Lawmakers accept $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan funds; approve millions for homeowner assistance, education programs

State lawmakers have formally approved accepting Nevada’s $2.7 billion share of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, while also approving a slew of initial spending programs including more than $50 million to help low-income Nevadans pay for housing.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee met Tuesday to authorize the governor’s office to accept the full ARP allotment and designate allocations of more than $76 million in federal aid programs, including $39.5 million in rental assistance, $12.1 million in homeowner assistance and $13.9 million for the Department of Education to ensure federal relief funds are properly administered.

Tuesday’s meeting — the first interim meeting of legislators since the regular 120-day session ended last month — also served to outline how lawmakers and the governor’s office plan to spend the multibillion-dollar federal windfall. 

The vote taken by lawmakers (which also funds the $5 million in vaccine incentive prizes announced by the state last week) will place the federal dollars into an executive budget account, which lawmakers said they will use similarly to a reserve account and to fund proposed programs after gathering additional public input. The state set up an online portal to accept spending ideas from members of the public, members of executive branch agencies and state lawmakers, and IFC Chair Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said it has received about 1,000 submissions since it opened in April.

Lawmakers stressed that the votes on Tuesday were not intended to leapfrog other priorities for the federal funds — including legislation passed just weeks ago requiring the state to spend $335 million of the allotment to pay back money borrowed from the federal government to sustain unemployment benefits and $54 million to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system.

“This is the agreement that we have, and we just want to make sure it's very clear to folks that we can walk and chew gum and fix two or three problems at the same time,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during the meeting.

Brooks said that the $2.7 billion was only a portion of the estimated $7 billion total in federal monies coming to the state in the form of direct grants to school districts, counties and cities, and myriad other programs. With all the different pots of money, he said lawmakers “want to make sure that there's no waste, and that it's going to the best and highest use, and there's no duplication.”

Here’s a look at some of the major funding allocations made by the committee on Tuesday:

Homeowner assistance program

Programs to help tenants catch up on rent have been up and running for the last year, but a vote on Tuesday gets the ball rolling on an entirely new, $121 million program to support struggling homeowners.

The Homeowner Assistance Fund is targeted toward property owners who have faced hardship since late January 2020 or after on account of the pandemic. Because the state needs time to set up a portal and put the project out to bid, it will probably take at least 90 days before applications are accepted.

Instead of being disbursed through the state and local government agencies, the fund will be managed by the Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation, which previously had been administering money from the U.S. Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund that supported 18 states affected most by the Great Recession.

The Hardest Hit Fund was a $200 million program that ultimately supported about 8,000 individual homeowners. The new Homeowner Assistance Fund is expected to help about 6,800 households.

Carlton said federal COVID-19 aid had previously been reserved to help renters pay their landlords, on the understanding that tenants were exposed to the more immediate effects of the pandemic and mortgage forbearance initiatives would relieve pressure on homeowners. But she said many homeowners have been asking for assistance.

“Seeing a program come forward for homeowners is very gratifying,” she said.

Lawmakers approved spending 10 percent of the allotment to get the program up and running, with plans to build out technology infrastructure and ramp up staffing at the corporation that officials say is operating with a skeleton crew. The first initiatives are expected to be the Unemployment Mortgage Assistance Program — which would bring homeowners who are receiving unemployment benefits current on payments and help support a monthly payment — as well as a Mortgage Reinstatement Assistance Program geared toward people who have returned to work and need to get current with payments to avoid a foreclosure.

The unemployment program is expected to be capped at $54,000 per recipient, with the reinstatement program capped at $35,000 per recipient. But officials are eyeing a complete program limit of $100,000 per recipient, with the understanding that the program might evolve over time and people also could need principal reduction. 

Officials plan to get the word out through partnerships with housing counseling agencies, legal aid organizations and more than 100 mortgage servicers. The outreach involves coordinated mail campaigns that put special emphasis on hard-hit areas.

The program is expected to last for about five years. Some lawmakers questioned whether the estimated $17 million in administrative costs for the program was too high; officials said the costs stem from the complexity of complying with U.S. Treasury guidelines and the fact that applicants may need widely varying amounts of money.

Preparing for education spending

The committee also approved a round of allocations of ARP funds for the Department of Education that included nearly $14 million to ensure that federal relief funds for K-12 schools are properly administered.

“This is a whole new world for us,” said Carlton, who also serves as vice chair of the committee. “So we just want to be able to build in some of that transparency and ongoing communication between the department and IFC on how these dollars are spent in the future.”

In order to ensure the department’s spending of ARP funds is in compliance with guidance from the U.S. Treasury, the agency plans to use $431,000 of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire an “education programs supervisor,” who will help oversee the rollout of ARP funds over the coming years.

The additional funds for the department will go toward other temporary positions aimed at supporting the administration of ARP funds, as well as a few other small programs, including $400,000 to help the department in its transition to the new funding formula.

However, one project included within the department’s allocation of ARP funds was hotly contested during the meeting — a request for $10 million to contract with an external auditor who would help ensure the department remains compliant with ESSER and ARP requirements.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the audit would be needed and how long the contract would take, while others expressed concern over giving the agency the full $10 million for a multiyear contract when the department still needs to reach an agreement with a third party to complete the audit.

“We totally appreciate the audit function,” Carlton said. “Not with the Department of Education, but with other departments, we've had problems where we've given it all to them and found out at the end that none of it worked. And we ended up in a lawsuit, and we had to fund it all over again.”

The committee settled on allocating $5 million for the contract, with plans for the department to come back to the committee when it needs the rest of the funding for the audit contract.

The IFC additionally approved $1.8 million for the department with the goal of identifying and supporting the needs of homeless students.

However, IFC Chair Chris Brooks questioned the breakdown of that allocation across different county school districts. The breakdown was not available for public viewing.

“Why does Carson City — a population of 50,000 people — get $170,000 and Clark (County) — population of two-point-something million — get roughly twice that $342,000?” Brooks asked.

Seng-Dao Yang Keo, director of the Office of Student and School Supports for the department, explained that districts are awarded the grants competitively based on a variety of factors that include percentage of youth who are homeless and county capacity for serving those youth, which is why “one might see the disproportionality.”

Through ARP funding for homeless children and youth, the state will eventually be getting another round of funding of nearly $5.3 million to support that same population.

Other allocations

The committee approved a wide swath of work programs during the Tuesday meeting, including a few smaller allocations of ARP funding.

One allocation of federal funds will grant the Nevada Arts Council nearly $800,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to help support non-profit arts organizations and individual artists as they recover from the pandemic.

The committee also approved $2.7 million to improve access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by bolstering the infrastructure of the program, which includes expanding the program’s call center capacity and reducing call center wait times. The allocation is meant to ensure benefits can better reach underserved communities.

Another allocation of a little more than $100,000 in ARP funds, along with more than $200,000 in CARES Act funding, will go towards setting up the Office of Small Business Advocacy, which was established by AB184 during the 2021 legislative session. The office is meant to provide assistance directly to small businesses owners, including connecting those owners directly to economic relief programs.

After some discussion, committee members approved an allocation of around $2.5 million in federal funds aimed at addressing health disparities among at-risk and underserved populations. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) commended the Department of Health and Human Services’ ability to coordinate and work with a variety of stakeholders during the pandemic, but noted that “we also want to do a better job specifically on health equity, specifically on disparate impact.” 

DHHS officials responded that the department is looking at continuing to fund its Office of Minority Health and Equity and support its Minority Health and Equity Coalition. Tina Dortch with the office of Minority Health and Equity said that the office has been cultivating relationships in minority communities and will keep working with those communities. Dortch added that the additional funding will allow staff to continue to develop those relationships and build out existing programming.

Legislators on the committee also approved allocating $283,000 to the Department of Motor Vehicles for computer programming costs associated with legislation approved in the 2021 session, including measures decriminalizing traffic tickets (AB116), changes to special license plates for the Las Vegas Golden Knights (AB123) and the “Divine Nine” Black sororities and fraternities (SB163) and prohibiting the suspension of driver license fees by a court over unpaid fees or fines (SB219).

Updated on June 24, 2021 at 8:25 a.m. to correct the amount of funding allocated to the DMV for implementation of bills passed by the 2021 Legislature.

Ford joins 22 other attorneys general in urging Supreme Court to uphold eviction moratorium

With two weeks left before the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford is fighting for the U.S. Supreme Court to maintain the nationwide pause on evictions ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

On Friday, Ford joined a coalition of 23 fellow Democratic attorneys general in issuing an amicus or “friend-of-the-court” brief asking the high court to maintain the CDC’s order prohibiting evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In their amicus brief, the attorneys general argued that the moratorium should remain in place because eliminating the ban would “irreparably harm the states,” Ford’s office said. The attorneys general added in the brief that with roughly half of U.S. adults still unvaccinated and children under the age of 12 still ineligible to receive the vaccine, removing the ban could cause cases to surge across the country. 

In March 2020, Congress passed COVID-19 relief legislation that included an eviction moratorium for certain rental properties. When that legislation expired in July 2020, the CDC issued an eviction moratorium order that was originally set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020 but has been extended multiple times since then. 

Opponents of the ban, including property owners, managers and trade associations, want to resume evictions. A federal district court judge based in Washington, D.C. ruled in May in Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, et al. that the CDC does not have the authority to order a national eviction ban, but granted the government’s request to postpone enforcement of the court’s decision until reviewed and ruled upon by a court of appeals. 

After the appeals court denied the plaintiffs’ request to cancel the lower court’s decision, the plaintiffs brought their request to the Supreme Court. 

In their amicus brief, the attorneys general argued that the CDC has the authority to issue the ban because it concerns the “public health” of the nation. Lifting the ban would not only harm individuals at risk of eviction, but also would put their communities at risk, they argued. In addition, the coalition said that eliminating the order would “throw state COVID-19 responses into disarray” and that COVID-19, being a nationwide pandemic, requires a national response such as the CDC’s order. 

“According to the CDC, as many as 30-40 million American renters are at risk of eviction, and at least four million are at ‘imminent risk,’” the amicus brief said.

In a July 2020 study, the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, in partnership with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project (CEDP), projected that had the moratorium not been extended, every county in Nevada would have been likely to experience an increase in evictions, with Clark County projected to see 249,700 people at risk of eviction.

State lawmakers recently passed AB486, which aims to speed up the backlogged process of distributing hundreds of millions of dollars of federal rental assistance. Maintaining the ban on evictions would give state and local governments more time to distribute payments to their residents, the attorneys general argued in the amicus brief.

Among the groups that are most vulnerable to COVID-19, those most likely to be harmed by a decision to lift the ban include persons of color and low-income people, according to a September 2020 study conducted by the Guinn Center. Americans at risk of eviction are also disproportionately unlikely to be vaccinated, according to the amicus brief. 

Nevada had its own state-level eviction moratorium in place for much of the pandemic, but “the state moratorium will not be extended past the end of May,” Gov. Steve Sisolak has said.

In addition to the immediate impacts of extending protections for tenants for two more weeks, the decision on the ban also could affect the White House’s response to a public health crisis in the future, Lindsay Wiley, professor of law at American University and a public health law and ethics expert, told Law360

Ford’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether potential long-term effects on the executive branch influenced his decision to join the coalition two weeks before it is set to expire.

“Americans need help, and that’s the bottom line,” said Ford in the recent statement. “While businesses are reopening, it will take time for those struggling to get back on their feet.”

‘Measured’ eviction prevention bill draws ire of property managers and landlords

As Nevada’s eviction moratorium comes to a close, a recently introduced bill aimed at ensuring tenants are connected with rental assistance faced opposition Monday from property managers, who argued that the measure disproportionately favors tenants and could prove ruinous for landlords across the state.

During a joint hearing of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committee, lawmakers presented AB486, which aims at avoiding an eviction cliff once moratoriums are gone after June 30. Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said the legislation seeks to integrate the rental assistance program into the state’s eviction and mediation process, ensure that people have access to neutral third parties to settle disputes and provide greater assistance to smaller “mom-and-pop” landlords who may not be able to access federally funded rental assistance. 

“Assembly Bill 486 [is] a measured plan that balances the interest and pressing needs of all Nevadans to ensure tenants are able to maintain their housing, landlords are able to be made whole and our courts and social services systems aren't overwhelmed,” Yeager said.

Clark County’s housing assistance program has helped about 27,000 households to date, averaging about 1,000 a week, even though it has enough funding to support 40,000. It has a backlog of 9,000 applicants, down from the 20,000 reported at the end of last year, possibly as a result of the assistance program having new income and documentation requirements. 

Trade groups representing property owners came out in strong opposition against the measure. Their opposition was summed up by Southern Nevada property manager Molly Hamrick, who said the bill would only serve to “keep landlords from providing a product in the marketplace that tenants desperately need.” 

“It has been a struggle to get many of our tenants to apply for rental assistance, much less respond to us. We know that both landlords and tenants alike have found it very difficult to navigate the governor's directives, the eviction moratorium and local ordinances to determine what applies to them, and when it applies,” Hamrick said. “The legislative changes this session will only confuse matters worse.”

The $360 million in federal rental assistance left in Nevada is generally out of reach for tenants who make more than 80 percent of the area median income, or the midpoint of a region’s income distribution, and tenants must be involved in the process to secure the funds, which ultimately are sent to the landlord. The bill includes a separate $5 million allocation aimed at providing a safety net for small landlords who may be falling into a “doughnut hole” of support.

“So if for whatever reason, there's a tenant who is not being responsive, and we cannot get them to be responsive through the eviction mediation process,” Treasurer Zach Conine said, “what we wanted to create was a safety net for small landlords starting at $5 million. That if nothing else works, we could still try and make them whole.” 

One of the goals of the legislation, Conine said, is to be able to reach the tenants that may be unresponsive to their landlords, to find a middle ground through the mediation process and get all the Emergency Rental Assistance money the state received “out the door,” instead of burning too quickly through the $5 million slated in the bill. 

Under the bill, any eviction proceedings would be required to go through mediation to ensure that rental assistance dollars are used and that landlords and tenants can resolve cases out of court whenever possible. 

Conine said that it is critical to pass the legislation because landlords and tenants are only eligible for assistance before an eviction takes place. Integrating the rental assistance process into the individual eviction mediation cases will ensure that landlords don’t lose out on payment, he said.

The bill offers landlords with unresponsive tenants the opportunity to collect 75 percent of the rent that is in arrears in exchange for not evicting the tenant for 90 days. Opponents said that provision would “deprive” landlords of their property rights and the $5 million set aside in the bill is not sufficient to make up for lost rent. 

“Simply put, AB486 is an impairment of a landlord's right to contract and a violation of due process as a deprivation of property rights,” Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, said during the meeting. “The $5 million dedicated to fund this bill is a drop in the bucket – the apartment association is bleeding over $17 million a month in rental arrears.”

A major provision of the bill allows tenants to use a landlord’s refusal to accept rental assistance money as an affirmative defense in an eviction proceeding. If the measure passes, courts would be required to dismiss eviction proceedings if a tenant receives rental assistance while proceedings are underway or if a landlord refused to accept rental assistance on behalf of the tenant. 

Courts would also be authorized to impose civil penalties on a landlord found to have wrongfully evicted a tenant and would also require the landlord to pay a plaintiff’s costs and attorney fees.

A friendly amendment proposed by Yeager and attached to the bill would make the bill effective as soon as it is passed, something supporters say is needed because the state-level moratorium ends June 1 and the original July 1 effective date would have been too late. It would also expand the protection to apply to all nonpayment evictions, both rapid “summary” evictions and formal unlawful detainer civil actions.

Supporters said that the measure will help to smooth out confusion and delays when connecting landlords with federal dollars available through rental assistance, and that the bill will help smaller landlords.

“This bill will ensure that we don't leave a single federal dollar on the table for rental assistance. It will also make sure that there's no tenant who gets evicted when there are funds available to keep them in their homes,” Conine said. 

Holly Wellborn of the ACLU of Nevada testified in support of the bill, saying the bill is necessary as a response to the “impending eviction crisis.”

“This crisis affects all Nevadans but the history of toxic and discriminatory housing policies and the persistent racially exclusionary practices caused this crisis to disproportionately impact people of color,” Wellborn said. “This bill is necessary to ensure that vulnerable residents do not fall off the cliff of an eviction crisis.”

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

As end of the eviction moratorium nears, lawmakers unveil bill aimed at ensuring rental assistance gets used

With rental assistance programs slow to get money out the door and the clock running out on eviction moratoriums, lawmakers on Thursday dropped a much-anticipated bill aimed at creating a “glide path” to prevent a wave of evictions when prohibitions lift.

The bill, AB486, comes amid reports that landlords are declining to accept rental assistance because of strings attached with doing so — such as a prohibition on evicting a tenant for a certain period of time after receiving the money. Treasurer Zach Conine, whose office is involved in administering the $365 million in federal rental assistance the state has received, said delays in connecting landlords, tenants and the money have emerged amid conflicting interests and motivations.

“Say you own a home that’s a rental home. That home's value has increased, perhaps exponentially, over the last couple of years. And so if you have a renter who's behind on the rent, or even if they're current on their rent, you might want that asset back so you can sell it,” Conine said. “Now, that's obviously in a bit of conflict with what the government's goal here is, just to keep people safe and keep people in their homes.”

Proponents of the bill have described their work in recent weeks as a way to slow the eviction process enough such that tenants can be matched with assistance dollars so the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid is put to use and not reverted to the government. 

“In late March, I extended the eviction moratorium for a final time and promised to work with the Legislature toward a solution that will help both landlords and tenants as we approach the end of the moratorium,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement after the bill was introduced. “This proposed legislation will help ensure federal rental assistance makes its way to the tenants and landlords who need it and will also provide an opportunity for eligible small landlords to apply for and access rental assistance directly.”

Though Clark County’s rental assistance fund is thought to be enough to help 40,000 households, applications are only being approved at a pace of about 1,000 per week; 27,000 have been approved in the county since the program began last July, according to Assistant County Manager Kevin Schiller.

Schiller said the Clark County CARES Housing Assistance Program is looking to receive a third round of funding to continue rental assistance and rehousing efforts. The program administered $92 million in aid in the first round, and right now is working with $160 million.

A major provision of the bill allows tenants to use a landlord’s refusal to accept rental assistance money as an affirmative defense in an eviction proceeding.

Under the bill, a court would be required to dismiss eviction proceedings if a tenant receives rental assistance while proceedings are underway or if a landlord refused to accept rental assistance on behalf of the tenant. Courts would also be authorized to impose civil penalties on a landlord found to have wrongfully evicted a tenant and also would require the landlord to pay a plaintiff’s costs and attorney fees.

The measure also seeks to address the requirement that a tenant must apply for aid, and that a landlord cannot apply on their behalf, even though the money eventually ends up with the landlord. The bill sets up a process for determining whether a landlord is eligible for rental assistance, stipulating that state-affiliated nonprofit Home Means Nevada would create an electronic form that landlords can fill out if they want to receive rental assistance on behalf of tenants who defaulted on rental payment. 

To receive rental assistance, the bill specifies that a landlord must meet the following criteria:

  • Own a single family residence
  • Seek rental assistance for at least one dwelling unit in the single family residence
  • Lives in Nevada or employs a property manager in the state
  • Has an annual gross revenue from all rental units in Nevada of less than $4 million.

Once Home Means Nevada determines that a landlord is eligible to receive assistance, the organization would forward the information to an appropriate housing or social service agency that would then attempt to connect with the tenant.

On the condition that the state receives federal funding on or after July 1, as expected, the bill would also require the state to disburse $5 million dollars of that money for additional rental assistance. The goal is that that allotment would have fewer restrictions than money pre-designated for rental assistance from the federal government — particularly over the requirements that tenants be involved.

“We were trying to figure out a funding source that was going to not have the restrictions that the rental assistance does for those cases when landlords have tenants aren't being responsive,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas). “So that there's a pot of money for them when they say, ‘look I would accept … the money and not evict, but I can't get the tenant to engage.'”

The problem that landlords and tenants are not always cooperating in the process of soliciting assistance was acknowledged recently by the Biden administration. The U.S. Treasury has issued guidance aimed at working around the hitch by requiring rental assistance dollars to be given directly to tenants if landlords choose not to cooperate and emphasizing that aid could be used to get a tenant set up in a new home rather than only to keep them in the same living situation.

Schiller said Clark County is working to keep landlords informed and engaged with the rental assistance and eviction prevention programs by holding town hall meetings. Landlords now also have the option to use a portal to submit documentation, which Schiller said would help to expedite payment. 

“When we reviewed our initial rental assistance program … the fact that landlords have to put in their vendor information and their W-9s, confidentiality is a key issue in that,” Schiller said at a press conference announcing an eviction prevention program in Clark County that will be a collaborative effort between local and state entities. “We actually did I.T. upgrades to support that portal so they can do that independent of those applicants, which tends to be a barrier to expediting payment in the process.” 

Many other housing measures have died during the session amid vocal opposition from real estate agents and landlord groups, with Democratic lawmakers pegging their hopes on the forthcoming bill as a path forward on the issue. A bill to ban rapid “summary evictions,” AB161, was downgraded to a study on the practice, with bill sponsor Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) saying the volatile housing climate was not suited to major changes in eviction law.

Another tenant protection measure that passed out of the Senate on a party-line vote with Republicans in opposition, SB218, would have strengthened tenants’ rights to reclaim their security deposits and would have limited landlords to charging an application fee to no more than one prospective tenant at a time. But the bill died without a hearing in the Assembly.

Some protections survived, including a bill, AB308, enshrining in law a three-day grace period before landlords can charge late fees for overdue rent.

Meanwhile, Clark County officials prepare for the moratorium to end by establishing an eviction prevention program, a collaborative effort between the county, the CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP), Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Home Means Nevada and the justice courts of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson. 

When tenants who are served an eviction notice file a response with the court, that will trigger a process that involves a Clark County case worker reaching out to them, guiding them through a rental assistance application and connecting them with other resources as needed.

“Now in the next couple of months, Legal Aid Center, as part of this plan, will be focusing on outreach to tenants. We have been doing our best over the last year to get the message to tenants about what they need to do to protect themselves from eviction,” Jim Berchtold of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada said in the press conference, adding that the outreach efforts will be in multiple languages. 

The program is expected to continue past the pandemic to treat housing needs that may follow. 

“We're anticipating a wave of evictions with the roll off June 1. We just don't know what the size of that wave is … But we know we're going to have to rehouse people, there will be evictions,” Schiller said. “We know there's a wave coming, our goal is to get as many life rafts in the water as possible… this will not be a short-term process but a long-term process.”

Updated at 5:56 p.m. on 5/20/21 to add comments from Yeager, Schiller, Berchtold and Sisolak.

Sparks fly between lawmakers during discussion on broad housing protection measure

Every year, former prisoners participate in state-sponsored reentry programs and receive aid to help them transition into life outside of incarceration, but that help is all for naught if they cannot find housing, Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) said.

Her comments came Thursday during a heated Assembly Government Affairs Committee hearing of her bill, SB254, a wide-ranging measure aimed at strengthening anti-discrimination housing protections for formerly incarcerated individuals.

"There is a right to housing," Neal said. "It is in the best interest of the state to engage in this public policy and to take state action in regards to fairness and fundamental access to the ability to have a roof over your head."

The proposed legislation has attracted many opponents, including Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite), who pushed back against Neal's arguments and said homeowners and landlords have property rights that the government must protect.

"There are cases where we should protect people's right to housing. But these people made a choice to break the law," Black said. "And I believe that we don't have a place to tell a private property owner who they can and can't rent to, whether we have done that historically or we haven't."

Neal countered, saying that the bill does not infringe on property rights and highlighted past cases of redlining and other examples of denied housing for people based on their skin color. 

"You're telling me, as we move into 2021 ... that ex-felons, who have served their time, who we're putting government dollars into, they are the class of individuals we have no right to touch, they have no rights in this society," Neal said. "If that is the case, then keep them in prison. Because I don't understand why we're letting them out if we really feel that they have no value, and they are not worthy of a roof over their heads. That is the craziest thing to me."

Black responded that there had to be a balance.

"I do not want people to be relegated to living in a dark hole somewhere," Black said. "What I'm saying is I don't want it to be at the expense of people's property rights."

The bill, which passed out of the Senate along party lines with all Republicans in opposition, prohibits, with some exceptions, a landlord looking to rent or lease housing from:

  • Inquiring into an applicant's criminal history, conviction record or arrest record
  • Refusing to rent or negotiate a rental or lease agreement based on an applicant's criminal background
  • Publishing or releasing any notice that indicates a preference based on an applicant's criminal history
  • Evicting a tenant based on an arrest record or criminal history
  • Refusing to rent to someone because the prospective tenant received housing assistance funds, per a recently introduced conceptual amendment that excludes Section 8 housing assistance or benefits. 

Exclusions within the bill would still allow landlords to conduct a background check to determine whether an applicant has committed arson, a sex crime or a violent felony — and subsequently refuse to rent to someone based on those criminal charges.

Opponents of the bill have simultaneously criticized it for going too far and not far enough.

The ACLU of Nevada testified in opposition noting that protections in the bill for formerly incarcerated individuals are necessary, but said a compromise amendment from the Nevada REALTORS Association excluding single-family homes and landlords who rent out no more than four dwelling units and certain types of felonies could lead to modern-day housing segregation and does not fully recognize rehabilitation efforts.

During neutral testimony, Executive Director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance Emily Paulsen said that exclusion of Section 8 housing vouchers would adversely affect Nevada housing.

"We agree with Senator Neal that people with conviction histories and people in receipt of rental assistance are not less than. They should be able to have housing choice and not be limited to living in apartments," Paulsen said. 

In an interview after the hearing, Neal said that everyone wants to see a perfect bill, but the exclusions in the amendment  were an essential first step to passing legislation protecting former felons. Housing is not unique to this session, and discussion aimed at adding anti-discrimination protections is far from over, she said.

"We at least need to establish housing, to get it in the door, to talk about that, you do have a right to it," Neal said. "Just like health, just like water, you have a right to housing because it's a great stabilizer.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Flood of rental assistance, eviction bans not enough to resolve some Nevada housing conundrums

Even with a state and federal eviction moratorium in place, Alexia Catala has spent the past five months fending off eight different attempts to evict her from the Henderson home she’s renting.

The mother of four said she already was struggling when the real estate company where she was working cut her pay by several dollars an hour and she lost child support. Then she was laid off. She hasn’t paid rent since November. 

Her court record now includes her landlord’s attempts to evict her for nonpayment of rent, nuisance, questions about rental insurance and expiration of a lease — some of which were preliminarily successful but stopped through appeals. That creates hurdles that she said are preventing her from moving on.

“It's caused me to be so distracted at work that I think that's also contributed to me getting laid off,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “I’ve been in and out of the courts. I had to constantly be reading, constantly studying, constantly be trying to understand what to do next or worrying about whether or not I'm going to come home one day and my stuff is locked, I’m not allowed into my house.”

Catala’s story is an example of how moratoriums haven't put a stop to all the housing-related pressures Nevada families are experiencing. Neither has the $364 million the state has received in rental assistance from the two most recent federal COVID-19 aid packages.

In many cases, tenants approved for the program — including Catala — have found their landlords decline to accept the money, sometimes because of a condition that landlords must not immediately evict the tenant after receiving the funds. There’s also the challenge that in Clark County, rental applications last month were approved at a pace that was one-sixth as fast as officials had predicted, and only $97 million has been distributed to date.

“It's a frustrating situation where you've got tenants that need the resources, landlords that need the rent paid, and the money to pay it with, and you can’t put all three of them together,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a press briefing on Wednesday. “And we're continuing to try to work through that. It's just more difficult than anybody could have imagined.”

There’s high urgency to fix the problem — there is less than a month left in state-level eviction protections and less than two through a moratorium from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The latter protections have been under fire in court including through a federal court ruling against the ban on Tuesday, although the ruling is being appealed.

“This means don't panic and don't let anyone tell you the eviction protections have been invalidated,” Bailey Bortolin of the Nevada Coalition of Legal Services Providers said on Twitter on Wednesday. “Tenants should continue to submit the CDC declarations, apply for rental assistance, and if you receive an eviction notice, file [an] answer and elect mediation.”

Lawmakers also are working on legislation they describe as an “evictions glide path” that could slow the eviction process to allow more time for rental assistance funds to be put to use to blunt an eviction crisis. The finer points of the legislation have not yet been revealed.

“We're going to spend every single one of those dollars that we possibly can,” Sisolak said. “[The Legislature is] going to weigh in on what they feel is most appropriate, we’ll weigh in, the treasurer's been instrumental in terms of helping us with the eviction stuff, and we're just gonna continue on that path.”

As the clock runs down, tensions are high over the Henderson house.

Catala’s property manager, Sherri Parker-Hewlett, shared pictures of trees at Catala’s home that have withered and said air vents were removed and carpet was “destroyed.” She said a judge denied an eviction on nuisance grounds because of that, saying the issues were “cosmetic,” but that she just wants the tenancy to be over and notes the property owner did not opt to renew Catala’s lease when it expired in January.

“The trees in the front yard are dead, the bushes are completely overgrown ... she's got like laying sideways ... a plant that is dead, and it just looks like Skid Row,” Parker-Hewlett told The Nevada Independent. “And then when you get in the house, she's destroyed so many things, between neglect and destruction, that it's wrong, because we rented her the home in good faith.”

Catala explained some of those issues, saying the grass suffered when she had to move a trampoline and air vents were temporarily removed so she could check them for mold.

Catala was approved for rental assistance funds within the last two weeks but said her property manager has not yet accepted the funds and instead filed another notice to end the tenancy the day after Catala notified her of the rental assistance option. She said she wants to clear out the debt with the federal funds and end the eviction proceedings and small claims lawsuits, some of which are scheduled for hearings well into the fall and threaten her ability to land her next place, especially in a competitive market.

“I have this money that I'm allowed to give her, so that way we can clear this whole thing away and just move on,” Catala said. “And they said that if she doesn't want to accept it, she doesn't have to, and that she can still take me to court for the money owed her.”

Parker-Hewlett said the homeowner hasn’t outright rejected the possibility of accepting rental assistance money, but she suspects he is wary of the implications of accepting the money when he simply wants the tenant out.

“I'm guessing that they don't want to forfeit their eviction of a no rent pay when the moratorium is up,” Parker-Hewlett said. “I'm sure that he's probably having a lawyer to check into it.”

In interviews, both women called the other’s actions “absurd.” Catala said the property manager is using “intimidation and scare tactics,” while Parker-Hewlett said her tenant talks to her “like … I’m a dog.” 

The property manager said she has only filed what the law allows and “it's absolutely not excessive.” Catala, on the other hand, said she wishes she had more support so she wouldn’t have to face the court process alone. She also wants more accountability for a landlord whose repeated filings she describes as frivolous and worthy of sanctions under the state moratorium guidance.

“Hopefully some changes get made to help providers provide a little more help to tenants who are facing something like this,” Catala said.

Demolition of 70-year-old church adds to a history of vacant lots in the Historic Westside

On his way to a community meeting in December, businessman Kenny Blaque stumbled upon the Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church half in ruins. The 70-year-old church he grew up with in the Historic Westside was partially torn down with the inside exposed.

Blaque said he saw the pulpit standing amid the wreckage and started to cry.

“My mom, my dad, my family went to this church. We visited this church,” said Blaque, 50. “What happened?”

After encountering high-cost repairs for the aging building, the congregation and their community services — including a food pantry — moved from their D Street sanctuary to a new location a few miles away. They sold the old property to the city in 2018. 

The city-led demolition of Greater New Jerusalem — one of the oldest buildings in the historically Black neighborhood and a short walk north from downtown — was completed in early February, using $232,600 of a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop low-income areas. 

For some Historic Westside community members, the demolition is only one example of a larger problem of the city tearing down buildings in their neighborhood, removing history and leaving vacant lots.

Though empty parcels and abandoned property characterize the area now, the neighborhood once brimmed with buildings strung together by a tight-knit community.  

When segregation excluded Black residents from the flourishing city on the other side of the tracks, they created their own Las Vegas. They built lively churches, bustling businesses, warm homes and even a Westside Strip lined with casinos, restaurants and bars on Jackson Avenue, more commonly known as Jackson Street.  

But now, that way of life has become folklore with fewer and fewer buildings left standing to tell the tale.

The long history of demolitions has only been worsened in the eyes of community members by the lack of development replacing what was lost.

“What they did was sit on all this property for 40, 50 years and did nothing,” said Blaque, who recently sold his family home in the neighborhood but still visits frequently. “My Westside look like shit.”

The City of Las Vegas owns almost 17 acres of vacant land across 40 plots in the roughly 500-acre Historic Westside, according to a document provided by city spokesperson Jace Radke. Radke said in an email that the city is "not aware" of any development agreements in place for its properties in the neighborhood, but there is an open request for proposals to build housing and businesses on the former site of Greater New Jerusalem.

Addressing the many vacant lots in the Historic Westside is one of the goals of the city’s 2016 HUNDRED (Historic Urban Neighborhood Redevelopment) Plan that guides revitalization efforts complicated by a history of mistrust. The first phase of that plan includes more specific ideas of how to fill the vacant lots that now permeate the Historic Westside, which has a median income less than half of that for the city. 

“We have this unique opportunity to partner and work together in ways that historically we haven't done,” said Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of the Office of Community Services.

Despite the city’s plans churning in the background, seeing is believing for community members who have heard many hollow promises of development on the empty lots they have seen every day since the ‘80s.

From the infamous waves of demolitions of the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino, the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, to the quiet removal of less flashy community landmarks, seeing buildings that hold historic and emotional value to residents get reduced to dust have left many with feelings of resentment and skepticism toward the city. 

“They’re not interested in revitalizing, they’re not interested in reselling them, they’re interested in running the bulldozer,” said Samuel Carroll, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church around the corner of where Greater New Jerusalem stood. “They go in, they say, ‘Oh, we need to tear these down.’ Okay. They go in and tear them down, guess what they do? They leave the land!”

A “checkerboard” neighborhood

The vacancies in the Historic Westside have left Henry Thorns describing his neighborhood of 50 years as a “checkerboard” where vacant lots alternate with dilapidated buildings.

“They done tore down our pride and our respect … our community has lost its heart,” said Thorns, 60. “Yeah, you tore down buildings, but you done tore down families.”

On just the third of a mile of Jackson Street that was the Westside’s Strip, Carroll can list several properties he’s seen torn down during his lifetime.

“They tore down the Cove Hotel. They tore the Jackson Hotel. They tore down the service station that was right next to the hotel. They tore down the Johnson’s Malt Shop. They tore down the other service station. They tore down the El Morocco across the street,” said Carroll, 75. “So they never ever intended, to me, it look like, for … the Vegas westside of town to even ever be a part of the entertainment capital of the world.”

Though other parts of Las Vegas also have undeveloped land, Thomas-Gibson said, “it’s the social and historical context that make this community unique.”

A sign for a proposed development in the Historic Westside stating that construction was expected to be completed in spring of 2020 seen on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

That context has also contributed to a general sense of distrust of the city. 

Dana Rideout, an activist with the Historic Westside Revitalization community organization, said many residents he’s met while going door-to-door in the neighborhood fear that the city is trying to buy land and push residents out.

“This was a legally segregated city at one time. The Historic Westside is the only area that Blacks were allowed to own land. The development pattern on the Westside reflects decades of disinvestment,” she said. “The distrust is real, and it isn’t based on some nebulous conspiracy theory.”

Thomas-Gibson said she understands that it’s going to take time to build trust with community members. She pointed to the city’s HUNDRED Plan as a way to build relationships with the community and avoid gentrification.

But the city isn’t the only power behind demolitions and vacancies in the neighborhood. 

For example, the 2011 demolition of the popular eatery Hamburger Heaven, which had stood on E Street since 1955, happened at the hands of nearby Second Baptist Church. A trustee of the church told the Las Vegas Sun that the church was planning to build a community center on the lot, but 10 years later, that lot is still empty.

The mounting vacancies and their effects on the community drove Beatrice Turner, a lifelong Historic Westside resident, to move out of the neighborhood last year. 

Even though she still owns her mother’s Historic Westside home and her children still live in the neighborhood, Turner, 61, said she tries to go to the area as little as possible. She said it hurts her to see the community as it is when she knows how it used to be — so much so that when the time comes, she won’t be buried there.

“I went to make my funeral arrangements, and I told the man at the funeral home, I said, ‘No, don't even take my body back to a church over there, have it at the mortuary,'” Turner said. “He said, ‘you wouldn't want us to just ride your body through there?’ I said, ‘No, don’t even ride my body through there,’ 'cause it ain’t nothing to be seen.”

Defining “historic”

The Greater New Jerusalem building was the setting for many cherished memories.

Blaque’s mother, Wallean, was an evangelist who preached there. He remembers the church as being consistently packed with worshippers who enjoyed a soulful choir and a potent service. Like many churches in the area, it was a cultural hub on Sundays. Residents gathered after services ended, talking with friends and grabbing a bite to eat at Hamburger Heaven just a few blocks away.

“That's what New Jerusalem was to us,” Blaque said. “It was just a place where our family, our friends, we get to worship.”

For some community members, the demolition of the church and other buildings seems hypocritical to the city’s branding of the neighborhood.

“They have this big sign that says ‘Historic Westside,’ yet they won't preserve any buildings that have historic value,” said Rideout, who lived in the neighborhood during the 1970s but reconnected with the community through Carroll, his longtime friend.

A sight of new Historic Westside sign seen on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A building is eligible for protection from the city — meaning that it is unable to be changed or torn down without the approval of the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission — when it’s older than 40 years and is “significant to an aspect of Las Vegas history or significant to an architectural design distinctive to when it was constructed,” according to Diane C. Siebrandt, the historic preservation officer for the city. The property owner must apply for the protection. 

Bishop James Rogers Sr., the senior pastor of Greater New Jerusalem since 1987, said he and church leaders didn’t think about applying for historic protections for the building amid the logistics of trying to sell the property and build their new church on Martin Luther King Boulevard. 

Only after the church’s real estate agent approached the city and sold the building in 2018 did other community members express a desire for historic protections, according to Rogers. He told those community members that he would support the effort, but that ultimately, the building and the decision belonged to the city.

“I would love to have that happen. I'm in the community, I'm not going anyplace,” he said. “But that's not my call right now to determine whether or not there's gonna be a historic site.”

Though he said he wasn’t aware of the city’s plan to tear down the building when he sold the property, Rogers said he didn’t sell with conditions.

Rideout said the city opting to demolish Greater New Jerusalem after having the opportunity to give it historical protection is a “prime example” of the city’s real intentions, and emphasized that revitalization doesn’t have to come at the cost of removing history. 

But the city disputes that it is tearing down history. Because the funding for the demolition came from HUD, the city had to compile a report evaluating whether the property was eligible for historic listing before tearing down the building.

“It was determined that the church was not eligible for historic listing as it was not associated with a person or event significant to the history of Las Vegas, and its design was not considered distinctive to its time period. It was therefore demolished,” Siebrandt said in an email through the city spokesperson.

The Nevada State Historic Preservation Office approved the demolition in 2019.

But Thomas-Gibson said the Historic Preservation Office’s finding does not have bearing on the value the building had in the community.

“That doesn’t mean it didn’t have value to people in the community,” Thomas-Gibson said. “It means that it was not historic, and it didn't meet that definition.” 

“Absolutely every effort”

Though the plans had been in motion for several years leading up to the demolition in December 2020, seeing bulldozers tearing down the church shocked many community members.

Thomas-Gibson said her office and the city made “absolutely every effort that we can humanly make” to ensure that stakeholders knew about the Greater New Jerusalem demolition. However, she added that she understands how community members might miss the city’s efforts in the throes of everyday life. 

“I often say to folks, ‘it's fine to say I wasn't aware,’ that’s an accurate statement,” she said. “It’s not an accurate statement to say the city didn't try to communicate with the community.”

Thomas-Gibson said the city did both formal outreach through workshops, emails and flyers as well as informal outreach through meetings with small groups, including the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association, over the past two years. The demolition also had two 30-day public comment periods in January 2019 and May 2020 mandated by HUD, and was discussed in several workshops for the HUNDRED Plan, according to the city.

All of the community members who spoke with The Nevada Independent said they thought the city did not properly notify the community that the church would be torn down. They said the city isn’t doing enough on-the-ground work to inform the neighborhood about news and meetings, especially because some residents do not have Wi-Fi to receive city emails.

In the 2019 demolition agreement for Greater New Jerusalem and three other buildings on nearby parcels, the city and the State Historic Preservation Office determined that the demolitions might have had adverse effects — potentially affecting characteristics that would qualify a building for a position on the honorary National Register of Historic Places — on seven properties. Two of the properties are eligible for a national historic designation, according to the agreement. 

Carroll, whose church was listed as one of the seven properties, said the city did not notify him about the potential for adverse effects. His church is eligible for the National Register. 

Another nearby property owner learned about the demolition of Greater New Jerusalem in the summer of 2020 during a conversation about revitalization efforts in the area, but said the city never directly informed them that the property might be adversely affected.

The other nearby property owners did not respond to requests for comment or could not be reached for comment. 

“In the name of progress”

As with other buildings that have been torn down, Carroll said he thinks the Greater New Jerusalem building could have been saved. 

The building’s spacious multipurpose room could have been used as a community center, he said, especially as the neighborhood doesn’t have another space suitable for large gatherings, such as weddings and community meetings.

“The community has so little to even operate with,” Carroll said. “[The demolition] just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. And I don’t think it made a lot of economic sense.”

Prior to selling the church to the city, Rogers said that the building “was in desperate need of repairs” and that the costly work that needed to be done would have required most of the structure to be torn down and built back up.

The new building for the Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church seen on April 24, 2021. (Savanna Strott/ The Nevada Independent)

While sitting unused, the church had been vandalized and occupied by squatters, according to Thomas-Gibson. The air conditioning unit was taken from the roof and copper was ripped from the walls. 

Thomas-Gibson said that she has shared this information with residents and activists, but that “they don’t believe me.”

“I get why people wouldn't necessarily accept it as factual — if they don't trust the government — something that a government person says. I understand it. I respect it,” she said. “It doesn’t change the fact.”

But some community members challenged that claim and suggested that the city could and should have protected the building. 

Carroll said he supports redevelopment, but would have preferred the city develop on one of the already vacant lots instead of tearing down an existing building.

“I’m never against progress,” Carroll said. “But I just think to tear that all down in the name of progress, I thought it was wrong.” 

The city is requesting development proposals for a five-story building with businesses on the ground floor and mixed-income housing on higher floors for the site of the former Greater New Jerusalem. 

And though Thorns said he would like to see the land be used for economic development — specifically a Black-owned bank — Thorns said he is still going to miss having Greater New Jerusalem as a neighborhood landmark, one he said he would sometimes pass as many as five times a day.

“It hurts when you see a building tore down. It’s a part of your history disappearing that you'll probably never get back. Because when they build something there, you gonna forget,” Thorns said. “You gonna forget, ‘Oh. The New Jerusalem was there.’ The new peoples come here ain’t gonna never know there was a New Jerusalem there.”

Blame for death of affordable housing bills falls on special interest groups, lack of legislative prioritization

For decades, lawmakers and lobbyists have haggled over bills aimed at addressing Nevada's affordable housing crisis, participating in a game of give and take — hoping to appease all sides just enough to get a piece of legislation onto the governor's desk.

Since the start of the 2021 session, lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen housing-focused measures. The bills fall into two camps: clarifying eviction proceedings and tenants’ rights and increasing the amount of affordable housing.  

Though a majority of the bills surrounding tenants’ rights and evictions survived the first legislative deadline in early April, a cluster of affordable housing measures that supporters emphasized would give local governments more tools to address the housing crisis ended up on the cutting room floor.

Among the most prominent measures that bit the dust without a committee vote were bills aimed at giving local governments the ability to raise money to support affordable housing projects, a proposal attempting to balance out billions of dollars offered to corporations in the form of abatements and a bill establishing a statewide landlord registry.

Some activists lamented the death of the bills on Twitter, calling out the longevity of the housing crisis and lack of legislative action, the power of special interest groups and the prioritization of other pieces of legislation.

Campaign donations ahead of the session underscored the conversation surrounding the housing bills. Developers, real estate corporations and PACs funded by those companies contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers' campaigns—the most money any single industry donated to state legislators.

Lawmakers said they are focused on opening pathways to more affordable housing, but because of the pandemic and job loss, the eviction crisis presents more of a pressing issue, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

“Affordable housing is challenging, and it does take a lot of resources to do, and so where we can make strides in that, we're trying to do that,” Cannizzaro said. “The eviction piece is obviously something that is necessary for us to step in and help address at this moment, and that's not to say that affordable housing is not also equally as important.” 

Opponents of the affordable housing bills that faded away consisted primarily of developers, home builders and other development industry professionals. 

During bill hearings, representatives from those groups emphasized that housing insecurity is a problem of supply and demand. Solutions to the affordable housing crisis should focus on reducing red tape for affordable housing developments and offering density bonuses for mixed income development, lobbyists for developers and home builders said, not on increasing costs for market-rate housing.

Advocates for the bills pointed to 2019 and said this is the second legislative session in a row that a majority of the affordable housing-related bills opposed by developers did not survive.

"It's a lesson in power," said J.D. Klippenstein, the statewide director of Faith in Action Nevada, a faith-based social justice advocacy nonprofit. "I was deeply frustrated and disappointed when all these bills died or got gutted … To be honest, I'm not surprised. This is an extremely powerful industry that uses their money to influence elections and legislation."

Addressing affordable housing gaps is a local government matter, Sen Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) told The Nevada Independent. 

In 2019, Ratti championed and passed SB103, which gave local governments the ability to reduce or subsidize impact fees for affordable housing projects. She said state government can provide tools that local governments can access to address the affordable housing crisis but ultimately, local governments need to decide whether and when to implement those tools.

But advocates say lawmakers’ failure to pass legislation giving local governments more ways to increase funding for affordable housing is leaving jurisdictions without options.

Meanwhile, amid an economy-crushing pandemic in a state with the least available, affordable housing in the country, roughly 7,169 people (about 1.27 percent of Nevada's population) are experiencing homelessness on any given night, and more than 64 percent of low-income renters face difficulty in paying housing and utility costs. 

Advocates are pinning their hopes on the remaining affordable housing bills. One would remove sunsets on a $10 million tax credit program approved in 2019 that offers incentives for developing affordable units. Another would strengthen protections for former inmates searching for housing and stipulate that landlords could not discriminate against applicants receiving public assistance.

"We're not going to stop working together and collaborating for the solution," Nevada Housing Coalition Director Christine Hess said. "If we do nothing, we're going to continue to build our deficit, and not build affordable housing or preserve that which we have."

Local government housing tools fail to advance

AB334, sponsored by Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas), would have given local governments the option to require developers to follow inclusionary zoning policies — stipulating that a certain percentage of new construction has to be affordable for low-income households or developers must pay a fee to avoid those requirements. 

The bill also would have given municipalities the option to adopt fees referred to as linkage fees, ranging from $0.75 to $10 for each square foot of commercial or residential development.

Democratic Assemblywoman Elaine Marzola's AB331 would have allowed local governments to incorporate the two options from AB331 into their affordable housing plans and asked larger cities and counties to establish five-year goals for preserving and producing affordable housing. 

Both bills were heard on April 6, but did not come up for a committee vote by the deadline, even though several Assembly Government Affairs committee members were listed as co-sponsors on one or both bills. That included committee chair Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas), who said he personally supported the measures but that the backing just was not there.

"I know that the votes weren't there," he said in response to questions about why the bills never made it to a committee vote.

Flores added that the issue both bills were attempting to address — local control over affordable housing issues — may be solved through other means.

"There's a larger conversation happening around housing that the whole state's invested in," he said. "I'm very confident that our leadership with the leadership of the Senate and the governor's office are working on a holistic plan that we can continue to work towards."

When she realized AB334 was not going to get a vote, Summers-Armstrong said she was disappointed but planned to redouble her efforts to move the housing discussion forward in future sessions.

"If one door shuts, you go to the next door. If one person says no, you talk to five more people until you get a yes, and I have nothing else to do right now but have as many conversations and make as many phone calls and try as hard as I can to try and make something happen," Summers-Armstrong said.

The Nevada Home Builders Association and Southern Nevada Home Builders Association declined an interview request from The Nevada Independent, but forwarded a letter sent to the Assembly Government Affairs Committee reiterating the need for more housing but cautioning that additional fees on development projects would place an undue burden on home builders.

"When inclusionary zoning requirements are adopted, it shifts the cost of housing subsidies onto new development," the letter read. "The ordinance itself raises cost, and it will likely reduce the number of units that are built, which aggravate housing shortages and further accelerate prices."

The two trade associations backed a media effort that ran digital ads opposing both AB331 and AB334. Since the bills failed to advance past the committee deadline, the “Nevada Housing Now” group has run ads thanking lawmakers — including Marzola, Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson — for “protecting affordable housing this legislative session.”

The argument that developers would pay more under the proposed legislation is missing the point, Klippenstein pushed back.

"We are already paying," he said. "It's just a different part of the community is paying for it. Those who can probably least afford it and those whose lives are more deeply impacted by the lack of resources that come from it."

Tax abatements and affordable housing

Another housing-related bill that never made it to a committee vote was AB449, proposed by Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno). 

Heavily opposed by development authorities, the bill would have limited the Governor's Office of Economic Development's suite of tax incentives and required that businesses receiving tax incentives from the state make payments into a state fund for affordable housing.

The bill's concept was to create a nexus between the growth that the state is encouraging through economic abatements and a tie to affordable housing, Benitez-Thompson said in an interview after the bill failed to advance. 

"I think it's absolutely tragic that we weren't able to get more of a substantive conversation going," she said. "I would hope that there's still a sentiment and an appetite out there somewhere to make sure that we leave the session having done at least one big good thing."

The Nevada Housing Coalition had not endorsed AB449 when the committee first heard it. Still, Hess (the coalition's executive director) said the only major issue that she saw with the bill was that it needed more discussion. 

Out of five affordable housing-related bills the coalition was advocating for this session, only two remain. Along with AB331 and AB334, AB317, which would have prohibited landlords from denying applicants based on assistance from the government or child support, was the third bill supported by the coalition that never made it past the first deadline day. The bill was later added as an amendment to a housing protections bill proposed by Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas).

All five were designed to create a comprehensive policy package, Hess said. Without more tools for local governments, the housing crisis will only continue to worsen, she added.

"Rent stabilization is not the same as affordability, and in order to really make progress there needs to be that understanding," Hess said. "We're not talking about the $350,000 home. We're talking about people who are not making a housing wage ... and affordable housing doesn't just get built by the market."

The Legislature's short timeframe of only 120 days to create and pass laws is not conducive to comprehensive housing reform, unless lawmakers make it a priority, Klippenstein said.

"I don't think the established leadership of the Democratic or Republican Party in our state highly prioritizes housing," he said. "While a more diverse Legislature leads to more opportunities, it still doesn't change that power dynamic unless that more diverse Legislature decides to have a different approach to housing."

Reporters Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder contributed to this report.

Builders, affordable housing advocates clash over bills that could increase fees for developers

Against a backdrop of increasingly unaffordable housing options, two measures heard at the Legislature on Tuesday highlighted the deep divide between developers and affordable housing advocates.

Proponents of the bills said the proposed legislation would give local governments the ability to raise money to support affordable housing projects. Opponents held that it would increase fees for developers and further negatively affect the market.

AB334, sponsored by Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas) and presented during an Assembly Government Affairs Committee meeting, would establish two options local jurisdictions could adopt to increase affordable housing stock. 

One option would allow local governments to require developers to follow inclusionary zoning policies, which would stipulate that a certain percentage of new construction has to be affordable for lower-income households — or pay a fee to avoid those requirements. The other would allow jurisdictions to adopt fees, known as linkage fees, ranging from $0.75 to $10 for each square foot of commercial or residential development.

Under the latter bill, the municipality or jurisdiction would have to create a local affordable housing policy or ordinance with other stakeholders before implementing the fees. The municipality would store money from both types of fees in an affordable housing trust fund that would fill financing gaps for developing and preserving affordable housing.

"[Affordable housing] is a critical issue within our state right now, and it cannot wait for more working groups," Summers-Armstrong said.

An amendment to the bill would reduce the maximum linkage fee that a local government could adopt on industrial development from $5 to $3, and exempt homes under 1,500 square feet, starter homes and small businesses. 

The amendment would also target 80 percent of revenue from linkage fees for affordable housing for people earning 60 percent of area median income (for a family of four that is about $47,200 in Clark County and roughly $50,100 in Washoe County) and prioritize at least 30 percent of the funds for revitalization efforts taking place at a neighborhood-level in lower-income census tracts. The allocations would not be mutually exclusive.

Summers-Armstrong said lack of investment and urban blight has led to abandoned homes in her district and other areas with large minority populations, such as Las Vegas' Historic Westside. The funding for revitalization efforts would allow community organizations to help move forward with preserving existing affordable housing and creating new affordable housing.

"We want affordable new housing, but not at the expense of decimating communities that are in existence," Summers-Armstrong said. "The preservation of a community is key to all of this because we want our children to live in our communities. I have sons, I want them to be nearby."

The other bill heard Tuesday, AB331, is sponsored by Assemblywoman Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson) and would allow local governments to incorporate the two options from AB334 (linkage fees or inclusionary zoning) into their affordable housing plans, while also asking counties and incorporated cities with populations greater than 100,000  (Washoe County, Clark County, Reno, Sparks, Mesquite and Boulder City) to establish five-year goals for preserving and producing affordable housing. The goals would be a non-punitive target for affordable housing units to be built or maintained during the five-year time frame. 

AB331 would also direct the Nevada Housing Division to consider the progress and tangible commitments to their housing goals made by those local governments when allocating funds from the division's Account for Affordable Housing and other sources of funding such as grants or the federal government. The affordable housing account is funded through a real estate transfer tax that generates anywhere from $8 to $10 million a year — but advocates say that amount barely makes a dent in the affordable housing market.

"Despite recent efforts of federal, state and local governments to address the issue, the problem has not improved. If anything, it has gotten worse," Marzola said during the hearing. "This bill provides clarity that local governments have the tools they need to advance affordable housing strategies that work for their community."

Christine Hess, the executive director of the Nevada Housing Coalition, said the five-year time span is designed to account for the time it takes to properly plan for and develop affordable housing that meets community needs. She added that fees need to be allowed to aggregate for three to five years to enable productive investments.

If passed, the two options in SB324 would join a dozen or so policies that local municipalities can already implement, and SB331 would require counties with populations greater than 100,000 to report on uses of inclusionary zoning and the fees. Current policies that local governments can adopt include subsidizing impact fees, selling land at 10 percent of the appraised value, donating land to a nonprofit, providing density bonuses or offering rental assistance. 

"These two [additional] tools balance out that toolbox by allowing local governments if they choose to, to enact additional fees to help put some more money in that pot to fill the gaps," said Nevada Housing Coalition lobbyist and one of the bill presenters, Sarah Adler.

Warren Hardy, a representative for the Urban Consortium (consisting of the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson, Reno and Sparks), testified in support of the two bills. As a general rule, he said, the consortium supports any legislation that gives local governments more options to address the need for affordable housing. 

"This legislation will give us the tools to reach out to the community, to reach out to the stakeholders, and to craft, at the local level, a solution to this problem," Hardy said. "We appreciate the sponsors for bringing this forward and particularly in a way that enables local governments to have a say and to make a decision about adopting these measures."

But the bills have attracted organized opposition from outside groups. Within the last week, Nevada Housing Now, a self-described "grassroots arm of the Nevada Home Builders Association," released two advertisements on YouTube against the bills, telling lawmakers, "Don't make housing even more expensive in Nevada'' and "oppose AB331 + AB334." 

"New home construction injects nearly $10.1 billion into the state's economy and accounts for $4.7 billion a year in total wages and salaries," text in one of the videos said. "Linkage Fees and Inclusionary Zoning act like a tax on housing."

Developers emphasized that the fee proposals would increase housing costs for buyers. The Legislature should consider bills that expand low-income housing tax credits and grants for rental assistance, not ones that burden developers, said David Goldwater, a lobbyist for the Nevada Home Builders Association.

"Linkage fees only add to the cost of housing," Goldwater said during the hearing. "Without control over how the money is spent, history suggests fewer affordable units built and more working families priced out of the market."

In response to the opposition, Adler said that inclusionary zoning has been authorized in Nevada statute since 1999, and the policies local governments would be required to write would stipulate how money is spent. None of the funds generated through the legislation would go toward a city’s general fund, she said.

"I totally respect the pickle that [developers] are in. They are already paying a variety of kinds of permit fees, licensing fees, impact fees, because that's how we pay for our community development is through growth," Adler said. 

Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) voiced fears that additional fees would discourage development. Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite) advocated for a different solution.

"If we need teachers, we don't make it harder to become a teacher. If we need doctors, we don't make it harder to become a doctor, we make it easier," Black said. "The answer is to reduce fees, to reduce restrictions, reduce red tape and make it easier for them to build, not make it harder for them to build."

Summers-Armstrong countered that Nevada offers so many benefits to businesses that AB334 will not halt development or growth. She added that the bill would help create affordable housing for people working for companies such as Amazon or Walmart that do not pay wages high enough for employees to afford housing.

"This is not going to make our environment so hostile that businesses will not want to come here," Summers-Armstrong said. "We still have a burgeoning economy ... but I think that Nevada also has to recognize that she has citizens that need help, that these jobs have a consequence." 

Cities such as Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. have enacted similar legislation to AB331 and AB334, Summers-Armstrong added. Developers would not stop building with the addition of these fees, she said. 

The proposed fees are based on rigorous economic analysis, not every industry is subject to them and local governments must work with all stakeholders, Hess said.

"I'm a former economic developer, I love new business, I love new development, it's exciting when new projects come to town, but there is an impact," Hess said. "We can't just talk about affordable housing anymore. And as even our opposition has noted, there's not one tool, and in fact, we would consider these two tools pretty small pieces of our ultimate success strategy to tackling affordable housing."

Lawmakers step back from plan to abolish rapid summary evictions, instead aim to study issue

Lawmakers backed away Tuesday from an ambitious plan to scrap the state’s rapid and unique “summary eviction” process, saying it’s not the time to upend the system and instead calling for a study on the issue.

Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) said she was replacing the entirety of her bill, AB161, with language calling on the Legislative Commission to appoint a six-lawmaker committee to embark on a study after the session concludes on whether the current legal process is appropriate. She likened the summary eviction process to tenants having to sue for the right to defend themselves, and said by the best estimates of process servers, only 10 percent of tenants served such notices fight back.

“If within seven days, a tenant does not correctly navigate the legal system amid the crisis of receiving an eviction notice to file an answer, no summons, complaint, lawsuit filed, or hearing is required to evict, as it is in other states and normal legal proceedings,” Torres said. “The landlord can then move to get an order removing the tenant within 24 hours, and the family finds out when the lockout has been effectuated.”

But Torres said now — with a flood of evictions expected when a moratorium lifts at the end of June — is not the ideal time for a total overhaul of the process, which is used when a tenant falls behind on rent. She said a better route would be to strengthen protections that are already in place and take a range of voices into account before making major adjustments.

Committee Chairman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) acknowledged that legislators are furiously trying to hear and vote on measures this week because most bills will die if they don’t pass their first committee by Friday.

“This is just such a big topic that I think given we're in deadline week, I don't think we could do it justice,” he said.

Lawmakers this session have considered a variety of housing bills, including ones that give people longer warnings before rent hikes and offer tenants more grounds to keep their security deposits. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal rental assistance is earmarked for the state, although programs have major backlogs and have struggled from the start to get money out the door quickly.

But Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) last week suggested lawmakers are willing to take steps to ease housing insecurity and speed disbursement of funds, and Yeager nodded somewhat cryptically at Tuesday’s meeting to further legislation on the issue.

“I didn't want committee members or anyone listening in the public to think that this was all we were going to do this session,” he said. “There are some other efforts underway and I suspect that before the end of session we'll be able to hear another bill with a concept that hopefully is going to get us through these next several months in a way that works for everyone.”

Only one group vocally opposed the study — the Nevada State Apartment Association, whose lobbyist said association members did not think they would be meaningfully included in discussions about summary evictions and had “reservations about the true aim of this study.”

“Since COVID, the apartment association has lost an estimated $180 million in Clark, and $108 million in Washoe,” said association lobbyist Mackenzie Warren. “Our tenants are also hurting. We are sensitive to their pain, but like them, we do have bills to pay.”

A variety of progressive organizations signed on to a letter in support of the bill as amended. Quentin Savwoir, representing the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, argued that summary evictions are “inhumane and arguably unconstitutional,” and that households led by Black women are bearing the brunt of them.

“We're familiar with the devastation and a mother's voice, fighting for tears, explaining that she's just been locked out and can't gather her family things until the following day,” he said. “We’re familiar with the last minute scramble of trying to help a family find somewhere to stay that night, so they aren't sleeping in their car.”

Bailey Bortolin, representing legal aid groups that provide free legal assistance to people facing eviction, said she looked forward to having a conversation about the policy in the interim.

“This is a conversation that we at legal aid have wanted to have for many many years,” she said. “My predecessor often says he's been working on this issue for 40 years and never gotten this far.”

The meeting was the bill’s first hearing. The committee did not immediately vote on the bill.

This story was updated at 8:25 a.m. on April 7, 2021 to correct apartment association estimates of lost rent.