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When rentals aren’t livable, tenants’ remedies can be confusing, burdensome, and costly

Tenants and organizers with the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance speak ahead of an interim legislative committee hearing Thursday. (Credit: Michael Lyle/Nevada Current)

Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
March 1, 2024

When attorneys and housing justice organizers call for reforming how courts handle disputes between landlords and tenants, they often point to Nevada’s unique, and quick, summary eviction process, which puts the onus on tenants to first file with the courts.

Legal aid providers told lawmakers on Thursday summary evictions aren’t the only court issue and urged them to change laws around how renters address the habitability of the properties they are renting.

“We have people living in terrible circumstances that plead their cases, show evidence of roaches and sinks that don’t work, but the eviction is carried out,” said Jonathan Norman, the policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.

Lawmakers on the Joint Interim Committee on Commerce and Labor devoted a hearing Thursday to listening to state agencies and nonprofit providers about the housing crisis and efforts to prevent people from being pushed into homelessness. 

Ahead of the hearing, organizers with the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance held a rally to reiterate the struggle to afford rent and application fees. 

Organizers said things have only gotten worse since Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed several bills proposed during the 2023 Legislative session that offered tenant protections, reformed the eviction process, and regulated application and deposit fees.

“Gov. Lombardo, at the end of last session, had every available option and power to support tenants and address Nevada’s eviction-to-homelessness pipeline we currently have,” said Ben Iness, the coalition coordinator with the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance. “This housing crisis is not normal. (Lawmakers) cannot just wait passively for it to fix itself or resolve itself.”

Norman, once again, called on lawmakers during the hearing to change the summary eviction process to ensure landlords file first with the court, instead of ruling for landlords by default unless tenants seek relief from the court first. 

And while they’re at it, lawmakers need to reform laws that disadvantage tenants when landlords fail to keep the properties they’re renting livable.

Nick Haley, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, reminded lawmakers that current law considers essential services to be air conditioning and heat, a locking front door, and a functional kitchen and drains. 

“It’s essentially anything you can’t live without for any period of time,” he said of essential services a landlord must provide. 

When a tenant notifies a landlord these essentials are lacking, the landlord has 48 hours to respond, not including weekends and holidays. 

If there isn’t a response, tenants can leave the property, try to resolve the issue independently or file a complaint with the court for expedited relief. 

One issue with the law, Haley said, is that tenants only have a short, five-day window to file the complaint. Once it closes, it can’t be reopened. 

“People often exceed the five days before they are aware of this remedy,” Haley said.  

‘Depositing rent anyway’

Current law also addresses “habitability” issues –  “things that are a little more long-term and affect quality of life certainly, but they are considered nonessential,” he added.

Those conditions can include black mold and a leaky ceiling. Landlords have 14 days to respond once they receive a complaint. 

In either case, if a tenant withholds rent, Nevada law requires the renter to put it in an escrow account within the court. 

The process can be burdensome, confusing, and extremely financially challenging – for tenants, Haley said. 

“Most of the people we see are not in the situation to deposit the rent because at this point they might be displaced or spending that money they would pay on rent for other things such as a temporary air conditioning or a space heater for their home,” Haley said. “They don’t have the money for rent because they are dealing with the issue that was wrong in the first place.”

Yet, the landlord can still send renters a “pay or quit” eviction notice, even when the habitability issues aren’t resolved. 

Norman said people often show up to court with photos showing where they live is “in terrible disrepair and say ‘your honor, I wanna show you these pictures.’” 

“The judge and the hearing officer will look at those pictures, but that is not a defense to the eviction,” he said. “So the eviction is granted.”

Judges, he added, are following state law.

But even for people who do deposit their rent in the designated court accounts, it could take months for it to go to trial. 

Meanwhile, the underlying problem with the property isn’t being resolved. 

“You not only have a nonpayment court case levied against you, you’re depositing rent anyway even though you’re not getting the benefit of the bargain with your apartment and the process can stretch out for months,” he said. 

Thursday wasn’t the first time lawmakers heard from tenants, advocacy groups and service providers about the ongoing housing and homeless crisis. 

For several sessions, groups have proposed housing reforms to address the decreasing supply of affordable, and available, housing as well as issues tenants face when seeking rental units. 

While Democratic lawmakers pushed through a variety of bills last session – though many were vetoed – several were failed proposals from past sessions, including some that faced apprehension from Democratic leadership such as a 2021 bill that sought to reign in application fees. 

Many speaking at Thursday’s rally, and during public comment, warned the housing problem is only getting worse. 

“So many landlords are collecting application fees from people they will never rent to,” said Noemi Guigui, tenant organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “A hundred dollars here or $200 there. Those are brutal when you’re already struggling to afford rent.” 

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.