Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Erika Castro was forced to move out of her home of five years during the pandemic.
Castro shared the home with her mother, her mother’s partner — both of whom are undocumented immigrants from Mexico — and brother. The rent was $980 a month.
But the property’s landlord wanted to sell the house, and with real estate prices soaring in the Las Vegas area they were priced out of purchasing the home. The median sale price was $405,000 for a single family home in July.
So, the family had 30 days to pack up their belongings and move. It’s a similar tale among residents who are finding housing less affordable with rent increasing by an average of 18.9% in Las Vegas over the past year, according to a recent study by Apartment List.
They settled into a crowded one-bedroom Airbnb for $2,200 per month, she said. Castro’s aunt and cousin also moved into the Airbnb because they had been evicted, she said.
The mounting pressure to support a now six-person household was exacerbated by her family members’ lack of work. Castro’s mother, for instance, was a prep cook, and her brother was employed on the Strip — two jobs nixed in the pandemic.
Because her family is undocumented, they did not qualify for supplemental unemployment benefits, though Castro said that because she was a registered in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she felt she had some protection when her family did not.
To keep them afloat, Castro said she burned through most of her savings on deposits and rent payments. Her family has since returned to stable work and moved out of the Airbnb — but the jolt of the past few months lingers.
“It was very stressful during the pandemic; one, because it was very hard for my mom to feel like she just didn’t have stability, and there wasn’t a ton that she could do because of her immigration status,” said Castro, the organizing director at Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). “A lot of that financial strain fell on me. … I think I was still in a place that felt some kind of shame and not really knowing how to address that.”
Rent in Las Vegas has been sweeping upward throughout the pandemic, the Apartment List study indicates.
While researchers found that rent rates across the country were swelling rapidly, Nevada and Las Vegas rents in particular were increasing at a faster rate than the rest of the United States. The average percentage rent growth in Nevada was 19.9%, Las Vegas’ 18.9% and the United States’ 10.3%.
Las Vegas’ median rent for both one- and two-bedrooms is not as expensive as, for example, New York or San Francisco, but its median two-bedroom rent of $1,366 is higher than the national average of $1,219. And a steep jump could be devastating for some already stretched-thin residents.
Chris Salviati, a housing economist at Apartment List who conducted research for the project, said that although the team did not discover a reason for the increase in prices, he said the answer could lie in the novel availability of remote work.
“Most folks whose jobs were capable of being done remotely were working remotely, and now some folks are getting back to the office, but we’re also starting to transition into this phase where a lot of folks are also now having more concrete guidance that they’ll be able to have remote flexibility in the long term,” he said. “And so that definitely seems to be playing a factor in folks’ location preferences.”
Brian Hartsell, broker and owner of Key Property Management, said housing prices were changing in Las Vegas for two reasons: low inventory and high demand from California, Utah or Arizona residents looking to relocate.
“We’re seeing an influx of that, primarily, (from) California, where essentially their rental rates are, at times, one-and-a-half to two-times above what currently is being offered, even right now, in Las Vegas,” he said. “To them, it’s still a bargain.”
For others, rent became so expensive that it pushed people out of Las Vegas entirely.
Kierra Jones, a former reservationist at a hotel chain, said a combination of increased rent and little access to consistent child care for her 5-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son during her busy, sometimes last-minute, schedule from a supplemental retail job forced her to move back to Kansas City, where her extended family lives.
“You feel the weight of the world, just any day now, you’re going to just crumble under it,” she said. “But then you see these little faces (of your kids) and you’re like, ‘Well, we have to have somewhere to live, to be able to buy groceries,’ so you have to pick it up and keep it moving.”
For a few days, an additional problem hung over millions of Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s first eviction moratorium expired on July 31 because federal lawmakers could not augment the policy.
Then, on Aug. 3, the CDC enacted a new 60-day halt on evictions in high-COVID transmission areas, including Clark County, to limit the spread of COVID-19 as coronavirus variants barrel through the country. Clark County has had 285,938 total COVID-19 cases since January 2020, and 41.7% of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated, as of Aug. 6.
Under the moratorium, landlords cannot force evictions for nonpayment if the tenant is seeking rental assistance. But no-cause evictions — 30-day notices in which the landlord may select any reason for the eviction if there is not an active lease agreement — went forward in Nevada courts, something tenant rights activists fought.
In December 2020, Jeffery Thompson — founder and president of the JET Foundation, which raises funds for economically and socially underserved Las Vegas residents — returned home to a 30-day eviction notice on the door of the townhouse in North Las Vegas that he and his 15-year-old son lived in for eight years.
Thompson, who had not renewed his lease since the first two-year one he signed several years ago, said he was not protected from the 30-day eviction.
He instead filled out and had his doctor sign an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation form. Thompson has Crohn’s disease and is in treatment for colon cancer among other maladies, he said. The ADA form proved to his landlord that he had extenuating health issues so he was able to extend the eviction to 60 days instead of 30. He and his son moved out in February.
The eviction notice came a few months after Thompson’s landlord requested to approximately double his rent — from $775 to nearly $1400 — in June 2020 because, Thompson said, his landlord wanted to charge more with the arrival of Allegiant Stadium. The two settled on a $100 increase.
Then, the blunt notice arrived, Thompson said.
Thompson said it was embarrassing to be thrust into a situation where his housing was not secure because during the pandemic the JET Foundation assisted many families in need.
“I was in straight begging mode, pleading him not to evict me,” Thompson said. “I just kind of feel stupid. Like, well, damn, here I am sitting here, putting my life on the line, being an immunocompromised individual, making sure that other families are safe and secure and can have a healthy, stable environment. And here I am getting evicted.”
Vichelle, a Las Vegas resident who preferred to go by her first name, has not paid rent since June because the nonprofit she works for was unable to pay her after a partner dropped out, she said. She received an eviction notice shortly after for the apartment she and her son have lived in for seven years.
Nationally, 7.4 million people in the U.S. are behind on rent, according to Census data. Nevada tenants can apply for the federal Cares Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) and, while waiting for their cases to be processed, avoid eviction.
Vichelle applied for CHAP in June, and she said her pending application status, waiting to be assigned for a caseworker, was proof enough for her landlords. Since July 2020, CHAP has paid 25,000 households a total of $110 million in rental and utility assistance. But rental aid rollout across the county has been slow-moving, namely because states are required to disburse the funds themselves, according to NPR.
Another option for housing assistance is Nevada Assembly Bill 486, signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak earlier in 2021. The bill makes available $360 million in rental assistance for tenants to landlords. Approximately 90,000 Clark County households have obtained $165 million in aid through A.B. 486. When a tenant requests aid through AB486, the court delays their eviction process.
Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association (NVSAA), said that landlords were facing two primary problems — tenants who are not paying rent and a lack of transparency from rental assistance programs. She specifically highlighted issues with CHAP and A.B. 486, which she said did not give landlords an adequate timeline for when the applications were submitted and approved.
Evictions are still being issued, she said, but not unlawfully. Vasquez said that if landlords discovered a tenant had not paid rent and was also not seeking rental assistance, they would file a seven-day notice. But, she said, courts are not shuffling these evictions forward, lagging the process.
She said that at the start of the pandemic, 60% of residents under the NVSAA were communicative about their rental assistance status — but now, 67% of them are not communicating at all or refusing to apply for rent assistance, she said.
“The CDC order continues to protect those that are using the system,” she said. “(Tenants) are applying for rental assistance, but they’re not completing their rental applications, completely. … The residents will find out that they’ve been denied, but they’re not going to come to the landlord or the court say, ‘Hey, I was denied rental assistance. What do I do now?’”
Through her work, Vasquez coordinates with landlords, who she said are being negatively impacted by nonpayments of rent, even as occupancy rates soar. Vasquez said that the landlords she worked with did not typically wish to comment on the issue.
“The occupancy is full, but when you look at it as a landlord, the economic occupancy is still significantly lower if you have approximately 15% of your renters that aren’t paying rent,” she said. “Landlords have learned how to operate at the bare minimum.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Vichelle lost her temp job at a call center and used her stimulus checks to pay for rent. She has applied for rent assistance before, in 2018, and she said that the process was taxing and lengthy. Vichelle received $400 that year, a sum that did lessen her burden but did not cover her entire rent.
“It helped, absolutely, but I had to go through so much to get it,” she said. “I try to stay positive about everything … and so I’m just very grateful (to have a place to live.)”
‘Housing is not a commodity’
At a July 29 discussion hosted by Battle Born Progress, Maria-Teresa Liebermann-Parraga, deputy director of the organization, spoke with Laura Martin, executive director of PLAN, and Bailey Bortolin, outreach and policy director at Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, about tenants’ rights in Las Vegas.
At the event, Martin said that landlords, in particular Siegel Suites, have exploited their tenants, often providing little support and hiking rent prices without upgrading the apartments’ or complex’s amenities. Even as the moratorium was in effect, landlords and rental companies like Siegel Suites evicted tenants, and the company collected approximately $2 million in rental assistance.
Martin said in an interview that every person in Nevada should be guaranteed a place to live and that PLAN would work to see this through.
“Housing is not a commodity,” Martin said. “Housing is a lifeline. It’s protection. It’s health care. It’s a peace of mind, and anyone’s ability to have a home should not depend on the type of profit that a developer wants to make.”