It has been nearly two months since Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a sweeping moratorium on evictions and foreclosures aimed at keeping people in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But with June approaching and Sisolak announcing a move into a broader “Phase 2” business and societal reopening effective Friday, questions are percolating about whether the moratorium may be extended, and if not, how people in a state with 28.2 percent unemployment can make several months of rent or mortgage payments that suddenly come due.
Attorney General Aaron Ford — whose office has been charged with enforcing the eviction moratorium — did not offer any specific timeline during a Wednesday interview for the IndyMatters podcast on when the moratorium might end in Nevada. But Gov. Steve Sisolak's official directive Thursday defining Phase 2 of reopening extended directives including the moratorium through June 30.
Ford said his office was preparing for how it can help enforce it and then address what happens when it lifts.
“I don't get to pass laws that affect these types of issues, I enforce the laws,” he said. “But … we have been engaged in the conversation to see if we could help facilitate conversation and compromise, short of legislation or short of mandates.”
Here are some highlights from the interview. The full interview will be available here on Friday.
Addressing violators of the moratorium
Ford was joined on the podcast by Chief Deputy Attorney General Mark Krueger, who said the office has resolved about 86 percent of the eviction and foreclosure complaints received since the moratorium went into effect, or 367 out of 429.
Krueger said the most difficult complaints are ones when a tenant is renting a room from a landlord — the close proximity of a tenant who is not paying and the person they owe money to can stir up tension, especially under the difficult conditions of the pandemic.
The office has also fielded complaints from people who do not live full-time at their home and find out later that a squatter has taken up residence, or a renter has been subletting a property to other tenants.
But there have also been bright spots. In one case, Krueger said the attorney general’s office contacted a property manager at a multi-family complex and educated that person on the moratorium. Not only did management address the complaints, but they gave a $10,000 donation to a local food bank.
And in another instance, the office assisted an elderly woman who was about to be displaced when the new owners sought to move into a home where she was living. The office connected her with state and local social services representatives, who are working with her on a resolution.
“The biggest successes we've had is just being able to help people stay inside their home, being able to keep them from being evicted, and explaining and educating both landlords and tenants about the directive,” Krueger said.
Ford said he gets questions frequently about when the directive will lift, especially as the economy begins to reopen and more people regain the ability to pay rent. But he said that decision resides with the governor and the medical experts on whom he relies.
“That's the governor's call as well as the folks with whom he consults on the science side, on the medical side,” he said. “What I can say is that if the governor decides he needs to extend the moratorium for another month, my office, as it has been in the last two months, will be available to him to enforce that directive.”
The governor’s office has not responded to requests for comment this week about how long the moratorium might last. A current eviction moratorium is tied to the previously issued state of emergency directive ordered by Sisolak, so it will either expire under a new emergency directive or when the state of emergency is lifted.
Ford’s office has been speaking with real estate agent and apartment associations, as well as legal aid organizations that help people who can’t afford a lawyer, to try to address the potential problem of rent accruing and becoming an unaffordable balloon payment when the directive lifts.
One option is to work with tenants, landlords and the courts to craft an agreement that would take into account the outstanding money owed, spur a payment plan and then, through that agreement, categorize the tenant or borrower as no longer in default.
“We are facilitating conversations,” Ford said. “They're all having ideas floating back and forth among themselves, and the idea hopefully is to come to a compromise again, where folks can sign off … on an approach going forward, present it to the decision makers, whether it be the Legislature the governor or whomever the case may be, and they kind of proceed from there.”
Krueger said the office would consider potential civil or criminal penalties if it needs to as part of the enforcement of the directive, but declined to say if it is pursuing those kinds of responses.
“If it was under investigation, we wouldn't be able to talk about it at this time until that was concluded,” he said.
Early release of inmates
Ford has been an advocate for criminal justice reform in the Legislature and has made it one of the core principles of his attorney general office, stressing in a memo to employees that he wants to see “restorative justice” and wants the justice system to look beyond incarceration and focus on rehabilitation.
But his office has also defended the prison system against an inmate who sought early release because he’s in his 70s and at higher risk for COVID-19. The Nevada Supreme Court blocked the effort, which included a request to expand early releases to more inmates.
To date, the Nevada Department of Corrections has reported four inmates cases and 20 among staff. Asked about where he stands on questions of reducing the prison population as a strategy to curb the spread of coronavirus, Ford drew a distinction.
“I wouldn't conflate the current issue related to COVID exposure and COVID contraction with criminal justice reform. Those aren't the same thing,” he said. “The conversations can take place separately. And there may be some overlap here and there, but generally speaking, the context is the health and safety issues. And where do I stand personally on that? I believe in health and safety. To the extent I can advocate for protections of inmates as well as those who oversee those inmates, I'm going to do that.”
A representative of Ford’s office, Second Assistant Attorney General Christine Jones Brady, has a seat on the Nevada Sentencing Commission that recently recommended a modest fast-tracking of a provision of law allowing early release of older prisoners who were not convicted of sex offenses or violent crimes. Jones Brady recused herself on some of the votes, citing a conflict with litigation in her day job.
Ford said he doesn’t have any unilateral authority as attorney general to make decisions on what goes on inside prisons. But he noted that he is a member of the pardons board, which is one board that could take up the issue.
“If it reaches the pardons board, you can rest assured, you know my opinion will be voiced in the appropriate context,” he said.
Ford did not address the merits of a letter sent to his office by Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel asking him to investigate any violation of open meeting laws in an agreement between Clark County election officials and state and national Democratic groups that sued them. As part of the agreement, mail-in ballots for the state’s June 9 primary election will be sent to “inactive” voters in the county — people who are eligible to vote, but have not responded to correspondence from election officials.
Ford, a Democrat, said his office had received the letter and that it will “receive the same level of research and response as any other complaint.”
The attorney general was more direct in addressing a tweet sent last week by President Donald Trump threatening to withhold federal funding if the state continued with the planned mostly mail primary election, which he alleged without evidence would create a “great Voter Fraud scenario.”
Ford, who responded to the threat by saying “we’ll see you in court,” said he was not aware of any state agencies that have had federal funds withheld over the president’s tweeted threat.
“My response was true to my feelings on the issue, and that is there are very limited circumstances in which he could withhold funds, and it is not at the funds that have already been disbursed,” he said. “So, it was unfortunate to see that threat being made, but as attorney general, I will do all that I can to ensure that our sovereignty is maintained, and see him in court if he attempts to do something that's unlawful.”
Updated at 4:25 p.m. on May 29, 2020 to indicate directive is extended through June 30.