State’s ‘piecemeal’ approach to evictions during pandemic worries tenants and landlords alike
Adrian Ruiz and his wife lost their jobs at a temp agency earlier this month because of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
But he said the landlord for his weekly motel in Reno did not offer to work with him on making the next payment.
“I tried [to negotiate with the manager] but they said they want the money up front, and if we didn’t check out, he will call the cops,” Ruiz said.
Since then, he and his wife have been living on the streets, and with the cold weather settling in and the shelters closed to newcomers for fear they’ll bring in the virus, they are unsure where to go or who to turn to for help.
“Me, my wife, and 50 other people got kicked out of the park because we got nowhere to go,” he said. “They’re telling us to go somewhere, but where are we supposed to go? We’re homeless.”
Ruiz’s plight — including his inability to follow Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “stay at home” directive and avoid congregating in groups any bigger than 10 — is exactly what housing advocates are hoping to avoid during the economic upheaval triggered by coronavirus. More than 20 organizations signed on to a letter last week calling on Sisolak to issue a statewide moratorium on evictions to provide peace of mind to renters, who comprise 45 percent of Nevada households, and replace a confusing patchwork of orders from individual local courts offering varied levels of relief to tenants.
“It’s vital to safety to ensure that Nevadans can stay home,” said Holly Welborn, policy director at the ACLU of Nevada. “Everyone should have an equal opportunity to protect themselves.”
Welborn and other advocates argue that the governor has the authority to stop evictions under sweeping emergency powers, but so far he has not committed to doing so. Sisolak said Friday that Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office is researching the issue, and he also tweeted on the subject.
"A lot of you have reached out expressing worry and concern about housing stability during this difficult time," he said late Friday. "I want you to know we’ve been working to find a solution and I look forward to filling you all in soon."
Spokesperson Monica Moazez said that because of the office’s attorney-client relationship with the governor, the office would not disclose any legal advice or counsel at this time, and it will remain at the governor’s discretion to announce his plan.
Many states have taken action by enacting emergency bans on evictions and creating other tenant protections. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a three-month suspension of commercial and residential evictions and suspended mortgage payments for people who are out of work for 90 days. On the West Coast, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order giving the state’s local governments the authority to pass their own moratoria, a protection through May 31.
Rhea Gertken, the directing attorney of the Northern Offices of Nevada Legal Services, described the individual courts’ decisions on how to operate during the pandemic as “piecemeal” and confusing to residents.
“Each court is adopting its own rules, and those rules are not only varying in language but in practice,” she said.
On one hand, justice courts in Elko, Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Sparks temporarily suspended eviction proceedings. On the other hand, the Carson City Justice Court remains open and has said justices will identify “nonessential” court cases that can be rescheduled or heard via phone or video conference.
And in between, the Reno Justice Court suspended all default evictions allowing landlords to evict without a court hearing, but have eviction hearings scheduled for this week and the next one.
“Tenants are desperate to know what protections they have, how long they have them for, and how to proceed when they’ve been ordered to stay in their homes,” advocates said in their letter to Sisolak. “But because each court has different interpretations, guidelines, and effective dates, tenants are panicked and confused.”
‘We have to look out for both parties’
Some landlords are offering relief even without a directive from the governor. Jan Mackenzie, one of the broker-owners of Nevada Home Connections and a property manager for the company, sent tenants a memo to reach out if they are experiencing financial difficulties.
"Any of our tenants who have lost their regular income streams can request relief. We will work with each tenant/owner on an individual basis," she said.
Mackenzie pointed out that the end of the month is nearing and that many may not be able to afford rent because of layoffs or furloughs.
"So many people are one paycheck away from bankruptcy. They just live hand to mouth," she said. "So you miss a one- or two-week paycheck, and you can't pay your rent."
But she also pointed out the other side of the equation. Tenants not paying rent means no income for landlords who in some cases survive on that cash flow or have commercial bank loans they need to pay with money from rentals.
“Most of our properties are owned by individuals. They have mortgages and other expenses,” Mackenzie said.
If the state puts a moratorium on mortgage payments, that may give landlords the ability to, in turn, offer rent relief to their tenants.
“If they don't have to make their payments, then the renters obviously wouldn't need to make theirs,” Gertken said.
Chris Bishop, the president of the Nevada Association of REALTORS, which has highlighted landlords’ concerns during the legislative session, emphasized the success or failure of the housing market relies on tenants and landlords alike in what he called a “symbiotic” relationship.
“We have to look out for both parties in this,” he said in an interview.
Rent payment freeze programs could hurt the flexibility of the marketplace, he said, instead suggesting 30 days of financial relief to those renting homes.
While Bishop is optimistic that homeowners and tenants are prepared to withstand 30 days of a shutdown, he said any period longer than 30 days can put a serious strain on Nevada's housing economy.
Bishop suggested tenants communicate directly and clearly with property owners to possibly renegotiate a contract or come up with terms that work for everyone.
“Because this happened to everyone at the same time, recovery will be based on everyone working together,” Bishop said. “I’ve seen people pull together and try to help each other more now than I’ve seen in a long time.”
Mortgage payment relief
Actions at the federal level and among banks promise mortgage relief that might translate into rent flexibility for tenants.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suspended all foreclosures and eviction actions on mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) for 60 days, beginning March 18.
The government-sponsored mortgage company Freddie Mac announced on Tuesday that it was requiring landlords not to evict any tenant based solely on non-payment of rent during mortgage forbearance periods, which the company expanded up to 12 months in early March. A statement said that the company anticipates this providing relief for up to 4.2 million renters and 27,000 properties nationwide.
On Wednesday, members of Nevada’s congressional delegation sent a letter asking Nevada’s leading mortgage services — including Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America, Citi, US Bank Home Mortgage — not to initiate or finalize any foreclosure proceedings “that would lead to a patient, impacted individual, or their family’s eviction during the pandemic.”
For homeowners not covered by those HUD directives, the Nevada Bankers Association encourages borrowers who are at risk of foreclosure to contact their lenders about mortgage assistance and accommodations such as fee waivers, loan payment deferments, interest-free loans, forbearance and pausing some credit card collections efforts.
Confusion surrounding eviction proceedings
At courts that have not stayed evictions, tenants do not know whether they should file a response to an eviction notice online or even if they will be called to an online court hearing, Gertken said. She added that part of the issue with having court hearings online is that some tenants may not have a computer or internet access and any locations offering these resources are closed because of COVID-19.
Although landlords cannot force a tenant out of a unit without a court order, residents might not know their rights.
“That's part of the problem with these ad hoc orders; getting the word out to tenants is really important right now. And I don't think it's happening on a really good scale in terms of what the court's new processes are and what's happening with the evictions,” Gertken said.
She urged those facing eviction to reach out to her offices and others offering legal support.
“It is really important that people understand that if they get an eviction notice they do have the right to contest that in court,” she said. “I would just encourage people — reach out to your landlords, reach out to the court. I know it's frustrating. I just hope that we're all going to get through this as a community.”
J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of ACTIONN, an organization that signed the petition, said he hopes officials will address confusion over rent and evictions in a clear and forthright way sooner rather than later.
“The beginning of next month is when we're going to start getting what, seems like a huge spike in the amount of letters going out because next week is probably the first week people who are out of work won't have a paycheck,” he said. “It's the first time people might not be able to cover rent and they could get evicted because of failure to pay.”
Making ends meet
In an interview, Reno City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus said that she received a “fair amount of emails” from residents and small business owners who were concerned about not being able to make rent or cover utilities.
Fortunately for residents, water authorities, Southwest Gas and internet companies statewide have said they would temporarily pause disconnections for non-payment.
But an eviction could prompt someone to couch-surf or carry out an involved move to transition into more affordable housing.
“They're re-forming households at a time that we're supposed to be very stable and isolated in our households,” she said. “On a similar vein with the business closures coming in, if a landlord thought they were going to get a unit vacated and prepped and leased up and showed, that’s not at all following [health] guidance either.”
Even in cases where landlords are trying to work out compromises, tenants are worried how long the goodwill will last, and how their health is on the line.
Boschnee Erler has a compromised immune system and is a single mother of two teenagers. She works two jobs — a full-time position at Reno Orthopedic Clinic and a part-time job at a local gym to help pay for medical insurance.
On March 10, she was hospitalized for pneumonia and had to tap into the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which holds the jobs of full-time employees and offers leave, albeit unpaid.
Her landlord is open to discussing a plan to avoid eviction proceedings, but Erler is worried about how she will make ends meet.
“I live paycheck to paycheck. I don't have a savings account. I don't have credit cards that I can fall back and rely on. My rent is $950 a month ... my part-time job has laid off all part-time employees,” Erler said. “I don't have a plan B.”
One of her fears is becoming homeless during the pandemic, getting sick and not having any way to take care of her family.
“Short or more long term, the only thing I can think of to do is just to get back to work at it by any means necessary,” she said. “And if I fall sick again, then that's a chance that I have to take because I don't have another option.”
Gertken said officials will need to take a “holistic approach” to combat this public health crisis — from local governments providing temporary housing for the unsheltered, to renters working with tenants on a case-by-case basis.
“Letting people stay in their homes is much more impactful for what we're going through right now than allowing people to be displaced and potentially spread this pandemic virus to the entire community,” she said.