Officials hope changes to rental assistance applications will ensure aid meets anticipated mountain of need
Even with residential eviction moratoriums extended through the end of the year, more than a third of Nevada renter households will be at risk of losing their dwellings by the end of the calendar year amid a slow economic recovery and bottlenecked rental assistance programs, according to new projections.
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and the Aspen Institute published a report in August that shows 181,966 Nevada households, or 418,523 individuals, will be vulnerable to evictions by the end of December.
That’s an increase from an earlier report assuming 118,000 to 142,000 households could struggle to pay rent by September. The consequences of that were largely averted by state and national eviction moratoriums that provide protection through the end of the year.
Those dire figures indicate an eviction cliff that state leaders are trying to avoid, in part through the fine-tuning of federally funded rental assistance programs that must be expended by the end of the year. Only about 10 percent of the $70 million initially allocated toward rental assistance by the state and Clark County has been paid out, despite the programs launching months ago and the state still logging near-record high unemployment levels.
Nancy Brune, head of the nonpartisan Guinn Center for Policy Priorities think tank, thinks the updated scenarios concluding 37 percent of Nevada households could be at risk of eviction are based on solid methodology based on hard data rather than projections. With little evidence of additional financial aid coming from the federal government in the near term, Brune said that makes the worst-case eviction scenario much more likely.
“At some point it will be lifted and because our economy is still recovering slowly, we will see that spike in eviction simply because we have … some folks who are waiting on more federal assistance,” Brune said. “That doesn't look like it's coming anytime soon.”
The Aspen Institute report relies on data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, deeming respondents “housing insecure” if they have slight or no confidence they can pay next month’s rent on time, or couldn’t pay the last month’s rent on time. It assumes no economic recovery, with report authors citing accelerating job losses.
It’s a somewhat different methodology than the one used earlier to gauge eviction risk. The initial model incorporated job loss scenarios, enhanced unemployment payments and assumed an economic recovery — that 25 percent of unemployed renters would return to their jobs, based on Congressional Budget Office projections.
The Guinn Center said the evictions would come in three phases — first when moratoriums phase out, then when federally enhanced unemployment benefits lapse, then when renters run out of savings and credit. And the think tank’s research has also highlighted other unsettling trends — that the eviction crisis is likely to fall harder upon communities of color, and the economic effects are likely to be felt most dramatically by people who are already making lower wages.
“I know that we are qualified for the additional $300. But I don't think it’s as much as people were expecting,” Brune said. “The states haven't received more federal assistance and so the support that we've been able to use to stabilize folks in their homes will disappear at some point.”
Assistant Clark County Manager Kevin Schiller said that based on all projections, the crisis will be far from over by the end of the year when aid must be expended, and existing rental relief funds might help 15,000 to 20,000 households — a fraction of those considered at risk.
“I think we're in for a wave of continued need across all social services and rental assistance is obviously one of the most costly,” he said. “We are actively trying to look at how we can continue to provide some level of service in this category and others because obviously diversion is much more cost efficient than reacting to somebody who's been evicted.”
While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did extend the eviction moratorium until the end of the calendar year — beyond the state’s moratorium ending Oct. 14 — the state’s rental assistance program continues to trickle out funds relatively slowly.
Statistics from the state show that about $5.8 million in rental aid had been provided in Clark County through Sept. 25. Housing programs in the other counties have distributed about $1 million combined.
But the $7 million disbursed so far statewide is only 10 percent of the $70 million the state and Clark County have put toward paying back rent. The federal funding behind the programs must be expended by the end of the year.
State Treasurer Zach Conine, whose office is involved in managing the programs, said he wasn’t satisfied with those statistics.
“We'll be satisfied when we spend all of the money,” he said. “And when we work with the federal delegation to get more money, so that we can try and keep as many Nevadans as possible in their home.”
Conine said he expects the housing authorities to move to a quicker, less document-intensive process that will rely more on the attestations of the applicants than the confirmation of all the information provided. In Washoe County, for example, only 26 percent of applications have been finalized, with the majority stuck in a back-and-forth sending documents to the authority.
“It's not because the need’s not there. It’s because the process is too hard,” Conine said. “The more complexity we add, the more falloff we have.”
Meanwhile, a state website for accepting applications says Clark County is paused for new applications, as it has been since mid-August, while administrators try to work through a backlog of more than 40,000 inquiries.
The system is administered by 14 separate agencies, but Schiller said the county is moving to bring on an outside vendor in the next few weeks to handle the inquiries and process the applications through a centralized system.
The fragmented arrangement was intended to spread the housing assistance work more broadly and to connect people in need with agencies that could possibly address needs even beyond paying rent. But it’s prone to duplicate requests from people who have filed in multiple locations, and a centralized portal is aimed at at least making it easier to identify duplicates.
“Given the new process, we're pretty confident we're gonna expend all those dollars,” Schiller said of the $50 million Clark County has to give.
One solution that doesn’t appear possible is having landlords apply on behalf of tenants. Renters must confirm that they have fallen behind on rent for a COVID-19-related reason to qualify for the federal aid, but a landlord cannot do that for them.
The state, however, is working on ways that landlords of multiple units could bulk-submit applications with cooperation from tenants so agencies could pay them in a single installment.
Another criticism of the program is that it is helping tenants temporarily catch up on their overdue rent, but not providing a longer-term solution, so renters are immediately falling behind again.
“Of the money that has gone out to landlords, it has not necessarily prevented eviction cases from still coming before the court, and the associated health and safety risks of trips to the courthouse,” said Bailey Bortolin, who represents legal aid providers, in a hearing about an eviction mediation program. “Many of those people don't know where to go from here and have already fallen behind on rent again. There's a long line of applications and many of those are duplicates. At the rate it's being handled, many people may face eviction before they've been able to have their applications processed.”
Conine acknowledged the problem, and he hopes that a forthcoming eviction mediation program authorized by the Legislature will help landlords and tenants determine whether unpaid rent is a temporary problem, or a structural issue that is unlikely to improve and might require a solution such as downsizing.
In a victory for tenant rights advocates, the Nevada Supreme Court’s regulations on the program — expected to take effect on Tuesday — have few barriers to entry. Either tenants or landlords can request mediation when an eviction looms, and tenants are not required to have tried to seek rental assistance before being accepted to the program.
Representatives for apartment companies had sought such prerequisites to prevent tenants from using the program if they had stopped paying their rent for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. The court did concede to their request to put a sunset date on the program, at the end of May, but indicated it would extend the program for good cause.
Conine said he still believes the state can get all the aid out the door before the deadline for spending, but at the same time has been calling for more time to meet the requirements of the CARES Act.
“One of the most consistent asks … has been for additional flexibility, inclusive of having a little bit more time to spend the money,” he said.