The game of rent

Sewage in the tub, pooping pets and fears of eviction keep Nevada renters and landlords at odds

Paula still feels irate over her former landlord’s lackadaisical attitude toward her plumbing nightmares. She and her husband, a medical professional, ended up filing a small claims suit over their security deposit after they moved out of a home with faulty pipes.

Meanwhile, local hotel resident Marie lives in constant fear that something she’ll do will get her evicted. Since she doesn’t have money for another security deposit, that would mean she’d be out on the street.

“I just don’t like walking around constantly on edge, fearful of everything I do, thinking I could be evicted,” Marie says.

One the other hand, the owner of a Reno property management firm says that it’s not always easy to find reliable tenants whom a landlord can trust with her property.

“There are good renters out there, and you try to get the best ones you can,” Lila says. “Whether you can or not depends on the property you have to work with.”

Lila, who asked that her real name and her business name not be used, says that horrible tenants are rare. She once rented a residence in Stead to a woman who told Lila that she had two dogs. Lila agreed to allow her to move in with the dogs. Later, a neighbor called to say that the woman was breeding the dogs and keeping the animals in the house.

“She had 20 dogs pooping and peeing everywhere,” Lila says. “I had to ask her to leave. It was horrible. The carpet was ruined. That’s the worst incident I’ve ever seen.”

Yes, renters have rights. They have responsibilities too, Lila says. Like paying the rent on time, watering the lawn and reporting needed repairs in a timely manner.

For their part, landlords must keep the residence livable. They must make needed repairs in a timely manner.

But in the matter of evictions, landlords do seem to have the upper hand, according to a handbook, Private Landlord Tenant Law in Washoe County. Landlords don’t have to give a reason for an eviction—just 30 days notice for those renting month-to-month.

The handbook includes answers to many frequently asked questions about security deposits, repairs, essential services and personal property left behind in a lock-out situation. Basically, the book fleshes out the provisions of landlord-tenant law as spelled out in Nevada Revised Statute 118A. It outlines the roles of landlords and tenants and explains how both can make the process of renting a residence as smooth as possible.

“There are a lot of things that make a bad tenant,” Lila says. “I could go on and on.”

Marie says it’s also easy to define a bad landlord—you need look no further than the person to whom she writes a check each week.

“Now I know why there are so many homeless around,” Marie says. “Nobody knows who to call. We don’t have any rights.”

Quaint plumbing

“Overflow anxiety.” That’s what Paula Leeder calls the fear of flushing—the fear that a toilet will plug and sloppy sewage will come up over the edges of the bowl and soak the bathroom floor. Even though the family recently moved out of the older house they rented in Reno’s Old Southwest, the potty fears are still a problem for Leeder’s daughters, ages 6 and 8.

“From January to July, we had 21 days of totally compromised plumbing,” Leeder says. “Sewage was coming up in the tubs. I’d tell the girls, ‘No toilet paper.’ They still have overwhelming toilet overflow anxiety.”

On the Fourth of July, the Leeder family went to see the fireworks. Their sewer problems seemed under control. A plumber had been out the day before. But when Paula and her husband, Alex, returned to the house with their daughters that night after the fireworks, disaster had struck. Their toilet tank had stopped up, and the house was flooded. Water had flowed into the heater uptake vent and gotten down into the basement. Boxes of stored photographs and books were damaged.

“We came home to that,” Paula says. “That was it for me.”

The stress of overflow anxiety, says the stay-home mother, was too much. She’d been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in December, and the early part of this year was spent in testing, treatments and operations. (The cancer is now under control, she says. “Thyroid cancer is the best cancer to have,” she says, adding the caveat, “if you have to have one.")

Alex works as a medical esthetician in Reno, doing such cosmetic treatment as facial peels. Since the family moved here a few years ago, they’ve rented two homes. Both experiences have been less than satisfactory.

First, the family rented a house that had been converted into a duplex. It didn’t take long for Paula and Alex to realize that their electric bills were much higher than they ought to have been. They had an electrician come in to take a look.

It turned out that the water heater was in use by both sides of the duplex. But the electricity that the water heater used was metered on the Leeder’s unit.

“They separated the house into a duplex, but didn’t separate the water heaters,” Paula says. “That is so odd.”

The couple didn’t feel they had any choice but to pay the $200 bill monthly. Then they found a lovely rental house, built in 1927, on Arlington Avenue. The house’s quaint features included antique sinks in the kitchen and bathrooms. They moved in, paying more than $1,000 monthly for the 1,300-square-foot house. All went well for a year and a half.

Then the Leeders found that the sinks with old-fashioned hot and cold spigots weren’t the only outdated plumbing feature in the house.

The first time a plumber came to snake out the clogged pipes, he pulled out feminine-hygiene products, Paula says. The landlord blamed her for the trouble, even though she hadn’t been warned that it could be a problem.

“He never said, ‘Don’t flush anything other than toilet paper,'” she says.

She changed her flushing habits. The plumbing woes returned. During one episode, Paula spoke to a neighbor. The neighbor told Paula that the plumbing trucks didn’t surprise him.

“Been havin’ problems there for years,” Paula quoted the neighbor as saying.

One plumber told her that a pipe was concaved, collapsed in. When a camera was run down through the pipes, it was evident that tree roots had also compromised the pipes’ integrity.

“It was an ongoing problem,” Paula concludes. “And they just carry it over from renter to renter.”

The Leeders finally moved out. They bought their first home in August. When the landlord refused to give them back all of their security deposit, though, Paula was irate. After calling a few agencies for help, she consulted with a lawyer who handles tenant-landlord issues. The Leeders decided to sue the landlord for the withheld portion of their security deposit—and for 21 days of rent during which they hadn’t had adequate plumbing. They asked the landlord for about $1,500. Recently, the case was settled to the Leeders’ satisfaction.

Now, Paula enjoys her new home, also in the Old Southwest. Though she hasn’t unpacked every box, she’s hung a diverse collection of art on the walls. She’s placed a sleek female statue on a pedestal next to her front door. Her mom bought the sculpture at an auction. The family recently acquired a couple of pet birds that cheep happily in another room.

Paula offers me tea. Bach plays in the background as we chat about the tenant’s life.

“As a renter, you’re kind of this lower-class person,” Paula tells me. “You’re treated like a transient who goes from house to house, trashing it.”

Though that may occasionally be the case with some renters, it’s not fair, Paula says, to prejudge people based on their ability to be property owners.

“I don’t think landlords should be gods, omnipotent beings … superior and upper-handed,” she says. “There has to be a mutual respect. [As the tenant], you have to be listened to. You live in the house, and you know what’s going on.”

Habitable housing in Nevada

While landlord-tenant issues are best handled by a lawyer, the legal handbook available at Washoe Legal Services is a handy reference.

The handbook says that, whether a landlord owns or manages dozens of multi-family dwellings or just a mobile home or two, the landlord must maintain that property in a habitable condition, according to Nevada law. A landlord must make available essential services, such as heat, running water, hot water, electricity and gas.

Tenants are responsible for repairs or damages done by themselves, their family and visitors. Emergency repairs, like fixing the pipes when a plumbing problem arises, must be made within 48 hours—not including weekends or legal holidays—of written notice to the landlord.

If repairs aren’t made, or “the landlord has not used his best efforts to remedy the problem,” the tenant can have the repairs done as long as the repairs cost less than one month’s rent. The tenant can then deduct the repair costs from that month’s rent. This can be done only once a year.

The tenant can also obtain essential services elsewhere and deduct the cost from the next month’s rent. If a family like the Leeders had needed to purchase bottled water, the cost could have been deducted from their rent.

Tenants can sue for damages, including the loss of use or reduction of the fair market value of the premises. A provision made by the Nevada Legislature in 1999 also allows tenants the ability to withhold rent that’s due without incurring late fees until the landlord has attempted in good faith to restore essential services, but only if the rent is current when written notice is given.

Tenants can even go find comparable substitute housing during the period of time it takes for the landlord to restore essential services.

Tenant terror

Marie doesn’t want me to come to her apartment, located on a below-the-ground level of a residential hotel in downtown Reno. She’s afraid her landlord might see me and recognize me. Then she’d be evicted.

She’s afraid the landlord might catch her boyfriend bringing in his bike at night. Then they’d be evicted.

Christina Sellai, one of three staff members at Silver State Fair Housing Council, handles complaints of housing discrimination.

She’s afraid to light a candle. That’s grounds for eviction.

She’s afraid to interact with neighbors. A complaint about her from any of her neighbors is grounds for eviction.

She’s afraid to let me use her first or last name. Marie is her middle name.

“She’s vindictive,” Marie says of her landlord. “She evicts people left and right.”

Marie moved to Reno from California about a year ago. She’s since lived in two downtown hotels. These days, she pays $125 per week for rent in a basement apartment with a shared bathroom. That bathroom is Marie’s pet peeve.

“They clean the bathrooms maybe three times a week,” she says. “Those bathrooms are open to anybody who cares to visit. In California, that would be considered a public toilet and cleaned two times a day.” One of the residents must have some kind of “overflow anxiety,” because Marie says that the wastebasket often contains toilet paper with human waste on it.

“Somebody must have been raised on a boat,” she says. “Wiping his butt and putting it in a garbage can! This is human excrement! It’s a contagion!”

The laundry room is in the basement of the building, and Marie says that she’d have expected the floor to smell a bit like dryer sheets. It doesn’t smell like dryer sheets.

“It smells like … old bodies,” she says. “Not dead bodies, but …”

“Unwashed bodies?” I suggest.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it. Unwashed bodies.” She shudders.

She’s saving up to move out, but her boyfriend keeps gambling away their money.

“The one thing that keeps me hanging on is the thought of getting in a house someday,” Marie says.

When she moved into her current apartment, she signed a renter’s agreement. And she signed an updated agreement recently. The new agreement featured some stiff rules about hotel dwelling, including the no-candle-or-incense rule and the clause that stipulates that another resident’s complaint can be enough to get a resident evicted.

Marie didn’t want to sign. But she didn’t want to leave, either. She signed.

“I’m not a mover. I came here and wondered, ‘How come people move around so much?’ Now I know why. I’ve met so many people [who have said], ‘Yeah, I got evicted. Yeah, I got evicted.’ It doesn’t mean anything here.”

No-cause eviction in Nevada

Nevada law allows a landlord to evict any month-to-month tenant (who doesn’t have a lease and isn’t getting government housing assistance) without a reason with 30 days’ notice. Individuals renting on a week-to-week basis can be evicted with only seven days’ notice.

Tenants can contest the eviction if they believe it violates the federal Fair Housing Act—that is, if they feel that they are being discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or handicap.

It is also illegal for a landlord to attempt to evict you, refuse to renew your tenancy, increase your rent, decrease your essential services or even threaten to evict you as retaliation for exercising your rights.

A tenant has the right to complain in good faith about a violation of building, housing or health code or to complain about a violation of landlord-tenant law or of a specific criminal law. A tenant has the right to organize or become a member of a tenants’ union or similar organization. A tenant has the right to sue the landlord or defend a suit involving the landlord’s compliance with laws governing the habitability of his premises.

A tenant has the right to refuse to give written consent to a regulation adopted by the landlord and to complain in good faith to the landlord, a government agency, an attorney, a fair housing agency or another agency about a violation of fair housing laws.


We pulled out the key for the big lock and entered the house with our buckets, rags, mops and brooms. Inside, it looked like the former occupants had just stepped out, maybe, to grab a gallon of milk. Dishes in the sink. Clothes on the couch. Posters and family pictures on the wall. My friend and I went to work, bagging everything, piling it on the lawn.

About a decade ago, I earned some extra bucks by cleaning houses for a property management firm in Utah. The worst houses to clean were those that we knew had been lockouts.

Once in a while, we’d come upon a house in which all the family’s possessions had been left behind, from toys to photo albums to books and probable family heirlooms.

In Nevada, tenants who get locked out still own their property. The landlord can’t hold the property to force a tenant to pay back rent. The landlord must protect the property for 30 days, but the landlord can also charge the tenant reasonable expenses for storage, cost of moving and inventory of the property.

If a tenant is locked out by the sheriff, he or she should make an immediate demand for the release of personal property. The tenant can then move the property immediately before the landlord begins putting property in storage.

If the landlord won’t give the property back, or if the tenant disputes storage charges, the case can be taken to court. In these cases, the tenant must take the landlord to court within 20 days of moving, being evicted or requesting or receiving a copy of the storage costs, whichever is later.

The tenant should go to the justice court clerk, complete a form called Motion to Contest Personal Property Lien and file it with the court clerk. The court schedules a hearing within 10 days of the filing and will notify the landlord of the hearing date.

At the hearing, the tenant should be prepared to bring witnesses who know that the landlord refused to return property and any papers that prove the property belongs to you.

If a landlord attempts to illegally hold property for back rent, the tenant can sue the landlord for actual damages, up to an additional $1,000.

Fair housing

She started her own fight for fair housing years ago as a volunteer housing spy. OK, “spy” probably isn’t the right word. A better word is “housing discrimination tester.”

As such a tester, Christina Sellai would pose as a renter and go calling around for apartments or houses or condos or whatever the staff of the Silver State Fair Housing Council (formerly Truckee Meadows Fair Housing) asked.

“Sometimes it’s just a random audit,” Sellai says. “We just go through the newspaper and call every fifth ad just to gauge how people are being treated.”

The information gathered by volunteers can also be used as evidence in discrimination cases. The Fair Housing Act, passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, started as a means to end housing discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.

In 1974, gender was added to the list, and in 1988, amendments were added to prohibit discrimination against families with children and individuals with disabilities.

Despite these federal laws, housing discrimination hasn’t gone away. Most of it, these days, isn’t directed at race or gender—instead, landlords are more likely to discriminate against families with children and people with disabilities.

“Some people still don’t understand the Fair Housing Act,” Sellai says. She can, and does, name off the seven protected classes like a whiz during our conversation. “And it’s been 30-plus years.”

The Silver State Fair Housing Council deals with complaints in all of Northern Nevada. Its services are free to the public. The office in Reno, at 654 Tahoe St. next to Washoe Legal Services’ office, gets about 400 complaints of housing discrimination a year. About a third of these complaints come from families with children. Another third come from individuals with disabilities, Sellai says.

What do families have to complain about?

Some apartment managers or landlords just don’t like to rent to families with children, or they aren’t willing to put up with any increased needs, however slight, of a disabled person. How do the fair-housing people find this out?

That’s where the volunteer testers might come in. Two testers are selected to represent two families looking for a home. The first group may be a professional couple with a child. The second group may be a professional couple with a mother-in-law who is coming to live with them. Both families are looking for a two-bedroom apartment.

“In both cases, you’re talking about three warm bodies,” Sellai says. “One has a child; one doesn’t.”

The first group, with the child, goes to ABC Complex—a hypothetical name—asking about the availability of two-bedroom apartments. Then the second couple goes to the same complex, asking the same question.

Both families should be given the same information regarding rent, security deposits and availability. That’s the law. But in some tests, Sellai has seen volunteers of the first group—the testers that represent the families with children—come back and say, “You’re wasting your time. They don’t have any openings.”

Then the second test group comes back with a whole list of open units in the complex.

Sellai shakes her head in despair over this.

“Housing discrimination does hurt,” she says. “The victims have to deal with it for a long time. They have to explain it to their kids, or travel long distances because they can’t live in a close neighborhood.”

Discrimination in the workplace is similarly evil, she says. But it doesn’t cut nearly as deep as discrimination in the home.

“Whether our home is a house, apartment or condo, that is supposed to be our safe place," Sellai says. "Housing discrimination hits us in that place."