As with so many things, the COVID pandemic has shined a light on severe inequities resulting from Oklahoma’s rental laws, which consist of the Oklahoma Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (ORLTA) and Forcible Entry and Detainer actions that are tried in small claims court. The inequities existed before the pandemic, but widespread financial hardship and the inability of governmental processes to get timely help to landlords and tenants is now threatening many who, without a paycheck, can’t make rent and stand to lose their home. The crisis for some has been delayed by the CDC emergency moratorium on evictions, but that will soon go away.
Even if, miraculously, the billions of dollars in rent assistance that has been appropriated by Congress finds its way to landlords and keeps some tenants in their homes, the damage caused by the longstanding inequities in the law will remain until the laws are changed. Rep. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-OKC, requested an interim study to determine what statutory changes need to be made. They should find fertile ground to plow. According to Eviction Lab rankings, in 2016 Tulsa ranked number 11 and Oklahoma City number 20 for evictions in large cities throughout the country.
The Terry West Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Tulsa has done research pointing to some of the fundamental weaknesses in our rental laws. They found that the ORLTA provides tenants with little recourse in the case of a violation of its provisions by the landlord. In addition, the law contains gaps, ambiguities, and unbalanced provisions that create confusion, provide opportunities for abuse, and disadvantage the tenant.
Among these weaknesses is a lack of prohibitions for retaliatory actions against tenants who complain about conditions in their housing. Retaliation can include increased rent, imposition of different rules on the tenant, harassment through unannounced and frequent visits, and unfounded eviction actions. Another serious weakness is that the ORLTA fails to regulate late fees. It fails to set out when late fees can be charged, provides no guidance on what late fees are considered reasonable, and provides no clarity on the ability of landlords to apply payments to rent or to late fees. A landlord can apply payments to late fees and continue with a Forcible Entry and Detainer action for nonpayment of rent.
In addition to these and other weaknesses in the ORLTA, the current law for handling of Forcible Entry and Detainer actions in the small claims courts creates inequities. The short notices required, lack of counsel for tenants, lack of a record of the hearings that would allow appeals, imbalance of resources between especially large corporate landlords and most tenants, and the sheer volume of evictions create a spectacle that will likely some day be the makings of a scandal. In few places is the existence of social and economic injustice more visible than in courtrooms during Forcible Entry and Detainer cases where people are being evicted from their homes. Representatives Bush and Bennett will likely discover this is an area that is ripe for reform by both the legislature and the courts.