When an Oklahoma statute is so vague that it looks like a different law from courtroom-to-courtroom, it’s a bad law.
That’s how the legal process for eviction is described in a recent report from the Oklahoma Access to Justice. Tenant rights are interpreted so widely among judges that it has created inequities based on geography.
Glaring divides are among rural and urban courtrooms and among those who cannot afford representation.
Disparities include how some judges give 48 hours to leave while others offer up to two weeks; no sound reasoning is given for the difference. Outcomes vary between the landlord bringing one or two evictions a year and the corporate landlords filing hundreds with the backing of a litigation department.
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Mediation and tenant legal representation are rare. Tenants representing themselves are typically at a disadvantage.
“Consistency of due process and justice is not apparent in Oklahoma’s housing courts,” the report states.
Evictions are guided by the Landlord Tenant Act, but “it literally feels like you can see like a different law, one county to the next, based on just where you are,” Katie Dilks, executive director of the Access to Justice Foundation, told reporter Michael Overall.
The law received some updates in the past session that require landlords make prompt repairs that are vital to health and safety. It was the first time since the 1970s that portion of the law was updated.
Legislators don’t like to tinker with that law. Part of the pushback comes from lawmakers who are landlords and fear a loss of power.
We urge these lawmakers to consider this from another perspective. It is in everyone’s best interest to keep people in homes when possible and to get rid of predatory landlords. Consistent housing strengthens communities.
This does not mean renters get free housing. It means identifying problems that lead to substandard housing, homelessness and uneven evictions.
Evictions should be a last resort.
Most landlords in Oklahoma are good, contentious business people. But, lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure all Oklahomans are treated fairly. The report lays out the survey data, collection details and some heartbreaking anecdotes.
An elderly couple had current and back-due rent ready to pay, but the judge ordered they vacate because the landlord filed the proper 30-day notice on a month-to-month lease. When asked for more time due to a disability that required oxygen tanks, the judge gave 48 hours.
A woman showed a judge a text message notifying her landlord of necessary mold removal and air conditioning repairs. The judge refused to accept a text message as sufficient legal documentation.
A woman holding a stack of papers of various communication with her landlord was ignored by the judge, who only asked if she had a lease and was late on rent.
The report offers commonsense recommendations such as enhanced filing requirements, judicial training and mediation. A recent legislative interim study will also offer suggestions. Oklahoma must do better with housing, and this is a start.