Amid unprecedented economic crisis, Nevada lawmakers approve rent relief spending

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With the state’s economy ground nearly to a halt due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, Nevada lawmakers authorized spending $2 million on a fund that provides struggling people help with rent.

The money comes as unemployment is surging to record highs and renters around the state are worried they could be lose their homes.

“Our office has been taking complaints from renters seven days per week,” Jessica Adair, chief of staff to Attorney General Aaron Ford, told the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee. 

Adair spoke by phone to the committee, which was meeting online due to pandemic-related restrictions on travel and gatherings. 

“I have never seen the call volume we have … from people who are terrified,” Adair said.

Even though Gov. Steve Sisolak issued an emergency suspension of evictions during the crisis, Adair said the measure is only temporary.

When the moratorium expires, renters, many of whom were struggling amid a housing shortage before the pandemic, will still owe landlords money as they cope with the aftermath of the economic shock.

Sisolak’s order “does not mean people will not have to pay their rent. Rent is still due,” Adair said. “Thousands of Nevadans will still owe back rent.”

The $2 million funding, Adair said, is “so we don’t have a spike of evictions when the directive is lifted.”

Fast-tracking the relief 

The money comes from Nevada’s $13.4 million share of a $575 million legal settlement between Wells Fargo and attorneys general of all 50 states and the District of Columbia over the national bank’s violation of consumer protection laws.

Under terms of the deal, the money goes to the Attorney General’s office but requires legislative approval for spending.

The idea to use $2 million to boost the Congress-approved Emergency Food and Shelter relief program administered by the United Way of Northern and Southern Nevada came months ago, before the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic struck the state.

But the sudden economic calamity made the need to approve it more urgent, backers said.

“The need is going to be now in the next 60 days,” said Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. “I think that we need to get these dollars to the ground.”

Others disagreed.

Four committee members voted against the funding.

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Minden, said he thought the funding was disproportionately weighted to Clark County. According to the proposal, 80 percent of the money is targeted for Clark County with 20 percent for the rest of the state.

Wheeler said the funding distribution should be similar to population, with about 65 percent going to Clark County and 35 to the rest of the state.

“I think the northern counties here might need this in some way in a little greater amount,” Wheeler said.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said with Sisolak calling for drastic reductions in upcoming budget proposals, the state should avoid spending the money now.

He recalled budget debates during the Great Recession that included cuts that would take away college scholarships and reduce vital mental health services.

“Those are the choices we are going to be making in the next few months,” Kieckhefer said.

Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, supported the proposal to spend the money and disagreed with Wheeler and Kieckhefer.

“We are in a pandemic right now,” Frierson said. “It is really about where the problems are and getting the money there as fast as we possibly can.”

Adair said even with the additional money, the needs of struggling renters will far outstrip the supply of resources available to help them.

While Congress has approved one-time payments of up to $1,200 and additional money to supplement state unemployment payments, she told the committee communities are only seeing “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to financial distress.

“A lot of folks are in a lot of trouble,” Adair said.

Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.

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