She’s crying in the hallway. Sobbing, in fact. A few people glance her direction but most pretend not to notice as they walk past. At the Tulsa County Courthouse, everybody has their own problems.
“Just give me one more chance,” the woman pleads, looking up from her seat on a hard wooden bench.
“I’ve already given you chance after chance after chance,” a man says. He’s wearing khakis and a golf shirt with a clipboard in his hand.
There’s a list of names filling half a page, with hers near the top. And he’s in a hurry to move on to the next tenant.
“I’ve been in the hospital,” she says. “I haven’t been able to work. I can pay you next month.”
“It’s not up to me,” the man says, shrugging his shoulders and looking down at her. He’s the property manager, not the owner. The owner wants her out.
“I’ll lose my job if I let you stay,” he tells the woman. “I can’t lose my job.”
She sobs even louder and buries her face in her hands.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” she says. She has three children at home, one still in diapers. “We’ll all be on the street.”
The man sighs.
“One more month,” he says. “But this is your last chance.”
Her case was dropped, at least for now. But on this particular Thursday afternoon in mid-July, more than 200 other people are facing eviction notices in Tulsa County.
Local landlords file more than 1,200 evictions a month, averaging 14,315 cases a year over the past decade. And Tulsa’s eviction rate now ranks No. 11 in the country with Oklahoma ranking sixth, according to data from Eviction Lab, a nationwide research project based at Princeton University.
The mayor’s office has declared that Tulsa has “an eviction problem,” and officials are promising to fix it. But first they need to understand what’s causing it.
‘Plan A, not Plan B’
For Jessica Plati, it started with the lease itself.
She was living on a tight budget and found an apartment in south Tulsa that seemed to fit it. But the small print added several unexpected fees: $2 a month for pest control, $3 a month for trash pick-up, $4 a month to process her rent payment, and a bunch more, until her total monthly bill went from $525 to $561.
Still, it was manageable until earlier this year, when Plati had to take a few sick days and her paycheck for that week was cut in half. Unable to pay April’s full rent on time, she offered what she had left in her checking account, but the apartment complex refused to take a partial payment.
The landlord instead added a late fee to her bill and, within a few days, posted an eviction notice on her door, she says.
“They’re not willing to work with you at all,” Plati says. “They’re not willing to compromise. It’s pay now or get out.”
Instead of a last resort, landlords often use the eviction process as a routine collection method, filing dozens of notices at a time while making no effort to reach out to the tenants, says Eric Hallett, an attorney for Legal Aid Services who specializes in tenant-landlord disputes.
“It’s actually pretty cheap to file these evictions,” Hallett says, explaining that courts fees are low and some eviction attorneys work on monthly contracts that will charge landlords the same no matter how many evictions get processed. “A lot of landlords use it like a stick. ‘Your rent is late? Bam! Here’s an eviction.’ It’s Plan A not Plan B for a lot of them.”
‘It’s not free’
On a recent afternoon in small-claims court, people are already sitting shoulder-to-shoulder when a bailiff comes down the aisles to make everyone scoot closer together.
“Move down, please. Move down,” she commands. “We have a lot of people standing in the back.”
The crowd is spilling into the hallway when Special Judge Millie Otey begins the 2 o’clock docket. With eviction cases, 97 percent of defendants don’t show up for their court dates and the landlords win by default, according to Legal Aid estimates. But the fraction who do show up is enough to pack a courtroom.
Judge Otey skips formalities, sitting behind the bench wearing a white sweater instead of a black robe.
“Does everybody have their paperwork?” she asks, scanning the crowd. “Get your papers out and find your case number. If everybody has their case number, we can get through this and you can all get out of here, right? Nobody wants to be here.”
She’s holding an enormous pile of manila envelopes in her lap and begins flipping through them, one-by-one, calling out case numbers.
If somebody speaks up or raises a hand, Otey points out the attorney who’s representing the landlord in the case. They’re sitting at the front of the courtroom near the windows and wave to the tenants.
“That’s Mr. Frierson,” the judge says. Or “that’s Mr. Decarlo. You’ll talk to him, OK?”
When Otey has gone through the entire stack of manila envelopes, she sends the whole crowd into the courthouse’s ground-floor hallway, where everyone lines up in front of the appropriate attorney. In a sort of informal mediation, they’ll take turns pleading their cases for a minute or two, hoping to work out a deal that will let them stay in their homes.
The longest line forms in front of Blaine Frierson, who files more than 400 eviction cases a month, more than any other attorney in Tulsa County. He wants to compromise with the tenants, Frierson says. But it’s not always up to him.
“I have to do what my clients want,” he says. “And by the time a case gets to me, they’re usually frustrated and just want it to be over.”
He rejects the suggestion that landlords are quick to file evictions.
“Nobody wants to do it,” he insists. “If a case comes to me, it’s usually because my client has tried everything else and is fed up.”
He blames the local economy, or more specifically the lack of high-paying blue-collar jobs, for Tulsa’s growing number of evictions.
“Nobody making $11 an hour can afford an apartment in Tulsa,” he says. “Not on their own, anyway. They just can’t afford it.”
That’s not the landlord’s fault, he says.
“At the end of the day, you have to pay the rent. It’s not free.”
‘A long-term ordeal’
David, who asked the World not to use his real name, has a college degree. In fact, after serving in the military for 21 years, he went back to school to earn a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University. But he also came down with a rare and highly contagious skin condition that required hospital treatment earlier this year.
When he was healthy enough to go back to work, he had been replaced.
He quickly found work through a temp agency, but missing even one paycheck left him unable to pay February’s rent. Four days after the due date, he got an eviction notice.
“It doesn’t just happen to poor people. It can happen to anybody,” David says. “And it happens fast. They don’t care how long you’ve been a tenant, they go straight to eviction. It’s just ‘get out.’ ”
Facing eviction on top of his medical condition, David says he considered suicide. But a few days before the eviction would have been final, he managed to keep his apartment when Restore Hope Ministries paid his rent and the accumulated late fees.
The only ministry of its kind in Tulsa, Restore Hope helped 852 families avoid eviction last year, paying overdue rents and more than $20,000 in late fees.
“In every case without exception, the families had some kind of unexpected loss of income,” says Jeff Jaynes, the ministry’s executive director. “It’s not that people are living above their means or making poor decisions. They’re living paycheck to paycheck, and then all of a sudden there’s no paycheck.”
Once the rent is late, of course, a tenant will face mounting late fees, making it harder and harder to catch up. Then paying off the overdue rent can put them behind on other bills, which only makes it more difficult to pay rent next time, starting the cycle over again.
Tenants often face several eviction notices before finally losing an apartment, Jaynes says. And once they have an eviction on their records, it ruins their credit and makes it harder to find a new place to live, with tenants often having to settle for substandard housing where landlords don’t care as much about background checks.
“You can have a short-term crises that affects your income,” Jaynes says, “but it turns into a long-term ordeal. And that’s why we try so hard to keep an eviction from happening in the first place.”
Sharing a federally subsidized apartment with his brother, Charles Ireland paid his share of the rent on time. But the landlord accused him of letting other people move in.
Ireland insisted his friends were only visiting, not living there. But the property manager sent an eviction notice.
“He didn’t believe us,” Ireland says, “and there was nobody else to talk to. He wanted to kick us out, so he did.”
The brothers didn’t even get a day in court. After blaming them for a shot-out window, the landlord forced them to leave before the hearing date, Ireland says.
Homeless shelters wouldn’t let him bring his dog, a 17-year-old half-blind Pomeranian named Pee Wee. So he spent several weeks living in the alley behind a midtown Lowe’s before a stranger paid for a room at the Desert Hills Motel on historic Route 66.
“The room’s paid through Friday,” Ireland says, gently petting Pee Wee in the motel’s parking lot. “After that, I don’t know where I’ll be. Maybe back in the alley.”
He resents not having a chance to plead his case in front of a judge, but it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
Out of 14,835 eviction cases filed last year in Tulsa County District Court, a judge ruled in favor of a tenant exactly one time, according to a Tulsa World analysis of court records. Over the last 10 years, tenants have won 0.07 percent of eviction cases, the World found.
“The system is set up for efficiency, to process as many cases as quickly as possible,” says Hallett, the Legal Aid attorney who specializes in housing issues. “The landlords have all the advantages. They have an attorney, but the tenants don’t. And the tenants aren’t entitled to an attorney. It’s not a fair fight in court, so landlords just keep winning, and that’s how we end up in this situation.”
He recommends several reforms, starting with higher court fees to discourage “frivolous filings” and requiring landlords to produce evidence that a tenant really has fallen behind on rent or violated the terms of a lease.
“In any other type of case,” Hallett says, “the plaintiff has to provide evidence that a wrong has been committed. The court doesn’t just take their word for it.”
He also suggests implementing “eviction diversion programs,” where tenants and landlords would take cases to mediation, and not just in the courthouse hallway. Such efforts have significantly reduced evictions in other states, such as North Carolina and Michigan, Hallett says.
Most importantly, tenants need a right to legal representation, he says.
“If there’s an attorney in the room speaking for the tenants, landlords are going to start losing cases,” Hallett says. “Not every case. But they’re going to lose often enough to make them think twice about filing an eviction in the first place.”
‘Not keeping pace’
Facing eviction for the first time earlier this year, Plati took a friend’s advice to go to Legal Aid for help, coincidently meeting Hallett in the elevator lobby.
He found flaws in the landlord’s paperwork and had the first eviction dismissed, only to have a second eviction filed a month later, which was also dismissed.
Plati is now facing a third eviction notice, with late fees racking up since April and putting the cost of staying in her apartment hopelessly out of reach. She’ll move before the end of July and can only hope to somehow avoid having to pay the entire debt she owes, a sum that she says would leave her penniless for the foreseeable future.
“It’s how people go from being self-sufficient to being on the public dole,” her attorney says. “And all because maybe they got sick for a few days and couldn’t go to work.”
People think poverty is what causes an eviction, but it’s actually the other way around, says DeVon Douglass, the chief resilience officer for the City of Tulsa.
“Eviction causes poverty,” she says.
Having already fallen behind on the rent, people facing eviction suddenly find themselves dealing with several more expenses. Moving vans. Storage rentals. Utility hook-ups.
“You have to take time off to move, and a lot of people don’t get paid time off,” Douglass says. “Some people lose their jobs because they have to take time off to move. If you’re already struggling, it’s a disaster.”
Of course, that leads to the risk of falling behind on the rent again at the new place and facing another eviction.
To help break the cycle, the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation is funding a two-year grant to create a housing policy director at City Hall, where the position has already been nicknamed the “housing czar.”
Nobody knows what policies the policy director will adopt. The position isn’t even filled. But the goals seem likely to include creating more housing to increase competition and drive down rents, Douglass says.
“There’s not enough affordable housing for average people as our city continues to grow,” Douglass says. “A bigger housing supply will lead to more stability.”
Researchers at Eviction Lab phrase it a little differently: “Quantity supplied,” they say, “is not aligning with quantity demand.”
But it means the same thing: Rents are too high and there’s not enough affordable housing to go around.
“Nationally, we’ve seen rents increasing and wages not keeping pace,” says Lavar Edmonds, an Eviction Lab researcher at Princeton University. “What often gets lost in debates about eviction is that, for many of the millions facing eviction each year, it’s not so much that people are actively choosing to not pay rent, but rather they are unable to.”
In Tulsa and across the country, eviction doesn’t seem to discriminate, affecting all groups of people regardless of sex, race, ethnicity or geography, Edmonds says.
“For the sakes of our families, friends and people all around the country struggling to find a stable place to sleep at night,” he says, “we can’t afford to not care.”
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