Nevada state lawmakers are preoccupied with housing this spring. With just a few weeks left to go before adjourning until 2021, the legislature is still considering more than a dozen housing bills — fewer than it started the session with, but quite a bit more than usual, according to people in the know. And the reasons why aren’t so mysterious.
“Rising rents and limited supply of housing is something that actually is affecting both northern Nevada and southern Nevada,” says Nancy Brune, executive director of the Las Vegas-based Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities. “We often see here in Nevada that the different urban areas don’t experience the same trends at the same time, but this is something that all parts of the state are facing, so I think it makes it easy to get behind.”
Some of the measures that are still active would establish a program providing up to $10 million a year in state tax credits for affordable housing projects, clarify the powers that local governments have to make housing policy and make some adjustments to eviction procedures that are meant to make housing more stable for renters around the state.
The latter two bills implement measures that legal-aid groups in Nevada have been trying to enact for years, says Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers. This session — Nevada’s legislature is biennial, like Texas’s and just a few others — lawmakers seem to have a better understanding of the issues facing tenants, Bortolin says, partially because of the stories they’ve been hearing from their constituents.
“I think Nevada’s current affordable housing crisis has highlighted the power imbalance in our laws and how much power the landlords hold statutorily over the tenants,” Bortolin says. “Especially in today’s market when it’s so hard to secure somewhere new to live, there’s a lot more incentive for a tenant to just deal with their current situation, even if it’s not habitable.”
The speed of evictions in Nevada — from the time a tenant gets notice until they have to be out of the house — is among the shortest the West, Bortolin says. At the same time, while landlords can evict tenants for not paying rent, they have 30 days to return the tenants’ security deposits. That can leave tenants who are already struggling to pay rent in an even more precarious position, and yet, Bortolin says, the changes proposed in the legislation are modest, including a rule that would shorten the time required to return security deposits to 21 days.
“A lot of the things that we’re proposing we would consider codification of best practices, so I don’t think it would affect the majority of landlords who are doing good work,” Bortolin says.
Despite that, the landlord-tenant bills still face some opposition from landlord groups and Republican lawmakers, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.
The real estate industry is also concerned about a bill that gives cities room to create their own affordable-housing policies. The measure was originally introduced as an amendment to a separate bill by State Sen. Julia Ratti, and later became a standalone piece of legislation labeled SB398. When she introduced the amendment, Ratti said it was intended to let cities craft policies that are appropriate for local housing markets — and that if they chose to use that authority to enact policies like inclusionary zoning or rent control, they should carefully study the local market first.
It’s the kind of clarity that local governments have been looking for, as legal opinions from state and local offices have diverged on how much authority municipalities really have. And advocates hope it will encourage cities to test a range of solutions to local housing problems.
“Reno is the first to argue that their area is very different from Las Vegas or the rural areas, so it respects the fact that every city or county may have some different challenges or opportunities,” Brune says.
Many of the housing bills before the legislature came out of the work of an Interim Committee to Study Issues Regarding Affordable Housing, which was appointed during the Nevada legislature’s last session in 2017. Denise López, state director for the faith-based social justice group Faith in Action, says that for several years her group has been talking with local governments about ways to address the affordable housing crisis. In those conversations, she says, cities have said they don’t believe they have the authority to act on housing issues. SB398 makes that authority clear, with a provision that adds “The development or redevelopment of affordable housing in the county or any action taken by the county to ensure the availability or affordability of housing in the county” as a “matter of local concern.”
“This bill seeks to clarify that on issues of such importance, like affordable housing, it is clearly a matter of local concern,” said State Sen. Ratti, according to minutes of the meeting during which SB398 was introduced. “Local governments are not only authorized to act but encouraged to act.”
The bill highlights an evolving set of policies around the country relating to how much housing policy should be dictated at the local level. In California, proposals like SB50 seek to remove some local policy-making pinch-points in order to establish dense housing near transit stations and job centers. Lawmakers in California, New York and Colorado are also considering measures that would allow cities more room to develop rent-control policies, while Oregon recently became the first state to adopt anti-rent-gouging rules statewide.
The Nevada Home Builders Association has come out in opposition to SB398, saying that it would let cities implement mandatory inclusionary zoning policies, which it opposes, and that it would support the bill if it clarified that any inclusionary zoning policies be incentive-based.
So far, Ratti and housing advocates are steering clear of endorsing specific policies for cities to enact. But they’re hoping that SB398 will give cities room to experiment, and that doing so will build support for action on a broader scale.
“We tend to work in a very siloed approach,” says Brune. “I think the real momentum will come from coordinated efforts and thinking about this from a regional perspective, as opposed to a specific city or county.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our thrice-weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.