On the same day lawmakers approved millions of dollars to go toward children’s mental health, county officials and legal service providers explained how additional rental relief funding could help alleviate pressure on the child welfare system.

Rental assistance and eviction prevention programs prevented a feared tsunami of evictions in the first year of the pandemic, but Clark County Deputy County Manager Kevin Schiller warned legislators that a “human services pandemic has not peaked.”

More funding, he explained, is needed to keep people housed, divert tenants from the court system and prevent overloading the social safety net, including homeless services and child welfare.

About 85% of child welfare cases are due to neglect, which could boil down to families with children facing steep increases in rents that don’t match their wages and become unhoused, Schiller said.

“The cost of child welfare when I open a case and bring a child into the system is 30 times higher than me diverting that client and that family, if I can safely do it in the context of housing,” he said.

Lawmakers at the Aug. 17 Interim Finance Committee meeting approved an additional $25 million of American Rescue Plan funding for rental assistance in Clark County, ensuring the county won’t run out of funds for the CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAPs) early this fall, as was previously expected.

Barbara Buckley, executive director of Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said the funds are needed to prop up assistance programs that prevent homelessness and help Southern Nevada once again prevent a potential tsunami of evictions.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the county has issued more than $300 million in rental assistance. That has kept 65,000 households in their homes, said Tim Burch, Clark County’s administrator of human services.

The need for relief is still apparent, but not necessarily Covid-related. As rents have increased by more than 20% statewide and each county contends with a lack of affordable housing, people are still struggling.

Buckley said her organization’s offices see about 4,000 cases of people facing eviction every month in Clark County.

“What we see, as people begin to get jobs back, the rising rents crush them,” she said. “It’s affecting seniors. It’s affecting people with disabilities. It’s affecting families. A family has to make $50,000 a year to afford the average cost of rent in Clark County. So if you’re getting paid 12 bucks an hour, you can’t afford to rent. It’s true in Reno too.”

A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found Nevadans need to earn $23.70 an hour to afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment. The state’s current minimum wage is $10.50 and won’t reach $12 until 2024.

In a housing market where even higher income earners struggle with rent, Democratic state Sen. Dina Neal worried that income requirements for rental assistance might prevent some households from applying.

Earlier federal funds used for the CHAP program also required recipients be directly impacted by Covid.

“There are people seeking rental assistance because now there are higher rents,” she said. “A two bedroom now might even be $1800, $1900 even $2100 and they may have a higher income. Maybe they are at $50,000 but still with children and everything they can’t afford to pay that and they are not eligible for assistance.”

Burch said once the county runs through the current federal funding being used for rental assistance, it will be able to make the requirements more flexible to assist people on a fixed income or facing an eviction due to higher rent.

Though some of the federal funds came with limitations on providing rental assistance, Schiller said the county still used general funds or other flexible dollars to assist people in need.

“They are falling in the gap and at the end of the day that gap still ends up at our front door,” he said.

Examples he pointed to included using various funding sources to create more than 500 units of transitional emergency housing. And at one point the county rented a 159-room hotel.

Schiller said the hotel was filled immediately – within a week – but helped divert clients’ families with children who were entering homelessness from the Department of Family Services.

Staving off evictions, homelessness

The alternative to phasing out rental assistance, Schiller said, would likely lead to a dramatic increase in people entering homelessness – even with rental assistance, Southern Nevada reported an increase in year-to-year homeleness in 2022.

“If we don’t have these dollars now and we phase out rental assistance, if I was testifying before you three months from now what I would be saying to you is, ‘we’ve shut this down and now I’ve had to go to the convention authority’ or had to go somewhere to set up a 500 bed emergency shelter, because that’s the only option we would have,” he said.

The county is planning to use $10 million of the allocation for an eviction diversion program.

“With rising rents across the states and in Clark County, we have 80 year olds on oxygen tanks getting an eviction notice,” Buckley said. “It gives us time to come up with a solution that keeps the landlord paid and keeps the tenant housed. It’s a win-win instead of throwing the 80 year old out on the street and having them go to Catholic Charities.”

While the goal of the program is to divert tenants from going to court in the first place, Buckley said Nevada’s summary unique eviction process makes it tricky.

The current process places the burden on tenants to file with the court first after being served with a paper notice by landlords.

“You will be receiving a bill draft next session to reverse that process,” Buckley said. “Then when the landlord serves the complaint it can go right to diversion to keep a court appearance from ever being needed.”

For the last year, the county has been collaborating with Legal Aid and the courts to provide assistance for people at risk of eviction. However, Burch said less than 20% of individuals who receive an eviction notice “turn up to fight it.”

While the diversion program is focusing on Clark County, Buckley hopes they could accumulate enough data to present to lawmakers in the 2023 Legislative Session to potentially expand statewide.