By Paul Boger, Bob Conrad, Eric Marks, and Lucia Starbuck | Photos by Eric Marks and Lucia Starbuck
For many low-income residents in Reno, finding a traditional apartment or rental home is out of reach. Hosting a broad demographic of residents, weekly motels represent the singular housing option for many of the region’s families and minimum wage workers.
Renters from some of the largest temporary rental property holders in Reno are facing financial strains from not only the current health crisis sweeping over the planet, but also the pre-COVID-19 effects of gentrification.
The Siegel Group (TSG) is a privately held real estate investment firm which manages rental properties in multiple states, including Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.
Based in Las Vegas, the group is a major holder of low income residences in the region, with numerous properties in Reno and Sparks. According to its website, they are responsible for developing and managing “hundreds of real estate assets throughout the southwestern United States with a market value exceeding $2 billion.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nevada Legal Services said some tenants of TSG properties are reporting to them that they are being bullied, threatened and harassed if they are unable to pay rent. These allegations are for actions that are in violation of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s moratorium on evictions.
Multiple attempts by This Is Reno to reach Siegel Properties for comment were unsuccessful. Our media partner KUNR Public Radio was able to talk to a company representative for Siegel Suites to discuss concerns from tenants about its compliance with the statewide moratorium on evictions in Nevada. That statement has been incorporated into a later portion of this story.
A struggling family living in fear
The rent for the amount of living space received was also cited as a problem for other residents of the property, including small families.
This is Reno spoke to one couple in mid-April who asked to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation from TSG. They live at the 7th Street location with their two small children.
They said they’re paying $1,300 a month for a single room unit. Their usual rent was $1,150 monthly, but they “somehow got behind” and their rent was increased. After inquiring with management as to what happened, they were informed that a payment was five days late and the increase reflected the penalty. The penalty was imposed by a former employee, whom the couple said was “let go”; however, management is currently still imposing the penalty.
The couple also said that another former employee informed them they could save money by paying bi-weekly only after they had been there for approximately a year. That employee has also since been dismissed, according to the residents.
The $100 a month savings is a crucial amount for the family, who are already stretching their budget as far as possible. When inquiring directly to the management as to why they were never informed of the policy, they said they were told by staff that they were “not allowed to disclose that information to tenants.”
“I was blown away by it, and also that they were charging me more for using my credit card for payment without my knowledge,” the young wife remarked. “This place is a dime-a-dozen and if you can’t pay rent, you can’t pay rent; we’ll get kicked out,” she said, referencing TSG’s pre-COVID-19 eviction policy.
“They literally have people waiting to get into these rooms,” her husband added.
The couple is facing increased stresses due to the nature of the cramped living space and unsanitary property facilities, including mold and bed bugs.
“I disinfect every day. It’s just us four and I still clean every day,” the wife said.
Coupled with the current COVID-19 crisis and the mandated school closures, the parents expressed concern for their children at the property.
They are seeking assistance from the “Motels To Homes” program, offered through Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada, and hope to be accepted for a one-time assistance funding program that would award them the money for application fees, security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment in an established complex.
It’s an amount the young wife and mother could not otherwise save with the entire family living solely off of her monthly Social Security Disability check.
“We’ve been here for like a year and a half, this is our home,” she said. “But we are just waiting. We’re just waiting for assistance. It’s hard to save money to move into a place and have to pay so much in rent here.”
Temporary resident Jeff Opfer, who has been at the property for a month and intended to move out quickly, summarized his experience: “They’ve been working with us, mainly because they can’t evict us (during the COVID-19 crisis). I imagine if that wasn’t going on, that would be a different story. It’s not a stellar place to live.”
COVID-19 amplifies tenant concerns
On March 29, Governor Steve Sisolak ordered a moratorium on evictions in an effort to keep people housed during the pandemic. It is in place as long as Nevada is under a state of emergency.
“Landlords may not issue any lockouts, notices to vacate, notices to pay or quit, evictions, or other proceedings against Tenants, absent the exceptions outlined in the Directive, even if the Tenant does not make payments under a payment plan for agreements made after the Directive was entered,” the Nevada Attorney General’s office stated in regards to the eviction moratorium.
A tenant is classified as a person who manifests an intent to stay in any type of housing, including motels and hotels. Under Sisolak’s eviction moratorium, landlords are prohibited from harassing tenants if they can’t pay their rent.
“Landlords may not use coercion, duress, or intimidation with Tenants,” the AG’s office added.
But Reno City Councilmember Naomi Duerr said she’s received calls and texts from tenants living in weekly motels who are getting harassed. She said she’s seen harassment, bullying and intimidation tactics. Duerr also said she’s been trying to keep tenants informed on their rights under the moratorium on evictions.
“I think knowledge is power and lack of knowledge is lack of power. If you don’t know what your rights are or what the rules of the game are, you are subject to being taken advantage of,” Duerr told our media partner KUNR Public Radio in early March. “I think with the low vacancy rate in Reno, figure, you leave, I’ll get someone in here tomorrow. They’re bold. I don’t know why people can be like this, but I can’t deny that they are like this. Sometimes they use intimidation, lack of information bullying tactics to handle people. It’s despicable.”
Some tenants living in TSG-owned properties in Las Vegas say they are getting bullied, too.
I could understand…if it was just me, you know what I mean? But…I’ve never once been late. I’ve never not paid.”
Katlynn Stover lost her cocktail waitressing job at the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas after Sisolak’s directive to close non-essential businesses, which included casinos, to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Stover is currently living in a TSG-owned apartment complex in Las Vegas. She said she told the management that she wasn’t going to be able to pay rent. But she continued to receive notices on her door that the eviction process had been started, even after Sisolak’s eviction moratorium.
“I was so stressed out because I’m like, first off, I’m trying to figure out just how to get through the day, like eating and stuff like that,” Stover said. “Then you guys are telling me you’re going to kick me out and I have no idea, what am I even supposed to do right there? Especially when they tell you the eviction process has been started, like that makes you think you got like three or four days to figure something out and you know that you can’t in that time.”
Stover said that management conducts room inspections without warning when she leaves the property. On March 28, Stover received a note on her door that visual inspections will be happening daily.
According to Nevada law, a 24-hour notice is required.
On April 1, Michael Crandall, the senior vice president for TSG Nevada, told KUNR’s Paul Boger that the company’s practices are in line with Sisolak’s eviction moratorium.
“We’re 100 percent following Gov. Sisolak’s order that he put out. We’ve been in touch with all of the state and local officials in Nevada, and in Reno, and in Vegas, and in all areas we do business, and we’re following their order, and we’re working very closely with them and they’re extremely pleased with what we’re doing,” he said. “They’ve been asking us a lot of questions, and information, and favors, and we’re helping our tenants and not just our tenants, but all our communities, where we do have properties and do business, tremendously.”
In Stover’s case, the visual inspections were unlawful, according to Heidi Foreman-Toney, a tenant’s rights counselor for Nevada Legal Services. Stover is one of her clients.
“They can do their inspections with 24-hour notice. But the thing is, when it’s done for the purpose of harassment, like, ‘Hey, you didn’t pay your rent, we’re going to inspect you daily,’ then that’s an issue,” Forman-Toney said. “That’s where it starts to violate the law. Statute clearly says that inspection process can’t be used for the purpose of harassing a tenant.”
Nevada law indicates the landlord shall not abuse the right of access or use it to harass the tenant. Except in case of emergency, the landlord shall give the tenant at least 24 hours’ notice of intent to enter and may enter only at reasonable times during normal business hours unless the tenant expressly consents to shorter notice or to entry during non-business hours with respect to the particular entry.
On April 4, Stover got another note from TSG on her door with two checkboxes marked, which read, “3 days past due eviction process started,” and “Will be doing visual inspection of room daily until rent is paid.”
“I could understand…if it was just me, you know what I mean? If I was the only one that lost my job because something I did. But it’s like, I work, and I’ve been here like six months and I’ve never once been late. I’ve never not paid,” Stover said. “I’ve never had any complaints from the neighbors. I’ve never had any issues here. So there’s no reason that they should be coming at me like I’m trying to screw them over somehow.”
“These are unprecedented times. We have never experienced anything like this. We’re an essential business. We provide shelter for people,” Crandall of TSG Nevada told KUNR’s Boger. “Of course, when we’re not getting revenue it’s difficult, and we’re working through it, and we’re working with our tenants. Keep in mind, we’re also paying every single one of our employees and not letting anyone go because of this crisis. So that’s basically my statement.”
On April 18 and 20, KUNR tried to reach out to Crandall for a comment but he did not respond. Like Jeff Opfer, Stover said she intends to move out as quickly as she can.
“I’m already looking around because I don’t want to have to feel like I’m walking on eggshells in my own home. I feel like I have to hide in my own apartment,” she said.
Landlords struggling to stay afloat during pandemic
Foreman-Toney with Nevada Legal Services said during the pandemic, she’s seeing a surge of landlords using aggressive bullying tactics to remove tenants since courts in Nevada won’t process eviction notices. She said this is a rare occurrence as landlords usually evict tenants lawfully.
“I think that the landlords are pressed financially. They want to collect the rent and their hands are tied. They’re unable to pursue the remedies they would usually be able to pursue in order to collect their rent,” Foreman-Toney said.
Landlords use rent money to pay for utilities, sewage services and maintenance, which are all still required to be provided under Sisolak’s moratorium. However, there has been little to no relief for landlords.
Reno Councilmember Duerr wants to see assistance for landlords, like rent forbearance.
“So what we’re recommending is that it would be very clear that you would not have to pay rent for 90 days or more, particularly if your landlord receives mortgage forbearance,” Duerr said. “So if your landlord has a loan, and gets that loan renegotiated, that should trickle to you. Your landlord doesn’t have to pay; you should not have to pay.”
Duerr said there are different avenues she’s willing to try to help landlords with their costs.
“Landlords owe property tax. I am not, would not, be excited that the City of Reno would get less money, but on the other hand, we’ve all got to give here. Maybe that’s something that we could come to the table with: You’re going to waive your tenants’ rent, we’re going to waive a portion of your property tax. I think we would need state authority to do that but that’s just a new idea. Maybe it’s a new concept that we’d have to work through some examples and see if that would really work,” Duerr said.
On April 7, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford announced that the Nevada State Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee approved two million dollars in funding to go toward emergency rental assistance for those impacted by COVID-19 in Nevada. The funding was first distributed to the United Way in Northern and Southern Nevada and then it was parsed out to smaller organizations.
United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierras was allocated $410,120 for rental assistance and the funds were disbursed to organizations in Northern Nevada on April 30. Tenants must apply for the assistance from the local organizations, and once they are approved, the organizations are instructed to send the checks directly to landlords.
Nevada Attorney General’s response
If tenants are being bullied, threatened, harassed or facing unlawful evictions, they are being encouraged to file a complaint with the Nevada Attorney General’s office — and many tenants are.
During the Nevada State Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee on April 7, the Nevada AG’s Chief of Staff, Jessica Adair, spoke about the record amount of complaints the office is receiving.
“Our office is, has been, taking complaints from renters seven days a week. I’ve never seen the call volume that we have, email volume that we have received from folks who are terrified of being evicted or wrongly being threatened with eviction. Of course, we’re taking care of that through the AG’s office,” Adair said.
KUNR reached out to the AG’s office to find out what the consequences are for landlords who are violating guidelines under Sisolak’s eviction moratorium. KUNR was told that no one from the Nevada AG’s office is available for an interview but was provided the following statement in an email:
“The Directive was issued pursuant to the emergency powers granted to the Governor in accordance with NRS chapter 414. The directive states that violations will be dealt with harshly. AG Ford has directed his Bureau of Consumer Protection to take any lawful measures in enforcing violations and to do so in a manner that ensures compliance with the Directive. His Bureau of Consumer Protection has authority to enforce NRS chapter 598 which includes potential action with treble damages for each violation. Again, AG Ford is encouraging individuals in this situation, or with any concern regarding the Governor’s eviction moratorium, to file a complaint with the AG’s office here http://ag.nv.gov/Complaints/File_Complaint/. In addition, AG Ford encourages individuals to reach out to Legal Aids or private attorneys for assistance with their rights.”
Stover said she filed multiple complaints to the AG’s office. She received, in part, the following response: “We are highly concerned by allegations that any landlord or lender would violate the Governor’s Directive. Accordingly, we made an inquiry to your landlord or lender about your allegations. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention and welcome any additional information you can provide concerning your complaint.”
Foreman-Toney said she encourages tenants who are still being bullied to file complaints to the Nevada AG’s office or get in touch with Nevada Legal Services.
“I’ll say 365 days a year: I want tenants to know their rights. Right now it’s a situation where people are out of work and without the Governor’s moratorium they’d be facing homelessness, immediate homelessness,” Foreman-Toney said. “It’s something that is affecting so many people and it’s not anyone’s fault. There’s just a horrible illness out there. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we just need people to stay at home to stay safe. But how can you stay safe, and stay home, and be healthy, when you’re being pushed out the doors of your home?”
There is also a lot of uncertainty about what will happen after Sisolak’s moratorium on evictions is lifted. Rent will still be due — eventually. Many tenants in Nevada are terrified they might be facing evictions shortly after the moratorium is lifted.