Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 | 2 a.m.
CARSON CITY — Gina Giambra worked as a massage therapist on the Las Vegas Strip until being laid off this spring and doesn't know how she's going to pay her rent in September.
“I haven’t been able to figure that one out,” Giambra said. “I’m literally probably going to have to ask for loans, and I don’t know if I can even get any."
She and her two sons have lived in southwest Las Vegas rental for more than a year and, to pay her bills, she's burned through her savings and relied on pandemic rental assistance.
“It’s frustrating because I can’t control my income. It’s frustrating because I can’t control my bills. It’s frustrating because I'm just scared,” she said.
The pandemic shows few signs of subsiding but, six months in, statewide eviction moratoriums enacted around the time coronavirus cases first started to spike are being lifted. On Aug. 1, Nevada lifted its moratorium on three-day nuisance and five-day lease violation evictions. On Sept. 1 it will lift the broader moratorium on seven-day “pay, rent or quit” and 30-day no-cause eviction notices.
In few places do evictions loom like in Las Vegas. The city's tourism-driven economy ground to almost a complete halt during virus-related closures. With casinos shuttered, conventions canceled and hotel rooms empty, gaming and hospitality layoffs catapulted Nevada to a nation-topping 28.2% unemployment rate in April.
The Guinn Center for Policy Priorities projects from 118,000 to 142,000 Nevada households could struggle to pay September rent, the vast majority in the Las Vegas area of Clark County, where it estimates 47% of households rent.
Tenants and attorneys worry that economic crunch and the expiration of benefits like the federal government’s $600 pandemic unemployment supplement will create an unprecedented eviction crisis. Many renters worry about losing housing when health depends largely on staying home.
Christopher Storke, an attorney with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, has been advising tenants on the ever-changing legal landscape throughout summer. The majority of his clients were laid off from the gaming and hospitality industries after the shutdown.
“Las Vegas is such a transient community and it’s built off of a gig lifestyle — going from job to job in casinos,” he said.
Storke said he wishes the eviction moratorium had been extended. Much like businesses have received government relief amid government-imposed closures and capacity caps, Storke believes Nevada should protect tenants struggling to pay their rent through no fault of their own — after closures led to their layoffs.
It feels particularly unfair for people struggling to get their unemployment insurance, he said. Glitches, fraud and phone issues plaguing Nevada's system have caused delayed payouts for thousands of applicants like Giambra, the massage therapist.
Landlords haven’t been spared either. As of Aug. 10, property managers and landlords received 29% less rent than in the first 10 days of March, according to a report from property management firm Rentec Direct. Allowing tenants to breach rental agreements long-term, they argue, is unfair and could create cascading problems, particularly for landlords struggling to pay mortgages.
When lawmakers convened this summer, they did not extend the moratorium like their counterparts in some neighboring states and instead wrote legislation to prevent evictions from flooding courts in September.
After Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty said that courts could be facing three times as many evictions in September as they did a year prior, lawmakers allowed courts to grant 30-day stays on evictions to encourage mediation.
But Storke, the tenant lawyer, said that even before the pandemic, Nevada law allowed for tenant-landlord dispute resolution outside courts, but it was very rare for both parties to agree to mediation.
And the fate of Nevada's pandemic rental assistance program faces uncertainty. The state and Clark County funneled $60 million in federal relief dollars to rental programs, but on Aug. 17, stopped accepting applications after receiving 25,000.
The programs have only disbursed about $2 million, officials told a state housing committee Wednesday.
Giambra said she spent “tens of hours” on the phone to ensure she was enrolled for rent assistance.
“I was blowing phones up, blowing emails up, so that I was able to get accepted,” she said.
Regardless, the program doesn't permit her to pay September rent because it only allows for back payment of missed months — an incentive structure she finds backward.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.