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A row of homes as seen in Henderson on Sept. 3, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada must act swiftly to forestall a looming eviction crisis and secure federal funds to address housing discrimination and disparities. Fortunately, Nevada only needs to implement modest changes to access assistance. When the next legislative session begins, the Nevada Equal Rights Commission or “NERC” must also be empowered to work to combat housing discrimination and disparities.

NERC plays a key role in protecting Nevadans. It has long been a state leader in enforcing employment law protections. Despite its successes on the employment front, NERC has not been able, without critical funding, to enforce fair housing claims. Without NERC standing ready to prosecute fair housing cases locally, federal lawyers based in California are now litigating claims of housing discrimination in Nevada. 

Nevada should seek federal funds already made available to states to help rectify housing disparities through the Fair Housing Assistance Program or “FHAP.” This program provides technical assistance, funding for capacity building, training, equipment, and support for investigating and closing cases to agencies in participating states. Agencies in 36 states and Washington, D.C. already participate in this program. Nevada should stop leaving the money on the table.

Federal funds flow to states that meet the program’s two simple criteria. Fortunately, Nevada already satisfies the first criterion—adopting fair housing laws substantially equivalent to the federal Fair Housing Act. Our laws already provide the same protections as the federal statute.  Nevada only needs to meet the second criterion—investing in fair housing enforcement. If the state of Nevada were to make a modest investment in fair housing enforcement – including hiring housing investigators, litigators and mediators – it would unlock these additional federal funds.

Nevada should make this investment because so many Nevadans desperately need assistance.  We have been largely confined to our homes for nine months, seeking safety from a deadly virus while conducting school, work, worship, and social events from our kitchens and family rooms — and watching nationwide protests against the disparate policing of Black bodies. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us how much shelter matters and how access to affordable housing and good neighborhoods are, quite literally, essential to our survival and fundamental to helping our families thrive. 

Regrettably, access to affordable housing and healthy communities is not a guarantee for many Nevadans, particularly those of color. Today, for example, there is a shortage (of just under 80,000) homes available to Las Vegas Valley residents earning less than 50 percent of the median income. Without enough affordable housing, poor people of color pay the highest relative prices for shelter. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 44 percent of Black households and 40 percent of Latino households spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing as compared to 26 percent of white households in 2019.

To be sure, it may be challenging to think about committing additional funds to NERC during a time of fiscal austerity, but Nevada cannot afford not to fund fair housing enforcement. Leaving enforcement to federal lawyers in California leaves federal money on the table. It also situates enforcement outside the state and entrusts it to lawyers who cannot possibly know Nevada’s communities and challenges as well as local enforcement will. Tolerating housing discrimination also poses a real risk to our real estate market—massive evictions and sudden changes in housing supply could wreak havoc in our housing market, causing home prices to fall dramatically. 

But it’s not just smart fiscal and economic policy. Combatting housing discrimination offers an opportunity for the Legislature to make good on its 2020 resolution recognizing that “systemic racism and structures of racial discrimination constitute a public health crisis which is magnified by the disproportionately high impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and which affects the entire State of Nevada.” 

Funding fair housing enforcement is the right thing to do. Non-white families have long faced limited choices, dictated by government-imposed barriers, from unequal access to credit for people of color, to racially restrictive covenants that prohibited the sale of housing to nonwhite purchasers. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these structural barriers. Our country has always been an audacious experiment, one that attempts to bring together the many different people and groups that call America home. Helping NERC combat housing discrimination and foster housing opportunity in Nevada is an important local approach to this national challenge.

Ngai Pindell is a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law where he teaches State and Local Government Law and Property. He is also a commissioner on the Nevada Equal Rights Commission.

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