If state lawmakers want tenants protected, state lawmakers will have to protect tenants
“The House always wins.” While this phrase may be familiar in Las Vegas’ gambling industry, the aphorism also sadly describes the status of Nevada renters in disputes with landlords—especially in the eviction context.
Nevada has the distinction of being the only state in the nation with a draconian summary eviction regime that forces tenants to affirmatively take the first step in initiating a court challenge in the case of an eviction, a process that heavily favors landlords. And with federal eviction relief funding ending soon, soaring rents, and a return to pre-pandemic level eviction filings, Nevada, like many other states, faces a looming eviction crisis.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Biden administration and Congress have taken key actions to stabilize the rental market through the enactment of eviction relief funding and multiple eviction moratoria. On Jan. 26, the administration went a step further—announcing a White House blueprint for a renters bill of rights. This non-binding document sets forth key principles intended to catalyze action by federal, state and local governments and the private sector to bolster protections for renters and promote rental affordability. It calls for all renters to have access to safe, quality, affordable housing, clear and fair leases, the right to organize, eviction protection and more.
These are meaningful steps. But until we change state housing laws and policies, they’re not nearly enough.
Among some of the new policies and actions announced last week, the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Finance Protection bureau will begin to investigate and seek information on unfair practices in the rental market, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency will examine proposed actions aimed at increasing protections for renters and introducing limits on egregious rent increases. In addition, the Biden administration is seeking to mobilize state, local and private sector actors to advance protections for renters consistent with the principles of the Blueprint. To this end, the Biden Administration will be launching the “Resident-Centered Housing Challenge,” a voluntary call to action to stakeholders to bolster protections for renters.
These new policies mirror earlier state and local coordination efforts by the administration to protect renters through state and local programs that focus on bolstering renters’ legal rights in the courts, and through eviction diversion programs that leverage federal eviction relief funding to keep people in their homes.
However, these programs represent an incomplete set of ad hoc policies and laws that rely on voluntary cooperation by the private sector and do not cover all jurisdictions. In addition, like some of the administration’s earlier eviction policies, these programs could face challenges in the courts. In 2021, the Supreme Court invalidated the CDC’s extension of the eviction moratorium, and new proposals for action by the FTC and CFPB could also likely meet the same fate.
With pandemic eviction relief funding running out, and evictions back to pre-pandemic levels, it is imperative that the federal government and states take action to stabilize the national rental market.
There are arguably two main priorities that must be met—increasing the supply of affordable housing nationwide, and in the face of soaring rents, appropriating new funding for eviction relief to keep renters in their homes. Both of these would require Congressional legislation, but given that the House is currently under GOP control, the prospect of either of these policies becoming law is slim.
So what is the path to achieving these goals in the absence of federal legislative action? The answer is hinted at in the Biden administration’s Blueprint, which both highlights the lack of strong federal statutory protections for renters and notes that rental markets and renters’ rights are defined by a complex patchwork of state and local laws and legal processes that can be difficult to navigate.
In light of this reality, advocates and housing rights coalitions must turn their focus to state legislatures to advocate for new laws that expand protections for renters, including in the eviction process; and enact inclusionary zoning policies and increase state investment to increase the supply of affordable housing, among other policies.
Returning to Nevada, renters’ rights and legal aid groups are now pressing the legislature for changes to existing law to increase protections for renters, including repealing the state’s draconian summary eviction process. While the state’s economy does depend on significant revenues from the gaming industry, stabilizing the rental market must be an imperative given that the vast majority of the workforce of Southern Nevada are renters.
The stakes could not be higher. While it works in the gaming industry, “the house always wins” philosophy can be a disaster for housing and rental markets: if the eviction process continues to heavily favor landlords and leads to a major surge in evictions, Nevada—and the nation—lose.