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In-person eviction hearings continue as many face homelessness

Las Vegas Justice Court deemed evictions nonessential when COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in March, but evictions are considered essential during the current surge of coronavirus cases.

An administrative order that takes effect Monday has halted all out-of-custody hearings until next year but continued in-person hearings for evictions, protection orders, unlawful towing cases, in-custody hearings and traffic cases.

As of last week, Justice Court had opened up more than 5,000 eviction cases and granted nearly 2,500 orders since October. There is currently a backlog of about 1,000 cases.

By the end of the year, rental assistance funds through the coronavirus relief bill must be spent, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium will be lifted.

That leaves advocates wondering: How crowded will these courtrooms be as more people are inevitably served with eviction notices?

“It’s not necessarily the court’s place to worry about evicting people and making families homeless before Christmas,” said Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers.

“But it is their place to not hold proceedings at the risk of the people inside the courthouse and the possible COVID-19 exposure to people that have to be there. We should really be trying to keep people in their homes as much as possible.”

Interim Las Vegas Justice Court Administrator Grissell Hernandez said evictions initially were deemed nonessential because of an order from Gov. Steve Sisolak. Hernandez also said the volume of cases has been lower than expected.

“We’re going to start seeing the mediation, and we plan on having more than one courtroom handling evictions,” she said. “We’re still here, and we’re going to help them file.”

Responding to notices

The Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada works closely with tenants to file their responses to eviction notices.

The center also operates the Civil Law Self-Help Center at the Regional Justice Center, which closed Wednesday under new Clark County District Court COVID-19 directives.

They are still fielding calls and helping people online, but the majority of clients come in person. Last month alone, they saw 334 people on one Monday alone.

“We have seen people come into the courthouse and come into the self-help center just desperate, holding an eviction notice and saying, ‘Can they really evict me? I’m positive for COVID-19,’” Bortolin said. “And they shouldn’t be there, and they shouldn’t be exposing our workers. But in that moment, what choice do people have?”

And though assistance is available, some people don’t know what options they have, or just assume they are protected under the CDC moratorium.

But that moratorium is only an opportunity for a legal defense. Tenants still have to show up to court.

Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, said landlords are primarily filing notices on residents who refused to communicate or respond to the notices.

Vasquez said 13 percent of the association’s 120,000 units in Clark County aren’t paying rent. About half of those have set up payment plans, while others haven’t communicated with their landlords, she said.

Three of the four tenants who had eviction hearings on Wednesday were no-shows.

“We have a lot of landlords that are hurting and hurting bad,” Vasquez said. “It’s a Catch-22 right now. I understand it’s the holiday season, but we evict people year-round at anytime, and it’s something that’s unfortunate.”

A Thanksgiving ‘angel’

Eva Smith is one of those tenants. When she and her family received a seven-day notice earlier this month, she said she wasn’t aware she had to respond. Tuesday, they received a 24-hour lockout notice.

She woke up Wednesday wondering if they would be living in their car by Thanksgiving.

“Mommy, are you cooking a turkey?” her 9-year-old son, Camren, had asked her earlier in the day.

Her husband, Clifton, had been laid off when the pandemic hit, and she continued to work as a certified nursing assistant until six weeks ago, when she had to have emergency hernia surgery.

That put her out of work and behind on rent. They used their last dollar to keep the lights on at Bridges on Tropicana Apartments, she said. The Smith family is one of 18 tenants who received eviction notices this month.

And even though they were working with Clark County to get rental assistance to stay in their home, their failure to respond to the notice allowed their landlord to receive an order of eviction without a hearing.

Legal Aid of Southern Nevada on Wednesday filed appeals for those tenants and prevented the lockouts. Smith and five or six other tenants’ evictions were vacated when they received housing assistance from the county and submitted it to their landlord Wednesday.

“It was like an angel of God came; I was truly blessed and grateful,” Smith said. “One little help can really change a person’s life.”

And though her son didn’t know what they would be facing, he saw her smile again Wednesday.

“Mom, you’re happy now,” he told her as she headed to the grocery store with their last $40 in food stamps.

Her family had something to be thankful for this holiday, she said. So she bought a frozen turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.