Hundreds of thousands of Nevadans have lost their jobs due to nonessential business closures meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. To protect them from housing insecurity, Governor Steve Sisolak ordered a moratorium on evictions, but there’s confusion on who is protected. Both tenants and landlords for weekly motels are concerned about what the future holds.
At the Towne and Country Motel in Las Vegas, residents have to check out — and then check back in — every 28 days so the landlord can say that they are not tenants and don’t have the same rights.
This was something Ronald Griffin had to do just before nonessential business closures took place. Soon after, he was unable to pay rent because he’s a temp and he can’t find work right now. When he didn’t make rent, his landlord took action.
“They came right in. First thing they did was snatch the TV off the wall. Then his handyman came, went right through the bathroom, and unhooked the toilet. Came back in [and] unhooked the sink. Then he went to the refrigerator [and] took everything. The only thing that was left was the bathtub,” Griffin said.
According to Nevada law, eviction notices signed by a judge are not required if an individual has less than 30 days of residency. Heidi Foreman-Toney is a tenant's rights counselor for Nevada Legal Services. She said that if someone has manifested an intent to stay for an extended period of time, they should be considered a tenant.
“A lot of people living in the weeklies and living in the hotels are tenants. It's not necessarily required for them to be there for 30 days or longer. That's something I think that landlords don't understand and they have been putting out misinformation to the tenants living at their weekly,” Foreman-Toney said.
However, there is no clarification in Nevada law for what exactly an intent to stay looks like.
“But when you have someone who's getting all of their mail there, they have all their life's possessions there with them, they have pets there living with them, cats [and] dogs, their children are registered for school in the area: chances are they’re going to be classified as a tenant, even if they're one day shy of that 30-day mark," Foreman-Toney said.
Ultimately for Griffin, he went to court quickly and prevailed, but he had already found a new place to live so he’s no longer at the Towne and Country Motel. But other motel residents in Nevada could be facing lockouts like Griffin. His landlord, Jason Trindade, said he doesn’t have another option.
“I mean at this point it's like, every single motel in Las Vegas and hotel will shut down if they can't enforce people having to pay,” Trindade said. “If people are not going to pay for their rooms, then why am I going to hand out free rooms, pay for utilities, electrical, water and all that other stuff?”
Trindade said if residents refuse to pay rent, he’s considering closing the motels, but more people would be houseless if he does so. He wants to see more resources for people in his position.
Up in Reno, City Councilmember Naomi Duerr also wants relief for landlords.
“Landlords owe property tax. I would not be excited that the city of Reno would get less money. But on the other hand, we've all gotta give here. Maybe that's something that we could come to the table with: You're going to waive your tenants rent, we're going to waive a portion of your property tax. We would need state authority to do that, but that's just a new idea,” Duerr said.
In Washoe County, an estimated 1,500 people live in motels. The Desert Rose Inn, located in Reno, said no one would be getting evicted, even before the moratorium was ordered. Lacy Foster is a tenant and has been the manager for eight years.
“It was already bad in this town for housing before this. Our housing crisis is horrible in this town and people are already one paycheck away from being on the streets. This is really, really scaring people,” Foster said.
Foster has 72 occupied rooms. About half of her tenants lost their casino jobs and haven’t been able to pay rent. Foster worries about the expenses her landlord still has to pay like utilities.
“My boss, I've been talking to him, this is the only thing that he owns. He's not a franchise. He doesn’t own anything else. I think there should be some sort of incentive package or something for the small business owners because we haven't laid anybody off. We’ve kept our employees. I would just like for it to not have to hurt him so much,” Foster explained.
So far, the Interim Finance Committee approved a plan to disburse $2 million to Nevadans struggling to pay rent. The funding will first go to United Way of Northern and Southern Nevada, and then it will be parsed out to small local organizations. Those organizations will send the checks directly to landlords.
Jessica Adair, the chief of staff for the Office of the Nevada Attorney General, said the funding is covering rent payments because those are still due under the governor’s eviction moratorium.
“The directive is a Band-Aid for a larger problem of an unemployed workforce. The directive will keep people in their homes and ultimately prevent a homelessness crisis and save lives. But it does not mean that people will not have to pay their rent. Rent is still due and thousands of Nevadans will owe back rent.”
There is no timeline of when this funding will be distributed. The moratorium on evictions is in place as long as Nevada is under a state of emergency, but what will happen to motel tenants who have been unable to pay rent after the order is lifted remains unknown.