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Fearing evictions, Clark County outlaws discrimination against renters

Updated August 5, 2020 - 8:46 am

The Clark County Commission passed a bill Tuesday that makes it illegal to discriminate against certain renters, upping protections for vulnerable tenants amid rising fears that a surge of evictions could be looming across the state.

By unanimous vote, county lawmakers approved an emergency ordinance that outlaws refusing to rent to someone based on a person’s “lawful, verifiable” source of income or housing assistance, or a prior pandemic-related eviction that occurred because they lost a job or saw their income take a hit.

The county joins more than 80 cities and counties in 17 other states that have adopted a similar policy, but its reasons are hyperlocal: It does not want struggling renters participating in a $30 million county rental assistance program to face housing hurdles and it is also trying to set up protections for others in advance of the expiration of a statewide freeze on evictions Sept. 1.

“If we allow for discrimination against those with county housing assistance or other housing choice vouchers, people already in dire circumstances will be denied the opportunity to find stable housing or they may end up homeless,” said Commissioner Justin Jones, who introduced the ordinance.

Not all concerns resolved

The bill was met by pushback from some trade associations, whom Jones had been engaging in discussions, although the groups said they understood the intent of the ordinance and the situation from which it evolved.

“We recognize the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s a stress on not only tenants but property owners as well,” said Joe Locatelli, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Realtors.

Locatelli had sought an assurance that the bill would sunset when Gov. Steve Sisolak’s statewide emergency declaration ended, an exemption for single-family homes, and removing property managers from facing penalties since he believed the onus should lie on property owners.

Between the ordinance’s introduction last month and its adoption Tuesday, the county added an exemption for single-unit property owners — which includes Jones — but it did not remove housing managers from its list of individuals who could be determined to violate the policy.

The ordinance, which went into effect immediately, is set to expire Dec. 31, but that timeline could be amended by county lawmakers.

Susy Vasquez, the executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, said the group opposed the bill because it wanted to better address the issues that prevent landlords from participating in the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority’s voucher program.

“We accept a number of vouchers from a number of nonprofits. The issue we have is primarily with the housing authority and its requirements and deficiencies,” she said in a statement. “While most requirements are federal, we would like to be able to work with the housing authority to address our concerns related to inspections prior to and during tenancy and with the lack of support once we accept the voucher holder as a tenant.”

After meeting Tuesday afternoon with the housing authority, Vasquez said she was more optimistic about working with the agency but the association would remain opposed to the ordinance until more issues could be ironed out.

‘Panic mode for many’

As many as 142,000 Nevadan households could struggle to pay rent by September, according to a report last month from the Guinn Center, a nonprofit and bipartisan research and policy analysis center.

The grim findings equates to 327,000 tenants, or more than 25 percent of the state’s renting population, the report said. Individuals with low income, people of color and undocumented renters are particularly at risk.

Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance, pointed to how the state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. and is the worst state in the country at providing affordable housing to extremely low-income families.

“Our unemployed Clark County, Nevada residents should not be denied housing because they are reliant on unemployment benefits right now to no fault of their own,” she said.

With the start of virtual school around the corner and the eviction moratorium expiration nearing, “it’s panic mode for many,” according to Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick also wondered aloud if any extra federal dollars from the county’s business assistance programs might be kicked to property owners struggling to pay mortgages. And Commissioner Lawrence Weekly noted that he routinely fields phone calls from such owners having a hard time meeting financial obligations and who also do not wish to put out anyone on the street.

“This ordinance is not requiring that people rent to folks who are unable to pay their rent. It is to those who come with a voucher, or other source of income, and are able to pay,” Jones said. “So it ought to be a benefit to the property owners to have that assurance that they’re going to get paid.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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