Calling all neighbors: Evictions can be confusing, but are not a foregone conclusion

As you may have seen, the CDC has issued a new eviction moratorium effective to October 1st. Some sort of state or federal moratorium has now existed for 518 days. $365 million in federal rental assistance has come to our state. Yet during the same timeframe, ­­­­­­­­­thousands of Nevada tenants have been evicted. How can this be? A major part of the answer is Nevada’s unique summary eviction law.

Deep into the pandemic, someone referred to me as a “state eviction expert.” I’m not sure about that but for the last year or so, a good portion of any given day for me was spent distilling complicated eviction laws for people who want help but couldn’t make sense of it all. So, let me try to explain it to you. If you’re anything like the vast majority of people I’ve walked through the process, your response upon learning it may be a variation of “That’s insane.”

I took a whole year of civil procedure in law school, only to learn that in the realm of evictions, those rules don’t apply. An eviction in Nevada starts when a landlord sends out an eviction notice, having it taped on the tenant’s door for everyone to see, even when the tenant may be as little as one dollar late on rent. No one oversees the landlord’s right to do this or even tracks that the notice went out. The tenant doesn’t know if it’s official or not, because there is no uniform statewide notice. Tenants then have just seven days (up until the 2019 legislative session, it was only four and a half days!) to figure out how to stop a train wreck. If not, they can be locked out of the place they sleep at night while all of their belongings are inside.

To prevent a lockout, tenants must figure out how to initiate a court case in their local Justice Court by filing an “Answer” to have an opportunity to be heard in court. It’s confusing. And it’s not really an answer, because it is the first piece of paper filed in court. Even those who didn’t take civil procedure in law school can understand why it doesn’t make sense to have an answer come first. Unlike everywhere else in Nevada law, tenants are essentially suing themselves for an opportunity to defend themselves.

The due process we might expect before a court can deprive you of your shelter and personal property is, well, conspicuously absent. The burden is squarely on the tenant, the person in crisis, who must correctly navigate the process just to ask for a hearing with the court within a few days — or lose that option. If the tenant receives an eviction notice and doesn’t file in time, the eviction can be quickly granted by default (without a hearing). The tenant finds out the eviction has been granted when the constable knocks on the door to effectuate the lockout. This is “Summary Eviction,” a beast that is unique to Nevada. Can you imagine packing up your entire life and securing new housing in this market in a matter of seven days? It’s impossible.

This is the pre-pandemic foundation of our housing structure. On Aug. 1, the CDC eviction moratorium was lifted. On Aug. 3, a new one was implemented. While they are incredibly valuable and undoubtedly save countless lives, when you apply them to Nevada, “moratorium” isn’t really the right word to use. When people hear “moratorium”, they think something is temporarily blocked from happening — but that’s not the case here. In Nevada, the burden to prevent the eviction is still on the tenant.

Throughout the “moratoriums” of the last 518 days, tenants had to quickly process this information and file an answer with the court to assert the defense that... a moratorium existed. If the tenant didn’t file an answer, because they heard the word “moratorium” and didn’t think they needed to do so, the ball kept rolling until the constable knocked on the door to lock them out of their home. Thousands of families in our state have been evicted in the middle of the pandemic because they wrongly believed they couldn’t be. The federal moratoriums don’t carry the weight they could in Nevada because no other state’s process works the way Nevada’s does.

There is some good news. The Legislature recently enacted AB486. The path forward laid out in this bill is careful, measured and makes good sense. The state received $365 million from the federal government in rental assistance. AB486 allows tenants, if and when they file that almighty Answer, to alert the court to the fact that they have a pending rental assistance application to stay the eviction case until the application is processed. This is absolutely critical for everyone involved, because if the eviction is granted before the landlord and tenant are approved for rental assistance, they become ineligible for that assistance per the federal treasury guidelines. The last thing we want is to revert that money back to the federal government while landlords are filing collection actions for arrears against tenants when there was assistance available all along. Effectively integrating available rental assistance into our eviction process keeps families housed, makes landlords whole, and prevents our courts and social safety nets from becoming overwhelmed.

You can help. We need to reach the hardest to reach people – those struggling to pay their bills, overwhelmed with learning the inscrutable language of eviction law in a matter of days, during one of the most stressful times in history. We need them to know that they should absolutely respond to any eviction notice they receive by filing an answer with the court; that they can elect mediation in the Answer; and that they should let the court know if they have a pending rental assistance application. 

Help is available. The Civil Law Self Help Center is inside the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas and can help people file answers. Direct people to their local legal aid provider. Tell them that there’s rental assistance available. Tell them there’s a plan. Tell them not to pack up and move away. Tell your neighbors you care.

AB486 makes much more sense than summary eviction. I can’t make that make sense, but because that’s the foundational structure of Nevada’s eviction laws, while a path forward has been cleared, we have to find people who are lost in the woods and help them find the path. And perhaps when we get out of the woods, we can have a long and meaningful conversation about the lessons we’ve learned — and where we should go from here.

Bailey Bortolin, Esq., is the statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director
for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.