With COVID-19 threatening to make Oklahoma’s already-high eviction rate jump even higher, tenant and landlord advocates both urged legislators Thursday to reform the state’s eviction laws.
Both sides told a state House of Representatives committee hearing that evictions have become far too common across the state, but particularly in Tulsa, where the eviction rate is the 11th highest in the country, hurting tenants and property owners alike.
“Eviction is a pox on both houses,” said Michael Figgins, the executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. “It’s not helping anyone.”
He recommended at least three legislative changes, asking “why perpetuate a system that nobody likes?”
First, he suggested allowing eviction records to be expunged after a certain period of time, similar to how felony records can be expunged. That way, a previous eviction would not keep a tenant from finding another home, said Figgins, who appeared at the hearing as an individual, not on behalf of Legal Aid.
Secondly, extend how long tenants have to respond to an eviction notice, which might encourage landlords to negotiate payment plans instead of heading to court, he said.
And finally, give tenants a right to legal counsel during an eviction hearing, where landlords almost always have an attorney while the tenants can almost never afford one, Figgins said.
Oklahoma courts handled 44,612 eviction cases last year, with more than 1,200 tenants a month receiving eviction notices in Tulsa County alone.
Statewide, however, a mere 5% of landlords file more than 60% of eviction cases, with most of the “chronic filers” being large, corporate property owners that are based out-of-state, according to data presented at the hearing.
Local landlords seem far more reluctant to pursue an eviction, said Tracy Streich, a property manager who testified from a landlord’s perspective.
Nationwide, 80% of landlords are “mom and pop” businesses that own no more than four rental properties, Streich told the hearing, which was part of a House interim study on evictions, investigating the issue in general while not considering any specific legislation.
Eviction, for most landlords, becomes an option only after all other options have been exhausted, Streich said. And in those cases, tenants bear responsibility for a case reaching that point, he said.
“That for us is a trigger to get them to pay,” Streich said.
However, to help reduce the number of cases, the Legislature could clarify and standardize rules for evictions, which can vary from county to county, even from judge to judge, he said.
“What is a reasonable late fee? What is a reasonable amount of time to wait for someone to catch up?” he asked. “If we knew what the rules were going in, I think it would cut down on the frivolous evictions.”
The COVID pandemic has, ironically, helped reduced the number of evictions in the short-term, partly because the state shutdown closed courtrooms for several weeks in the spring, and many dockets have only partially reopened. Federal moratoriums have also prevented evictions cases from being filed under certain circumstances, while Tulsa officials have allocated more than $20 million in federal stimulus money toward rental assistance programs.
In the long-term, however, 40 million people nationally and 500,000 in Oklahoma could face eviction due to high unemployment and other economic consequences from the pandemic, officials said. That would mean almost everyone would either face an eviction or know someone who does.
“There won’t be a single Oklahoman that doesn’t feel the effects of this crisis,” said Becky Gligo, housing policy director for the city of Tulsa.
Video: Let’s Talk town hall focuses on the state’s eviction crisis.