With a federal moratorium expiring at the end of the month, Oklahoma officials are noting how other parts of the country are preparing for an expected wave of new eviction cases.
Several jurisdictions nationwide have introduced a “right to counsel” for tenants, meaning they will have access to attorneys free of charge during any eviction proceedings, which was a reform that some local officials were advocating even before the COVID-19 shutdowns left millions of American struggling to pay rent.
“With the recent approval of new right-to-counsel efforts in Seattle and Louisville, and on a statewide level in Maryland and Washington, myriad models exist now for providing legal access to those who most need it,” said Katie Dilks, the executive director of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation.
Tulsa had the 11th highest eviction rate in the United States before the pandemic, according to data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. But a series of moratoriums, beginning under the Trump administration and extended by the Biden White House, have limited evictions nationwide for the past year.
The moratoriums, however, are facing several lawsuits, with at least one case now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And most observers expect the federal government to let the current moratorium, imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, expire on schedule June 30 to avoid any further legal battles.
“With the end of the CDC eviction moratorium in sight,” Dilks said, “efforts to ensure access to legal representation for those facing the threat of eviction are more important now than ever.”
Landlords argue that the moratoriums have essentially forced them to rent properties for free. Technically, tenants will still owe the full amount of unpaid rents when the moratorium expires, but it may prove impossible to actually collect overdue balances, landlords say.
“Our members want to be involved in the conversations about how we can work together to prevent evictions,” said Keri Cooper, the executive director of the Tulsa Apartment Association. “Evictions are costly for everyone involved, but it is the only tool available for a rental housing provider to regain their property when the resident is not paying their rent.”
A right to counsel won’t change the ultimate outcome for tenants who aren’t paying rents, but it could prolong the legal process, hurting property owners financially while tenants sink deeper and deeper into debt, landlords say.
“We feel strongly that a right to counsel program is a broad-brush approach that ultimately will not have the impact that those advocating for it believe it will,” Cooper said.
In a sign of how many Tulsans are struggling with rent, the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program has provided more than $3.6 million since April to help county residents pay overdue rent and utility bills, according to the nonprofit group that is administering the funds.
“The number of applications for this program has been historic in number,” said the Rev. Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries.
Meanwhile, scholars at the University of Tulsa are calling for even wider reforms of the Oklahoma Residential Landlord Tenant Act, sometimes known as the ORLTA, which regulates most rental agreements in the state.
Recommendations include extending the notification period before an eviction could be sought. Oklahoma currently requires a five-day notice of unpaid rent, and an eviction can be obtained as as quickly as two weeks later, according to a recent report from TU’s Terry West Civil Legal Clinic.
The report also notes that Oklahoma law defaults to letting landlords keep security deposits, placing the burden on tenants to request getting deposits back.
Most states require a landlord to return a security deposit or give a valid reason for withholding it, the report says.
“Due process, a cornerstone of our democracy, is based on the idea of fundamental fairness. It requires that legislation treat all sides impartially, providing equal access to protection and redress,” said Roni Amit, the legal clinic’s director. “The ORLTA, however, contains provisions that treat landlords and tenants differently.”