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Sine Die tangents

A man walks toward eviction court at the Regional Justice Center on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Courts are dealing with increase evictions because of economic challenges that COVID-19 has caused. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

When I was in college, I was a terrible procrastinator. 

I don’t mean I didn’t procrastinate. Quite the contrary. I practiced procrastination religiously. I procrastinated when I woke up, procrastinated showing up to class, procrastinated turning in homework, and procrastinated studying before tests. Unfortunately, to successfully procrastinate, you need to wait until the last minute, then you get your work done — and I frequently forgot that crucial last step.

I bring all of this up because sine die — the end of the legislative session, when we send all of our poor, underpaid, beleaguered state legislators back to whatever godforsaken, unholy districts they democratically arose from — will be upon us once more in mere moments. Soon the majestic drywall halls of our state’s illustrious stuccoed Legislative Building (built in 1971 with less prison labor than the last one) will close once more. The classic lines of the building, uncannily reminiscent of the long-defunct Ormsby House hotel and casino across the street (probably because it was built at the same time), will look upon the statutory jurisdiction of its inhabitants in silence, completely still and without function until the Legislature arises in quorum at the start of the next February in an odd-numbered year — or until the next special session once someone successfully parses the federal regulations responsible for giving our state government the mother of all stimulus checks and converts them into statutory language which the Legislative Counsel Bureau won’t get sued for.

In other words, if I’m going to express an opinion on pending state legislation, I have approximately 24 hours to say my peace because, after sine day, nobody will care. Not even you. 

I know. I’m sad, too.

Thankfully, I’m not in college anymore. The last minute might be upon us. The wait might be over. But this time — this time! — I’m ready to turn this assignment in on time.

***

Unlike the Legislature, I’m going to start by focusing on pandemic-inspired legislation before I allow myself to get distracted like a prescription strength stimulant-addicted preschooler who just housed a 500 calorie triple espresso dessert beverage after sitting perfectly still for 12 hours binge watching Japanese trading card commercials. 

More specifically, I’m going to talk about evictions.

I’m a renter. I’ve always been a renter. I was raised by a renter in a succession of rental apartments, duplexes and houses. Some of my best friends are property owners, but I mean that in much the same way a straight white male my age might say some of my best friends are “people of color.” 

Consequently, if you expect me to regale you with the valuable services landlords provide — in my experience, at least, usually the “valuable service” of hiring a property management company to handle maintenance and invoicing while they collect passive income out-of-state — prepare for some disappointment.

Now, before some of you start penning an op-ed to counter the scurrilous falsehoods and slanders you fear I’m about to level in the general direction of landlords, don’t worry, intro-level microeconomics was one of the classes I successfully procrastinated my way through in college. Yes, I understand how, when a landlord buys rental housing from a developer, they provide capital to the developer to build more housing. I also understand how, by renting to tenants with less certain long-term income, landlords assume risk lenders refuse to accept directly. Less academically, I’ve lived next to and under some absolutely terrible tenants, some of whom believed it was great sport to get higher than a kite and perform clumsy wrestling sessions (this, I regret to inform you, is not a euphemism) in the middle of the night. 

In other words, even as a renter, I understand being a landlord isn’t necessarily a license to print money — especially when a pandemic comes along and drops a neutron bomb on your tenants’ abilities to pay their rent. 

When the pandemic started, I was fairly tireless at pointing out that the government-imposed lockdown was a lagging indicator of what was already happening voluntarily in the private sector. Several conventions were already cancelled by the end of February 2020. Many companies put policies in place which forbade business travel, even domestically. Restaurant reservations collapsed before the first shutdown orders went into effect. Even in a hypothetical alternate universe where Carolyn Goodman was elected governor and left Nevada as a “control group,” several tens of thousands of Nevadans would have lost their jobs because Nevada’s economy is fundamentally a service economy and people afraid of novel pandemics don’t travel to tourist traps.

Most of those thousands upon thousands of unemployed Nevadans, in turn, would almost certainly have been evicted. 

Instead of that hypothetical universe, however, we live in one where the various layers of our government more or less took ownership of locking the economy down and, by proxy, took responsibility for every economic externality that followed. One such externality was the aforementioned wave of evictions, which the various layers of American government addressed by instructing landlords to leave tenants be. In exchange, landlords might be made more or less whole once all of this is over, perhaps, maybe, hopefully, especially once unemployment checks start flowing and tenants can start paying their rent once more.

The good and bad news, at least if you’re the sort of person who thinks the government should be more involved in social welfare programs, is we learned the combined forces of American government are every bit as bureaucratically sclerotic and passive-aggressively petty when they try to give landlords money as they are when they to give unemployed people money. That’s good news because it means our government probably isn’t nakedly malicious, which is a refreshing surprise after everything that happened last year. The bad news, however, is that means it’s incompetent, which is a considerably more difficult problem to solve since it will require a bit more effort than just “voting the bums out.”

If you’re not the sort of person who thinks the government should be more involved in social welfare programs, the combined failure of our unemployment system’s inability to put checks into tenants’ bank accounts and our housing assistance programs to put checks into landlords’ bank accounts confirms your priors. Amazon can deliver fresh produce to your door in under 24 hours with a single mouse click, yet it takes months and reams of digital paperwork for the government to figure out how to give you money? It’s not like money spoils on your doorstep. How hard can giving people money be?

Of course, just as we don’t live in the hypothetical universe in which our various governments turned Nevada into a statutory “control group,” we also don’t live in the hypothetical universe in which we’ve magically outsourced our social safety net to considerably less bureaucratically hidebound private interests, though the notion of purchasing privately provided unemployment insurance, with actuarial rates based on your work history, education, and your employer’s employee retention rate is a bit more tempting now than it was before we learned DETR’s unemployment system is apparently hosted on the same DEC PDP-10 Bill Gates originally used as a teenager to learn how to program during a Nixon administration. 

Since we live in this world, and since Nevada’s tenants and landlords are both expecting a government — federal, state, county, municipal, nobody’s picky at this point — to do what they say they will do and somehow make everything right, we have AB486, which, if amended, will allow evictions to resume so long as landlords and property managers work with a mediator to secure financial assistance for renters first — at least until June 5, 2023, after which most of Nevada’s original eviction laws will return in full force. 

In this world, many of Nevada’s landlords and tenants are in an unpleasant standoff. Tenants who would normally be evicted aren’t — but they’re also not being freed of their obligations at their current rentals, which means they can’t move into new rentals. Meanwhile, landlords and property managers are understandably distraught. Some tenants, frankly, aren’t keeping up on their rent or on their home maintenance. Of course, thanks to Nevada’s increasingly acute housing shortage and recovering economy, rental properties are worth a lot more now than they were before the pandemic — and so some landlords would quite frankly prefer to replace their existing tenants with new, better heeled tenants, regardless of whether their existing tenants are paying their rent or not. 

AB486, to its credit, tries to unpause the standoff created by the consequences of the various federal and state eviction moratoria enacted through the pandemic by providing some time for tenants and landlords to receive mediation and federal relief money. To its detriment, it doesn’t fully unpause our rental market until the end of the next legislative session, even though there’s no good reason at this point to wait two years to go back to normal. Yes, Nevada’s unemployment rate (7.9 percent) is still higher than the national average (5.7 percent), but it’s not pushing 30 percent anymore. Additionally, most of Nevada’s counties have lower unemployment rates than the national average (Eureka County, for example, has an astonishing 2.4 percent unemployment rate) — once conventions, shows and international travel inevitably return, Clark County’s 9 percent unemployment rate is almost certainly going to drop.

The pandemic is nearly over and the collective action problems it created will soon be behind us. If landlords and tenants can and want to be made whole, then yes, we should try to do so, but there’s no need to take two years to do it. Let landlords have their property back by the end of the year and, in return, protect tenants evicted this year or last from having their evictions reported to credit bureaus so they can quickly return to the rental market. Then let everyone sort themselves out and let the market clear.

***

Classic car plates were supposed to be a handout to Washoe County’s tourist economy.

For those of you down south, Hot August Nights is a recurring summer event up here in which thousands of people drive (or tow) their classic cars to downtown Reno and Sparks. Each summer, local residents and tourists can visit any of our sprawling casino parking lots and see old cars from around the world. The one requirement is each car must be older than I am (Hot August Nights only accepts cars from 1979 or earlier — since I was born in 1980 and am not a car, I don’t qualify). 

So, one year (1995, to be specific), the Legislature had a brilliant idea. What if we encouraged people who participated in Hot August Nights to register their classic cars in Nevada by providing a special low-cost registration option, one which even exempted classic cars from any emissions standards in place when they were first constructed? Since 25 years prior to 1995 was 1970 — the year the US Environmental Protection Agency was formed and federal smog requirements were first enforced — it seemed like a natural enough cutoff at the time between classic cars people paid money to see and the regrettable old jalopies left over from the Malaise era.

1995, I regret to inform you, was over 25 years ago. I know, I don’t like it either.

That clever carve out for classic car fans, however, has turned into a problem. First, as time passed, “25 years ago” started to overlap with cars originally manufactured with actual smog control equipment, which isn’t always easy to maintain over multiple decades; this led to a statutory amendment in 2011 which exempted cars registered as “classic cars” from emissions controls. Secondly, it has also turned into a problem for legislators who refuse to remember the condition of most 25+-year-old cars in 1995, many of which weren’t in collectible condition at the time and none of which were ever equipped with the smog control devices preinstalled on, say, the now-”classic” 1994 Dodge Shadow I first drove in college. Hence the existence of AB349.

Look, I get it. A car I drove in high school is not a “classic car” in my mind, either. To me, classic cars are the cars from my parents’ youth — the Fiat my grandmother put my mother to sleep in as an infant each night, the Pinto my dad learned to drive on, and so on. The idea that K-cars — K-cars! — are “classic” now makes my brain scream like Luke Skywalker after he meets his father.

But it’s true. Just ask my 18-year-old son. He thinks cars from the ‘90s are every bit as “classic” as AMC’s most unfortunate products were to me at his age — and still remain at mine. If he had his way, he’d be driving an early ‘90s Buick Roadmaster right now, just as eagerly as I would have driven a Gremlin at his age.

At the risk of launching a wave of op-eds angrily rebutting this paragraph, a car built in 1996 was better built than anything built in or before 1970. Cars from 1996 were more reliable, safer, and, even in poor repair, remain more environmentally friendly than anything built during or prior to a Nixon administration. Are they as safe as a car built today? No. Do they pollute more than any new car you can buy on the lot? Undeniably. But that’s every bit as true of any car originally designed to run on leaded gas and built before Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, too.

The “classic car” loophole does exactly what it intends to — it provides an incentive for classic car fans to give Nevada their classic car registration money. It also does something it originally didn’t intend to — it provides a low-cost registration option for entry-level car owners who can’t afford a newer, better car. Considering how the plate program was originally designed as a handout to affluent car hobbyists, it’s nice to see an unintended consequence benefit our poorest Nevadans for once.

Let’s leave that loophole open and shelve AB349. Those old Camrys and Accords might not be classic to me, but they’ll be classic to our children soon enough — and they’re what their drivers can afford today.

David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the Executive Committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now the father of two sons, an IT manager, and a registered non-partisan voter. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].  

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