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Their landlord got millions in rental assistance. They faced eviction.

Updated June 21, 2021 - 4:42 pm

The coronavirus wasn’t the only threat Nancy Williams had to fend off during the pandemic.

She and her adult son have received four eviction notices since September despite their landlord receiving millions of dollars in federal rental assistance to continue housing tenants like the Williamses — and despite state and federal eviction moratoriums in place.

It has been a nerve-racking experience for the family, who spent about three months sleeping outdoors in a downtown Las Vegas alley before moving into a Siegel Suites near The Strat hotel-casino in November 2019. The two were unemployed for several months after Nevada’s economy shuttered, and Nancy Williams said an eviction probably would have put them back on the streets or into a crowded shelter.

“It’s like living on pins and needles,” said Williams, 54, whose chronic lung disease put her at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19. “I lived in fear every day that the constable was going to come and knock on our door and tell us we had to leave.”

Her family dodged the eviction attempts with the help of a legal aid attorney. Many other Siegel Suites residents weren’t as fortunate.

Law enforcement agencies received some 450 eviction orders to carry out at Siegel Suites and Siegel Select properties last year, compared with about 550 in 2019, according to a joint analysis of government records by the Review-Journal and Eric Seymour, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. The company’s year-over-year decline was much smaller than the Las Vegas Valley at large, where annual evictions fell by more than half, down to about 11,000 from 23,500.

Meanwhile, Siegel Suites collected over $2 million in federal rental assistance from Clark County, one of the largest amounts received by any landlord in the program’s first round of allocations. Las Vegas-based real estate firm The Siegel Group, which operates Siegel Suites, also received more than $3 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.

The Siegel Group declined to be interviewed for this story.

Consumer rights attorney Jim Berchtold decried the company’s actions.

“It’s a travesty,” said Berchtold, whose nonprofit law firm Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada represents Williams and other Siegel Suites residents facing eviction. “With that (rental assistance) benefit, I think comes some responsibility to adhere to the idea that it is dangerous to evict people during the course of a pandemic.”

The company’s portfolio includes more than two dozen Siegel Suites and Siegel Select locations in the Las Vegas Valley, with about 4,000 rental units combined, property records show.

The chain of hotel-apartment hybrids — which allows tenants to forgo annual leases and pay by the week for furnished accommodations — can be one of the few options available to low-income renters who struggle to obtain traditional rental housing, Nevada Housing Coalition Executive Director Christine Hess said.

Many of those cash-strapped tenants struggle to build savings or pay for other essential needs like quality health care, Hess said. An eviction probably would send them into overcrowded living situations, such as a homeless shelter, where the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 could be compounded by unmanaged health problems.

“For those in weeklies, homeless is knocking loudly,” she said. “When you’re in crisis, taking care of yourself is not always first on your mind.”

Changing eviction ban

Williams and son Joshua were months behind on their rent when Siegel Suites served them an eviction notice in early September.

The construction jobs they started shortly after moving dried up at the beginning of the pandemic, and they were waiting to find out if Nevada’s overwhelmed state unemployment office would award them benefits.

In early summer, Williams declined to enter a repayment plan that would require her to pay an additional $151 on top of her regular rent of $285-per-week through the end of the year. She said she simply couldn’t afford it.

Now the company wanted her out but not for unpaid rent. Instead, the company said it could remove Williams and her son because they didn’t have an active lease.

Similar notices for “no-cause” eviction were taped to doors of neighboring apartments, she said. Williams contacted the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada as her neighbors began to move out — some voluntarily and others after a constable arrived to change their locks.

“A lot of them didn’t fight it,” she said. “Everyone assumed that because there was an eviction moratorium that they couldn’t be evicted, and I think Siegel took advantage of that.”

As Nevada faced the nation’s highest unemployment rate in spring 2020, Gov. Steve Sisolak temporarily banned most residential evictions. But he amended the moratorium multiple times last year, leaving some tenants confused about protections.

Days before Williams received her eviction notice, Sisolak had made another change.

This latest directive still banned evictions over missed rent, but it no longer included language that explicitly forbade using no-cause evictions as a workaround.

Governor’s office spokeswoman Meghin Delaney wrote in a statement Friday that the removed language had never actually extended “the scope or reach” of the governor’s eviction moratorium.

“The rules are the rules,” Delaney wrote. “That language was aimed at warning people from trying to dishonestly skirt the rules — not explicitly repeating the line in subsequent directives did not have any bearing on the legal scope of the directives.”

In October, Sisolak lifted the entire statewide moratorium. Renters were left to rely on a new federal eviction ban.

That moratorium, penned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offered no direct guidance about how to handle no-cause cases. And while it prohibited nonpayment evictions, tenants needed to opt-in to protections by submitting a declaration form to their landlords.

The ambiguities meant trouble for Siegel Suites residents.

State law allows landlords to evict a tenant for no cause at any point after their lease has expired. Nevada also gives weekly renters less time after receiving a no-cause notice — seven business days instead of 30 — to vacate their home before their landlord can initiate an eviction against them.

Having never entered into long-term leases and paying weekly rent, large numbers of Siegel Suites tenants were vulnerable to expedited no-cause evictions, according to legal aid attorneys.

“It was definitely an abused loophole,” said Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers. “I don’t think anyone intended for the most vulnerable tenants to be left out of protections, but that’s how it played out.”

No-cause evictions increase

In an October court filing, a Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada attorney accused Siegel Suites of trying to circumvent bans on nonpayment evictions.

The tenant in the case, Suzy Niffenegger, told the Review-Journal she felt harassed after refusing to sign a repayment agreement she couldn’t afford. Employees at her property were constantly asking to inspect her apartment, and she lost access to the building’s wireless internet.

“They were constantly knocking on my door for something,” said Niffenegger, 51. “I just felt picked on. I felt unfairly treated; I still do.”

The Siegel Group Senior Vice President Michael Crandall declined an interview with the Review-Journal this week, but he previously has said that Siegel Suites has not targeted tenants who owed money during the pandemic.

Crandall told the Nevada Current in September that “we aren’t evicting anyone for any nonpayment of rent.”

In December, he wrote in a statement to The New York Times that Siegel Suites was filing evictions “when necessary because of unregistered guests, illegal squatters, property damage, criminal activity, and other conditions causing an unsafe environment.”

But public records paint a different picture. The Review-Journal analyzed eviction notices for all 452 court-ordered lockouts that law enforcement officials received for Siegel Suites properties last year, except for 14 cases that had since been sealed.

The company had only eight nuisance-based evictions in 2020.

Instead, Siegel Suites overwhelmingly evicted tenants for nonpayment of rent in January, February and March 2020. It carried out fewer than 10 no-cause evictions during these months before the state and federal bans on nonpayment cases were enacted.

After a summer with relatively few evictions, Siegel Suites began removing large numbers of tenants in the fall. None was a nonpayment-of-rent case.

After Sisolak’s September directive, the company pursued primarily no-cause evictions. Local courts approved at least 300 before the year’s end, many because of tenants not responding in time or failing to opt-in to CDC protections.

In Williams’ case, Siegel Suites backed off after she was approved for more than $10,000 in federal rental assistance in early October. The money covered her back rent and made her payments through the end of November.

The reprieve didn’t last long. Williams found another no-cause eviction notice taped to her door in early December.

“All they want is their rent,” she said. “They don’t care about anything else.”

Sisolak reinstated the statewide moratorium later that month. This time it suspended all ongoing no-cause eviction cases for tenants who owed rent.

In late November 2020, the executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association told the Review-Journal landlords were primarily filing notices on residents who refused to communicate or respond to the notices.

Susy Vasquez said 13 percent of the association’s 120,000 units in Clark County weren’t paying rent at the time. “We have a lot of landlords that are hurting and hurting bad,” Vasquez said.

Assembly Bill 141

As Nevada’s biennial Legislature came to an end last month, state lawmakers rushed to offer some forgiveness to renters evicted during the pandemic.

But Siegel Suites tenants will largely be excluded from the measures.

Assembly Bill 141 requires courts to automatically seal all nonpayment evictions granted during Nevada’s declared state of emergency for COVID-19, which has been in effect since March 2020. It does not cover no-cause evictions.

Berchtold said the law’s passage was an important but bittersweet victory for tenants. Having a recent eviction can severely diminish a renter’s chances of finding new housing.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “Frankly, the number of actual nonpayment evictions that were issued during the course of the moratorium was fairly small in comparison to the other types of evictions that were granted.”

With Nevada’s statewide moratorium concluded, housing advocates fear a massive wave of evictions will arrive when the CDC moratorium expires at the end of June. Census survey data indicates roughly 40,000 households here believe they could be evicted sometime within the next two months, Guinn Center Executive Director Nancy Brune said.

Williams said she hopes to move out of Siegel Suites by then. She and her son have both found work again and are saving to afford a security deposit at a traditional apartment.

“We’re looking more toward the future now,” she said. “For a while it was bleak. Now it’s starting to turn around.”

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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