Evictions in Las Vegas are an urgent policy problem
By Hugh Jackson
More than 30,000 renters were evicted from their homes in Clark County in 2016, a 43 percent increase from the number of evictions recorded in 2009, according to data compiled by the Las Vegas Justice Court.
graph Source: Las Vegas Justice Court
That works out to 82 evictions every day. But the actual number of evictions in the county was likely double that, or more. Most evictions never come to the attention of courts, and so don't show up in the data, according to lawyers, renters' advocates, and the apartment industry.
On the bright side, after skyrocketing earlier this decade, the eviction growth rate appears to be leveling off.
But with roughly 350,000 rental units in the county, as estimated by the Census Bureau's 2015 American Community Survey, 30,000 evictions would mean about one out of 11 renters were tossed from their homes in 2016. If those familiar with the eviction process are right, and a majority of evictions are not recorded by courts, the actual number of Las Vegas area evictions exceeded 60,000, and the eviction ratio was, at the least, one out of six renters.
In his groundbreaking study "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," published last year, sociologist Matthew Desmond brought attention to a national eviction epidemic that tosses millions of people from housing each year, eating away at the prosperity, stability and health of families and communities. The eviction crisis is not unique to Southern Nevada.
Yet evictions appear to be more pronounced in Clark County than in the rest of the nation. Eviction statistics are not tracked in the U.S. (the Census Bureau was planning to begin doing so this year). But national real estate firm Redfin recently estimated eviction rates for 31 metropolitan areas. In that study, the Las Vegas metro area eviction rate ranked second only to that of Newark, New Jersey, and proved more than twice as high as most metros in the study.
"A lightning-fast process"
There are a lot of reasons why Southern Nevada's eviction rate is among the nation's highest.
The transiency of Southern Nevada’s population has long been a convenient explanation for everything from crime to poverty to educational performance.
Yet there is no doubt that in good times and in bad, Las Vegas is a place where a lot of people come, and a lot of people go. “When you go, sometimes you skip out on the rent if you are poor,” said Barbara Buckley, the former Assembly speaker who directs the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, and thus knows both how eviction law was made and how it's executed. If someone skips, the landlord may file an eviction case with the court because it can be more easily resolved than an issue of abandonment, Buckley said in an email exchange.
As for renters who don't skip, they are subject to what Buckley described as "one of the quickest eviction laws in the nation."
Once a tenant is behind, a landlord can issue a 5-day notice to pay up or get out. If the renter challenges the notice in court within those five days, a court official will issue a ruling. The overwhelming majority of those rulings favor the landlord. And they come quick, usually the very same day if not within a matter of hours, at which point the renter has 24 hours to vacate.
Upon receiving a 5-day notice, most renters just do that anyway, often to avoid a court filing that damages their credit and makes it hard to rent elsewhere, said Susy Breckon, the executive director of the Nevada Apartment Association.
In other words, most evictions are speedy, and most don't show up in the data.
“It’s a lightning-fast process,” said Jon Sasser, a long-time advocate and lobbyist for renters’ rights. Legislation has been introduced to extend the time frame at least three times over the last 30 years, and failed every time, Sasser said. He is unaware of any plan to try to reform the eviction process in the 2017 legislative session.
Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, have yet to unveil their 2017 legislative policy "blueprint."
Asked via Twitter message if the party's policy agenda will address evictions, Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford said, "I don't know yet how that stacks up to the priorities we've heard from Nevadans. If it's high enough, it certainly will be. If not, if won't make the blueprint." Individual legislators might have bills addressing the issue, Ford added.
The rent is too damned high - and the pay is too damned low
Even if the state reformed the eviction process to make it more tenant-friendly, that would not address what Buckley and others identify as the paramount factor driving Clark County’s eviction rate: The combination of poverty and a lack of affordable housing
On average, the poorest one-fourth of working Southern Nevadans earn $10.86 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even assuming a 40-hour work week - an increasingly unsafe assumption in the era of "flexible" schedules and "gig" economics - that's a gross pay of $1,738 a month.
The Lied Institute at UNLV estimates the average monthly rent in the Las Vegas metro area was $900 last year, slightly higher than the pre-crash peak in 2007 - and 21 percent higher than a post-crash low in 2013. The Census Bureau's 2015 American Community Survey estimated Clark County's median rent - the amount at which half of all rents are lower and half are higher - at $1,000.
Families have more than one earner. Roommates share costs. But the old rule of thumb that says you shouldn't spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing is, well, old, and far from a rule anymore, especially for the poor, who, research shows, typically pay at least half their income on rent. Towncharts.com, an online data collator, estimates that a quarter of all Southern Nevada renters - the poorest quarter, presumably - pays more than half their gross income on housing.
The Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority operates some 2,900 public housing units in Southern Nevada, and also administers the federal Housing Choice Vouchers Program (commonly called Section 8). HCVP vouchers are designed to pay the balance of rent that exceeds that old standard of 30 percent of income.
About 10,000 Southern Nevada families get HCVA vouchers. Yet more than half of all Southern Nevada tenants - nearly 167,000 renters - pay more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent, according to the Census Bureau survey.
Nationally, many affordable housing advocates call for expanding the voucher program. But public housing assistance has been stigmatized for decades - to the delight and even with connivance of the the real estate and financial industries, some critics contend. And some reformers bristle because vouchers transfer wealth from the public to landlords.
Advocates also call for the construction of more public housing, as well as mandates requiring that developers of new housing must include a significant percentage of affordable units with restricted rents.
No one expects federal public housing programs to be strengthened during the presidency of a real estate developer. In fact, there is concern that Trump administration tax policies may effectively thwart the one affordable housing initiative the industry can get behind - tax credits.
So, like many other public policy priorities, if any progress will be made on affordable housing in the foreseeable future, it will be have to be made by state and local governments. That poses a potential clash between the state and local political culture's faith in "market solutions," on the one hand, and, on the other, what appears to be a failure of market economics to produce an efficient equilibrium between wages and housing costs.
"If there's a shooting, you're gone."
The Nevada Apartment Association's Breckon rejects the notion that the market has failed Nevada renters.
"We have a good amount of affordable housing" in Southern Nevada, she said, and people aren't as poor in the Las Vegas area as statistics indicate, because they make tips.
Rather than low wages and high rent, Breckon suggested several alternative factors that drive area evictions. For instance, the Southern Nevada apartment industry has very little tolerance for renters who don't adhere to the rules, from smoke to drugs to noise and, of course, crime. "If there's a shooting, you're gone."
Southern Nevada's lifestyle also drives evictions, Breckon said, noting that evictions can be the result of tenants' gambling problems. (This is an intriguing suggestion; however, having chronicled the gambling industry's studied efforts to gloss over the social and economic impacts of problem gambling on numerous occasions over the last 20 years, I can say with complete confidence that the impact of gambling on evictions is something both the gambling industry and Nevada's industry-friendly elected officials decidedly do not want to know.)
And a - maybe the - key reason people are evicted, Breckon said, is that they "never learned how to budget." Under the scenario she describes, people in Las Vegas, especially those who make most of their money in tips, too often fail to realize just how inconsistent that income can be. They fail to save, and spend more than they should on cars. A cocktail waitress might be making great money night after night, "but maybe she falls and breaks her ankle" and then her tip earnings disappear. "People think they can afford more than they can," Breckon said.
A downward spiral
The waitress, bartender, casino dealer and valet parking attendant earning a solid and even upper-middle class income thanks to tips is an enduring, and endearing, Las Vegas ideal, and it is still a reality for some. But in a metro area where the workforce numbers roughly 1 million people, and where the largest employment sectors include fast food, retail and janitorial, it no longer reflects the typical Southern Nevada worker, if it ever did.
A more convincing scenario is suggested by Desmond's scholarship on national eviction trends: Non-white single mothers with young children are the people most at risk of evictions. Given Southern Nevada's demographics and economy, that likelihood is even more pronounced here than in most other cities, and goes a long way toward explaining why the eviction rate in Las Vegas would be higher than it is elsewhere.
Lauren Pena sees the effect of evictions first hand. She's the directing attorney at the Civil Law Self-Help Center, a partnership between Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and the courts in Clark County. The center can't provide legal advice, but it does provide information, help people fill out forms, and refer people to other resources when they're wrestling with civil law issues.
The center saw about 60,000 people last year, Pena said, and at least half of them sought help in connection with an eviction.
The impact of eviction is often dramatic and disruptive, especially given Nevada's "super-expedited process," Pena said. She describes situations where people have been locked out of their apartments and can't retrieve their ID, or computer, their clothes for work, or even their medication. Once someone is evicted, their next landlord will want larger deposits - from someone who was just evicted because they couldn't afford to pay the rent. There are utilities and the other expenses of moving. A combination of material hardship and a quick, forced upending of people's lives can get people fired. "People can even be hospitalized," Pena said. "It affects everything."
Desmond, the author of "Evicted," describes the consequences of eviction as "many and multidimensional," including depression, illness and of course homelessness. And those consequences are often long-term, even generational, as residential instability "brings about other forms of instability - in families, schools, communities - compromising the life chances of adults and children."
Being evicted is not just "a trying yet relatively brief detour on life's journey" for poor families, Desmond writes, but a trauma that "fundamentally redirects their way ... Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty."
Evictions aren't sexy
There are no powerful campaign contributors whose influence assures the state's political establishment will protect the interests of low-income renters. No deep-pocketed donors are ladling out significant sums to mount a campaign or to lobby state and local politicians to address Nevada's eviction epidemic.
Low-income affordable housing is not gambling, guns or Gold Butte.
Or a stadium. Or a battery factory.
Last year, Gov. Brian Sandoval called legislators into a special session to raise $750 million for a football stadium. Two years earlier a special session unanimously approved $1.25 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for a battery factory.
There will be no special legislative session to address affordable housing. The Democratic "blueprint" is expected to call for a higher minimum wage and mandated paid sick leave, long overdue measures which do begin to address the failure of market economics to balance wages and rent. But according to the most powerful Democrat currently in state government, as of now, evictions and affordable housing haven't been identified as priorities, urgent or otherwise, in this year's regular legislative session.
If the pre-game analysis is accurate, the hot-button issue, the big "bargaining chip" of the legislative session, will be Sandoval's proposal to spend $60 million on vouchers - not to assist low-income Nevadans at risk of losing the roof over their children's heads, but to facilitate the growth of a market for almost entirely unmonitored private schools to serve what data indicates are families in high-income neighborhoods.
If, as everyone familiar with evictions says, the true tally of evictions in Clark County in 2015 was at least double the 30,000 that showed up in records, the number of renters and their families who were evicted in Southern Nevada is seven times the number of applications for those private school vouchers statewide.
An argument can be made (and Desmond makes it) that evictions and affordable housing are the most urgent yet most ignored public policy challenge facing the nation. By comparison, school vouchers seem a laughable priority - or they would be, if so much powerful political force wasn't preoccupied with that issue at the expense of others.
The most important question facing Nevada may be whether state and local governments will meet the dark challenges and mounting responsibilities to protect their constituents from a Trump presidency and single-party control of Washington, by, for instance, confronting poverty and housing, instead of spending public money to outsource public education to the private sector.
Neither the state of Nevada nor Clark County can get out in front of the eviction epidemic. It's too late for that. But in the age of Trump, if state and local officials don't work to enact solutions to a low-income housing crisis, there will be no solutions.
And the first step toward finding solutions is acknowledging the problem.
Despite reporting and writing about Nevada for 20 years, Hugh Jackson is surprisingly pleasant in person. He writes at Gleaner 2.0, where this column was originally published. Follow him on twitter @jhughjackson. Email: [email protected]