issues related to rent accrued during Nevada’s state of emergency and eviction suspension.

“The issues are so interconnected to me that so long as there’s a DETR (Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation) backlog, it’s really scary to now allow those families to be evicted," Bortolin said. "There’s an incredibly large number of people who are facing eviction with nowhere to go.” 

Many Nevadans will be strapped for cash even as the economy opens up, Hansen said. Almost 24 percent of the state’s workforce is employed by the gaming and hospitality industry and tourism is not expected to fully bounce back for a while.

Hansen noted that even though the moratorium resulted in fewer eviction hearings, renters are on borrowed time.

“You can only assume that when it comes to an end, people are going to start filing again," he said. "There's just so much that's gone undealt with for three months in kind of all aspects of our lives, and when it comes to an end, people are not going to have enough money."

The heart of the landlord-tenant relationship

Renters' futures after the moratorium is lifted will depend in part on the policies and practices of their landlord, who could decide to evict those who can't pay up or extend leeway beyond the moratorium's expiration. Some tenants may not be aware of their rights, which worries lawyers such as Storke.

During the moratorium, Storke said managers in one property unit went through residents’ mail and demanded they use found stimulus checks to repay rent. He added that he has watched landlords in summary eviction court doing everything they can to remove residents, including accusing a sixty-year-old tenant of dealing drugs out of his apartment.

“Most of the time it’s the landlord trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink to see what sticks in order to remove that individual,” Storke said. “[In court], landlords are just throwing everything at this particular tenant, and they don't know how to defend themselves.”

The governor "strongly encourages" landlords and tenants to create repayment plans together, the Thursday press release stated. A template lease addendum and promissory note from the attorney general's office was included to encourage and assist collaboration between landlords and tenants.

Throughout the pandemic, Molly Hamrick, the president and corporate broker of Coldwell Banker Premier Realty, has helped tenants and landlords stay informed on state guidance regarding the moratorium. The firm oversees about 425 properties, and Hamrick, along with other brokers, has also advised mom-and-pop landlords who have been struggling to pay bills and keep up with their landlord duties.

“In Nevada, we've had a very difficult time with people not getting their UI and their PUA and not everybody has been receiving those dollars. And so just helping the landlords understand and being empathetic,” she said. “People, they're frustrated and they're scared and when people are scared, there’s fear, they act out. And so for us, it's about calming them, keeping them educated and helping them work and navigate that process.”

As landlords and tenants alike have struggled to meet expenses, Hamrick said that many mom-and-pop landlords she has spoken to lack savings, are unsure how they will cover sewer and other expenses related to housing upkeep without rent coming in and in a lot of cases, are looking to sell their properties and move their investments elsewhere.

If smaller landlords choose to sell properties, some rentals will move off the market and others will become part of larger investment companies, Hamrick said. However, the situation “isn’t all doom and gloom,” Hamrick said, pointing out that the housing market is not dipping in the same way as it did during the 2008 financial crisis and landlords and tenants are reaching out and working together.

“When you have five months of holding on evictions and then five months potential nonpayment, there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty out there. And what I want people to know … is everybody needs to take a deep breath and let’s work through this,” she said.

Joe Koreski, 34, a teacher at a private school and a musician in Las Vegas, is waiting on PUA payments to make his rent. In the meantime, he's been using his apartment complex's deferment policy that allows renters to spread costs across the other months of the year.

Koreski already pushed back May's payment. He was able to use his stimulus check to cover June but said he would need to defer July as well if he didn't receive his PUA funds in time. He said he was unsure whether the policy allowed for more than one deferral in a year but was hoping the complex would allow it. If not, Koreski said he could probably borrow money from family or friends.

Renters without clear policies to lean on are hoping their landlords' compassion will continue if the moratorium is lifted.

“[My landlord] just tells me, he hopes it works out for me,” Elke Anderson, a 44-year-old hairstylist based out of Reno said, adding that she is not quite sure what “hopes it works out” means. If she does not receive unemployment soon, she will most likely be evicted, and her son will go to live with his father while she figures out her next steps.

She moved into a cozy house in Midtown almost a year after finalizing her divorce. The move was supposed to be a fresh start, but during the shutdowns, Anderson lost her job and is now waiting on unemployment and relying on child support money to take care of her son. 

She said the child support has helped immensely but is not enough to cover rent and other necessities. 

Reno’s tight housing market means there is a constant demand for housing. Hansen said there is not much incentive for landlords to work with tenants if they can easily replace a non-paying tenant.

“At the heart of the landlord-tenant relationship is rent and anytime there's a background situation, it can be very difficult because landlords are not necessarily always inclined to enter independent plans,” Hansen said. “And if there's nothing to force [payment plans], there's nothing to stop them from just evicting and starting fresh with a new tenant.” 

An uncertain future

Anderson is considering moving back to live with family in California, staying with friends or temporarily renting a motel room. Other than that, she doesn't have much of a safety net.

“I was able to do something extremely humbling which was file for assistance, which, I mean, I had my daughter at 19,” she said. “The last time I had used the government and service of food stamps and Medicaid was when I was a young mom and put myself through school.”

She hopes the situation is temporary. To take her mind off everything, Anderson has been growing a garden with her son and taking one day at a time.

“Now it's like back to square one, with my credit being late on everything. And I think for me, that's like almost the worst part. That, and the uncertainty,” she said.

Teso’s landlord has repeatedly emailed her reminders that the rent is due. She just keeps praying that the roughly $12,000 she is owed in unemployment will come through before she is evicted. 

One of the options on the table is for Teso and her son to move in with her mother, but her mother’s apartment is cramped and she does not want to impose.

“[My son’s] seen me get upset a couple of times talking to my mom on the phone and cry, and he's so sweet,” she said. “He'll draw me a little check with a dollar sign and a one in a couple of zeros. And he brings it to me, but I try not to get upset in front of him. ‘Cause I don't want him to know that things aren't good.”

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