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January 16, 2020

Nevada Public Radio
Mike Prevatt

Hours after the smoke cleared from the December 21 Alpine Motel Apartments fire, investigators said the culprit appeared to be a stove. 

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Hours after the smoke cleared from the December 21 Alpine Motel Apartments fire, investigators said the culprit appeared to be a stove. 

For many tenants of the housing complex, that appliance was their sole source of heat. They had complained about their broken heaters to the property owner, but to no avail. And not only did the heaters remain broken, so were the fire alarms. 

Questions abound almost a month after the fire, which killed six and injured 13. What recourse do apartment renters have when the landlords fail to fix essential services like heat, gas and electricity -- especially if they can’t afford an attorney?

The first line of defense when it comes to what are known as essential services is the Southern Nevada Health District.

Dan Slater is the senior environmental health specialist at the district. He said essential services are heating, air condition, clean water, hot water and power. 

If those services aren't available at the rental unit or house, renters need to first give written notice to the landlord.

"Once the notice has been given and the problem hasn't been remediated, we can send an inspector out to the home or the apartment," Slater said, "We can provide documentation to the residents. We can provide the same documentation to the landlord, stating, 'We've been out to your property. We've confirmed this problem.' And then at that point, it becomes a civil matter with the residents."

When it becomes a civil matter, renters can get a lawyer involved or talk to someone at the free and reduced-cost legal services agencies in Nevada.

Lauren Peña is an attorney with Legal Aid of Southern Nevada, which offers free and reduced-cost legal help. 

She said by law apartments and homes for rent must be "habitable." If after it is shown that they're missing essential services, renters can do things like withhold rent to get landlords to fix problems.

But she added that renters should send written notice to landlords about the problem and document any issues they are having.

Peña said one of the most important things her office does is explain renter rights to people.

"Our mission is to get information and access to folks who come in so they know their rights," she said.

Some of those rights expanded during the last legislative session with the passage of a few bills.

State Senator Yvanna Cancela worked on getting some of those bills passed, including a bill that requires eviction notices to be given through an official, like a constable or the sheriff's office.

Another provision capped late fees to 5 percent of monthly rent. Before the cap, landlords could charge a "reasonable" amount, which could be any amount. 

Lawmakers also changed to the law to allow people to return to a home or apartment after being evicted to get personal belongings.

"We've heard horror stories of seniors who are evicted because they were hospitalized and then can't go back into their homes to recover their medications and that's just wrong," she said.

Beyond the reforms that have already been instituted, Cancela said lawmakers should take a comprehensive look at issues that are impacting housing in Nevada, including corporate, out-of-state property owners, inventory shortage, affordability and the difficulty of moving from renting to ownership. 

"We can just do so much better than what we're doing today," she said.