Evictions: A scarlet letter ‘E’

bill to seal eviction records gets pushback from landlords

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Once an eviction appears on tenant's records, they have little chance of finding another landlord who will rent to them. A bill in the Legislature would seal the records of people who have been evicted for nonpayment of rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opponents of a bill that would seal the records of Nevadans evicted for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic conjure up images of deadbeat tenants taking advantage of the eviction moratoriums and living rent-free while squandering their cash on luxuries.

Advocates who have been working with unemployed and cash-strapped renters for the last year said the hypothetical “bad actors” that have starring roles in bill opponents’ objections are rare. In addition, they said a proposed compromise – that the law should only apply to people who filed for protection under eviction moratoriums that expire this month – is absurd.

If those tenants were legally protected from losing their homes, they asked, then how were they evicted for nonpayment in the first place?

Pandemic relief for renters

“The (suggested compromise) doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Jim Berchtold, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “It’s saying that the only cases in which the records should be sealed are the ones where there is a already a declaration (of pandemic-related hardship) filed with the court.

“If that’s happened, then there shouldn’t be an eviction in that case, or if there was, then that case would automatically be sealed because the eviction was denied. It doesn’t target what we’re trying to target.” In other words, he said, such a change would gut the purpose of the bill.

The measure, Assembly Bill 141, would automatically seal eviction records for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic as well as require landlords to give some long-term tenants extended time to move out in 30-day no-cause eviction cases.

Protections expire March 31

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Howard Watts, (D-Las Vegas) noted that state and federal eviction moratoriums are scheduled to expire at the end of March, kicking off a projected tsunami of eviction actions. In a 3-hour legislative hearing March 4, Watts told the Assembly Judiciary Committee that the explosion of evictions will disproportionately affect Nevada’s poor and communities of color.

SOURCE: Guinn Center, “Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color in Nevada,” September 2020.

Opponents of the measure said landlords have a right to know if a prospective tenant has been evicted in the past, whether or not the lockout occurred during the COVID-19 crisis. Some lawmakers on the panel had concerns about hypothetical people with ready cash who have avoided paying rent while protected under the moratoriums.

“If somebody was receiving rental assistance, pandemic money, stimulus checks, even had a job, and they had the money and they chose not to make the payments to the landlord, they would still get their records sealed?” asked Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas).

Hypothetical people; real humans

Howard Watts

Proponents noted that if a tenant is able to pay and didn’t, it’s unlikely they would even have an eviction record.

“If someone had the resources to pay rent and their other obligations, chose not to do that, chose not to respond, not to get current and chose not leave a property, and to let an eviction be entered on to their record, in that hypothetical case, occurring during the declaration of the emergency,” the person’s record would be sealed, Watts said.

Sealing the eviction records would save renters from a “scarlet letter” on their records that cause them to be rejected by landlords when they try to find another place to live. “Some landlords will simply not rent to someone who has an eviction on their record. And we are already seeing this for those evictions that have snuck through all of the protections in place. We are already seeing tenants who are finding it difficult to find new housing.”

— Jim Berchtold, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

People have struggled to get unemployment benefits, rental assistance programs have been exhausted or the process of getting the money to landlords has been delayed, and many Nevada families haven’t been able to meet their basic needs, Watts noted. “We just want to make sure that folks who suffered those consequences don’t slip through the cracks and are able to access housing again,” he said.

“I do disagree with the sealing of the records… I think there has to be more of an effort. I think the landlord, the owners of the property, have a right to know whether (a prospective tenant) has been evicted.”

– Assemblyman Philip P.K. O’Neill, (R-Carson City).

Worries about ‘bad actors’

Kasama and other Republican members of the committee were unmoved.  “If they had the ability to pay, they would be included (under AB-141) and that is something I couldn’t agree with,” Kasama said.

Hedi Kasama

Watts said he’d rather protect the “handful” of undeserving people, in order to assure that the large number of Nevadans who “have simply been overwhelmed by this crisis and who didn’t know they needed to file a declaration” can have the chance to rent another place to live.

T. Tran, who spearheaded the landlord/tenant mediation program in Sparks last year, said she opposes both provisions of the bill. Tran said that both landlords and tenants have suffered during the pandemic and federal and state relief efforts have fallen short. But she said if AB-141 becomes law, it would further burden landlords, many of whom would sell their rental properties to people who would use them for their own homes. That would increase already skyrocketing real estate prices and further squeeze the rental market, she said, resulting in fewer rental properties available.

“Provisions already exist (to extend notice periods for elderly or disabled tenants) and judges already have the power to seal evictions currently… There are things that are in place that are not being enforced well. We should be putting more energy into strengthening what’s already there instead of creating new (laws) that’s going to end up rippling into something huge that  people are not ready for. We talk about the lack of affordable housing now, but if AB-141 passes it’s going to get even uglier when landlords start pulling out of rental properties… We have to work together and this bill isn’t that.”

– T. Tran, a real estate broker and consultant who is oversaw Sparks’ eviction mediation effort.    

A ‘small piece’ of relief

Washoe Legal Services is in favor of the measure.

“The bill makes important changes while also striking a thoughtful balance,” said Deonne Contine, WLS executive director. “By automatically sealing all eviction records for nonpayment of rent during the state of emergency, a lot – but not all — of the people who have suffered due to no fault of their own will at least have the peace of mind of not having a scarlet letter that makes securing new housing very difficult. This doesn’t impact the landlords, this doesn’t prevent the eviction or erase the debt, but it’s a small piece of relief.”

The part of the bill that extends notice periods for some renters “provides important time for our must vulnerable to make a plan and secure new housing,” she said. “For our clients, this is often when apartment complexes are sold for gentrification, and more time will truly prevent homelessness.” 

“The rhetoric that all of these tenants can pay and are just choosing not to because they’re getting their nails done and still have cars in the garage is just not the reality of what people are going through in this crisis. If people don’t qualify for the protections, they have never been protected by the governor’s order… Judges are seeing that, in fact yes, these people lost their jobs in restaurants and casinos, and they can’t keep up with their rent while their rental assistance applications are pending. That doesn’t mean they can’t use their stimulus check to feed their children.”

– Donne Contine, executive director, Washoe Legal Services. 

Extension of notice

Another section of the measure would extend the eviction notification period to 60 days for tenants who have lived in their apartment from one to three years and to 90 days for those who lived in the property three years or longer. Current law allows landlords to seek a no-cause eviction with 30 days notice to tenants paying by the month or a seven-day notice for those who pay weekly.

Extending those notice periods for longstanding tenants would help people who would have trouble finding a new home, including seniors, disabled people and others with health issues or who are on fixed incomes.

Long-term tenants

Kasama and other opponents said a longer grace period would hurt landlords who have already lost income under the pandemic moratoriums. That section of the bill would be a permanent revision of the law and merely delay eviction proceedings while limiting landlords’ ability to re-rent, sell or move into the properties themselves.

In a recent interview, Berchtold said the notice provision will help renters who aren’t covered by a lease, pay rent weekly or monthly, and have been living in the property for a long time. “From a tenant’s perspective, the longer a tenant lives in the residence, the longer they have an expectation that they are not going to be kicked out, or at least they will have some time to make accommodations and arrange for a whole transition in their lives,” he said.

Jim Wheeler

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, (R-Douglas), who is a landlord, said a lot of “mom-and-pop”  landlords,” who often are retired people, may be so frustrated by an extension of the notice period and because they “can’t get the rent out of a tenant” that they would sell their income properties. “So the house is sold and all of a sudden it’s no longer a rental house,” he said. “So we’re pushing the tenant out instead of going through a procedure where maybe the landlord could work with the tenant to get that money.”

Although Wheeler talked about a tenant failing to pay rent as related to the extension of notice periods, nothing in the bill absolves tenants from continuing to pay rent while waiting to leave properties under a no-cause eviction order, which isn’t related to non-payment of rent.

A lot of the opponents’ testimony during the hearing centered on complaints that landlords have had to suffer a loss of income during the eviction moratoriums. That’s unfair, proponents agreed, but has nothing to do with the substance of the proposed law.

AB-141 remains in committee on the Assembly side of the Legislature. As of March 21, it was  not yet scheduled for a vote in judiciary committee.

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