Lockout orders: ‘It feels like bullying’

reno couple under Covid protections bombarded with eviction orders

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: David Drazewski and Vinton Bowers with the collection of eviction orders and related documents they received since October, when they came under the protection of the Centers for Disease Control's eviction moratorium. The CDC order is scheduled to expire along with the state eviction ban on March 31.

A Reno couple who did everything right when they filed for protection under last year’s federal and state eviction bans still had to fight repeated eviction attempts by their landlord over the last six months.

“It feels like harassment, like bullying,” said Vinton Bowers, who most recently went to Reno Justice Court three times between March 10 and March 18 to answer serial requests for lockout orders from her landlord, Sharland Terrance Apartments. Bowers and her boyfriend, David Drazewski, whose incomes have been strangled by the pandemic, filed an affidavit in October to be protected under the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium.

“The court stops the eviction again, I come home, and by the next day or so there’s another lockout notice pinned to our door. It never stops,” she said.

Serial eviction attempts common

Their plight underlines the ineffectiveness of some of the efforts to protect cash-strapped tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although eviction moratoriums have been in place for a year, thousands of tenants who lost income have fallen through the cracks in the relief programs and some landlords relentlessly move forward with eviction orders even when tenants have followed all the rules.

“We are seeing serial (eviction) filers especially in the motels,” said Deonne E. Contine, executive director of Washoe Legal Services. “A landlord will serve a non-pay eviction, then a no cause, then serve it again. In court (March 17), one of our lawyers reported that the judge admonished the landlord who he had seen several times with the same tenant that he was wasting court resources they don’t have.

“(On March 18), a lawyer was successful in a case where the tenant was an employee and was fired and evicted within one day. The judge dismissed the case.”

Eviction moratoriums are scheduled to expire March 31, and some estimates conclude that as many as 500,000 Nevadans may be at risk of losing the roofs over their heads. The bans could be extended, particularly the Centers for Disease Control’s moratorium.

Drazewski and Bowers submitted a declaration, like the one above, under the CCDC moratorium and submitted proof of unemployment, medical bills and other documents to support the claim of hardship during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

During the pandemic, however, evictions never really stopped, despite the moratoriums.

In November, the Las Vegas Justice Court reported 4,263 eviction filings, nearly double the 2,387 cases the same month the in 2019. Washoe Legal Services opened 778 landlord/tenant cases in the second half of 2020, 145 more than during the same period the year before. Between Jan. 1 and March 17 of this year, legal services has opened 240 cases compared to 160 cases opened during the same period in 2020.

Sidestepping lockout bans

“People likely don’t know all the qualifications for moratoriums, but have at least heard about them and generally think they should not be evicted during the pandemic,” Contine said. Landlords file multiple types of eviction notices in an effort to get around the eviction bans, she said, and often tenants have no idea what they have to do to be protected.

“Clients don’t realize they have to respond to each (notice),” she said. “Our summary eviction system is complicated and there are general problems with the scheme because tenants don’t understand that they can be evicted even if the landlord hasn’t filed in court. Additionally, landlords will try to use nuisance or some other reason to evict that they think gets around the moratorium. It’s not uncommon.”

Nevada is the only state that still has a summary eviction law, which allows landlords to post notices without filing in court. It’s up to tenants to initiate court cases.

When Bowers and Drazewski filed for protection in October, they supplied receipts and other proof of financial hardship caused by the pandemic. Drazewski’s jobs in the construction industry had been sporadic and he spends about $700 a month for insulin and diabetic testing supplies. Bowers, a bookkeeper, has been able to work, but one income hasn’t been enough for the couple to meet essential expenses.

Partial payments rejected

After filing under the moratorium’s protections, the couple tried to make partial payments on the rent they owed, but the building manager refused to accept the money, telling Bowers that once an eviction action is filed, the company will no longer accept partial payments.

The Reno News & Review called the manager’s office at the Sharland Terrace Apartments March 18 asking for comment. The person who answered the phone said she would relay the request to the company’s headquarters in California. The RN&R didn’t get a response before publication deadline.

“From (October) on, we got weekly money orders and put those aside for rent,” Bowers said. “We’re not trying to get away with anything or asking to have any portion of rent forgiven. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

On Nov. 10, a seven-day, non-payment of rent eviction notice was taped to the couple’s door. The next day, Bowers filed another affidavit with the court. She discovered that Sharlands Terrace had filed two eviction cases against her, along with a lockout order.

Power turned off

The power to the couple’s apartment was cut off on Nov. 12, which Bowers suspects was related to the lockout order the court had rejected the day before. She reached out to NV Energy and the utilities were restored the same day.

Bowers and Drazewski agreed to attend a formal mediation with their landlord on Dec. 12.

“At that point David and I felt as though we had done literally everything we could, and regardless of our attempts to protect ourselves, it didn’t matter, and we would have to agree to whatever terms that would be presented to us,” Bowers said. “The option would have been going to court, and because all our efforts thus far failed, we figured we would lose.”

By that time, the couple had saved most of the back rent payments they owned. They offered to pay the remaining balance by adding extra amounts to their future monthly payments. The landlord eventually agreed.

Legal and late fees

By Jan. 19, the couple had paid $1,180 of the $1,560 due, leaving a past due amount of $380.00. “While I was reviewing our online account, to insure I would make the correct payment amount, I noticed legal fees charged,” Bowers said. It was a fee for another lockout order, she discovered, but the couple hadn’t been notified that it had been filed. She informed the apartment manager that there had been no notice and the lockout order was withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Drazewski had been laid off again and unemployment benefits were held up in the chaos the state ‘s system has been experiencing throughout the pandemic. They began to fall behind their rent payments in February and March.

Visits to court

On March 10, another lockout order arrived and Bowers went to court again to fight it. Instead of another affidavit, she filed an opposition to the landlord’s motion, which was granted.

The process was repeated on March 16 and again on March 18: two more notices on the door and two more visits to the court to stop them.

“They are trying to wear us down,” Bowers said.  “But we’re supposed to be protected; we did everything right… I don’t give up.”

Falling through the cracks

Jim Berchtold, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said the eviction moratoriums haven’t offered much protection. The initial bans were eventually weakened, he said, and “the burden shifted from the landlords, who understand the process, to the tenants, who don’t know how evictions work.

“Most tenants don’t understand the process,” Berchtold said, even when they have filed a declaration with the court and are supposedly protected under the moratoriums.

“We’ve seen tenants bombarded with notice after notice, court filings on top of court filings. Most tenants don’t know how to respond to that. The lucky tenants are the ones who know how to respond. I think the landlords are just playing the numbers.  They hope that eventually the tenants will fail to respond or just pack up and leave.”“People lose sight of the amount of real fear and frustration that’s out there. A caller to the (Clark County) legal center eviction hotline on March 15 told an advocate that a neighbor just shot himself because the constable was coming to lock him out. The tenant was facing an eviction as well and didn’t know what to do. When we live in a world where our advocates have to give out eviction information along with the suicide prevention hotline number, that is a crazy world.”

— Jim Berchtold, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

Money left on the table

Berchtold said that on April 1 there will be “zero protection for tenants,  while there is hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance (money) sitting in a pot for the sole purpose of preventing evictions.” Once a tenant is evicted, a landlord isn’t eligible for the pandemic relief  funds anymore.

“So landlords will sue and probably not get their money anyway,” he said. “At the end of 2021, Nevada will have to send millions of dollars back to the feds because it allowed those evictions to go forward. It makes zero sense.”

Many Nevada landlords have tried to work with tenants to take advantage of relief programs during the crisis, housing advocates said.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Drazewski and Bowers sort through the eviction notices and court documents they’ve collected since October.

Fearing an eviction record

Bowers and Drazewski said if they are eventually evicted, they fear having that black mark on their records because then it would be nearly impossible to rent another apartment.

They said they are in favor of a bill, AB-141, now being considered by the Nevada Legislature, that would seal the records of tenants who were evicted for non-payment of rent during the pandemic emergency. A Reno News & Review companion piece to this story provides specifics about that bill. The couple said they were shocked that some politicians oppose the measure.

“These (lawmakers) probably don’t know what it’s like to have problems with money during a situation like this,” said Drazewski, who is now working at a part-time job. “They don’t know what it feels like. They just don’t understand; they’ve never been there.”

Bowers said the last six months have been stressful, “but we’re not giving up. We’ll be ready for the next curve ball they throw at us.” Drazewski, holding up some of the flurry of paperwork that had been taped to their door since October, added, “it’s more like fast balls.”

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