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‘So defeated’: Thousands of tenants evicted as aid expires, job market remains unforgiving

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

Travis Reel was one month into a job as a bartender at Chayo — a trendy Strip Mexican restaurant and tequila bar where jalapeno and habanero margaritas are served all day — when the pandemic hit.

Still unpaid after spending months in limbo over unemployment benefits, likely in part because of how new he was to the Chayo job, he now spends his days scouring postings on Craigslist for warehouse jobs, grocery store jobs, anything. Last month he and his roommate narrowly made rent after their landlord gave them a seven-day “pay or quit” notice; it’s unclear how he’ll make rent next month.

“It’s just stressful,” said Reel, 47. “It isn’t like a suicidal feeling, but sometimes I just wish I would go to bed and just wouldn't wake up. I just feel just so defeated.”

While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions is in place until the end of the year, evictions are still proceeding in large numbers since a statewide moratorium lifted on Oct. 15. The Las Vegas Justice Court reported that it opened 5,511 eviction cases and granted 2,499 eviction orders from Oct. 1 through last Friday, and had a backlog of more than 1,000 landlord complaints to process.

Tenant rights advocates say they have a different opinion from the courts of how broadly the moratorium should be interpreted, and courts are allowing evictions such as “no cause” actions when a tenant’s lease has expired.

An order from the court this week that shut down most court operations to curb the spread of COVID-19 has also shut down the on-site self-help center run by the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, but is deeming evictions essential actions that will proceed in spite of the shutdown.

The center, which assists people in defending themselves against eviction notices and other legal proceedings if they can’t afford a lawyer, has been in high demand. There were 2,233 in-person clients in September, 3,481 in October and 1,498 in the first 12 days of November.

Observers have worried that this is the beginning of what could be a wave of evictions. The Aspen Institute projects that some 181,966 renter households in Nevada could struggle to pay rent by the end of the year — a situation complicated by the expiration of the current round of federal aid and eviction protections as well as rapidly accelerating cases of coronavirus and more restrictions on businesses in an attempt to slow the spread.

Rental assistance

In hopes of addressing the needs of the thousands of tenants that, like Reel, don’t know how they’ll pay rent, Clark County nearly doubled the funding toward a rental assistance program last week. The reshuffling comes as the county tries to spend the $295 million in federal relief funds it received before a deadline at the end of the calendar year.

The county had initially budgeted $30 million to help people pay rent and other bills, but a vote last Tuesday increased that to $88.8 million. Counting $20 million the state also provided the county, there is now $108.8 million for the assistance.

As of last week, $48 million of that has been spent or is committed to residents. The average award is about $3,500, and county officials said they had received about 14,000 applications for the help as of last week.

“We are seeing a significant uptick in the funds out the door through increased utilization of the eviction mediation program as well as the new portal in Clark County,” said Erik Jimenez of the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office, which helps administer the program.

After putting the program on pause for weeks because of an overwhelming number of inquiries and the logistical challenges of administering the program through 14 different organizations, the county unveiled a centralized portal that uses a “chatbot” to screen people for eligibility and guide them through the application.

“Our virtual agent was able to understand the natural language. And in this way, it felt like almost you're talking to an agent,“ said Amy Wykoff of IBM, which helped create the chatbot system. “A lot of people have never done this before. And we wanted to be able to give them the assistance they needed to go through what can be a really scary process, in an easy, helpful manner.”

Eligibility requirements have also been streamlined, with state housing agencies approving applications more based on “attestation” than confirming all information on the front end.

For now, Reel said he’s been relying on his roommate to make ends meet, but worries that even his roommate will lose his job, which is in the liquor industry. He hasn’t received rental assistance, and said he’s very scared about how rent will be paid next month.

“I feel just kind of worthless,” he said. “It’s just kind of degrading to not be able to get a job.”

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