All of us have been forced to confront new challenges in the face of the global pandemic. COVID-19 has changed how we interact with friends and family, how we put food on the table, how we shop and how we go about many other activities to which, before a few months ago, most of us gave little thought.
Change has come quickly, before many could plan for it. Too many have lost their jobs or have reduced hours and paychecks yet face the same bills. Now imagine the potential loss of your family’s home while dealing with everything else COVID-19 has put in your path.
Tulsa’s eviction rate was too high before COVID-19. We rank 11th in the nation. But now the consequences of eviction for families are even higher. Eviction puts families out on the street during a pandemic — along with their belongings and pets — with too few options for rehousing and with the new record of eviction. Housing options for the lowest income families are few, even in more prosperous times. An eviction today could leave too many families doubled up in other crowded places or even living in their cars or in tents.
The federal CARES Act moratorium on evictions through July 25 protects only those with federally backed mortgages. Now that the eviction courts have reopened, others who rent are at risk. The Tulsa County eviction docket reopened in June with over 1,200 cases pending. There is a crowd of over 100 renters in court for the almost daily docket. No continuances are offered, even if the tenant is sick or caring for an infant or elderly parent. We have to do better. We have to get this right.
The Tulsa City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting a statewide moratorium for evictions, urging Gov. Kevin Stitt to act now. The $10 million in CARES Act funding approved by the governor is not enough, but it’s a start. Tulsa County should augment the state’s effort by sharing some of its COVID-19 relief funding. Using those federal dollars to support housing would help keep landlords solvent and families in housing for a little longer. But that would be a temporary patch on Tulsa’s long-standing problem.
Any reprieve from ongoing evictions should be used wisely. We know that many families facing eviction have only a short-term economic shortfall. Those at risk of losing their homes need more options. Tulsa’s excellent social service agencies have a good idea of the families having trouble, often through calls to 211. A group funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies is working with the city to identify those at highest risk of eviction based on delays in paying water bills. Those with delinquent water bills receive a text message to make them aware of early mediation if they are unable to pay their rent. If interested, the tenant can connect with Restore Hope Ministries, which partners with the Tulsa County Early Settlement Mediation Program.
Prefiling dispute resolution allows the parties to meet with a trained mediator to enter a short-term revision to their relationship that would allow the tenant time to become re-employed and then repay missed rent on a payment plan while delaying any eviction action so long as the plan is followed. By accessing early mediation, a potential costly eviction for the landlord and home loss for the renter may be averted. Avoiding use of court resources saves taxpayers money, too.
Our entire community has a stake in making sure we have a good outcome for those facing eviction. Families without homes face increased health risks. They find it harder to maintain employment, and their children encounter education delays that impact their development for years to come. We share our community with these families, and our ability to succeed depends on their ability to succeed. Putting a stop to evictions and getting financial help from the county will give Tulsa time to get a plan in place to help resolve landlord-tenant disputes before a bad outcome is sealed.
Teresa Meinders Burkett is a Tulsa attorney, a member of the Housing Solutions Inc. board of directors, which sponsors A Way Home for Tulsa, and is a former member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board.