NOTE: If you are facing an eviction in Oklahoma, free legal help is available. Go to oklegalconnect.org to be connected with legal services in your area.
The economic devastation brought by the COVID-19 emergency has put millions of Americans on the brink of financial ruin and homelessness. In Oklahoma, nearly half of adults believe they are likely to be evicted or foreclosed upon in the next two months. Statewide, nearly 14,000 evictions have been filed, and nearly 6,000 granted, since Gov. Stitt declared a state of emergency on March 15. Various federal and state agencies have taken actions to protect renters, but the constant legal changes and general chaos of the COVID-19 era have made the situation confusing at best.
The latest major federal development is the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control, which took effect on Sept. 4 and aims to prevent evictions for nonpayment of rent through the end of 2020. Unfortunately, even this far-reaching order has been interpreted differently by different states. Data show that eviction filings and orders have accelerated in Oklahoma even after the CDC moratorium took effect on Sept. 4, and Oklahomans remain at risk for eviction through the end of the year. State and court officials must do more to ensure that people covered by the CDC moratorium are not evicted, but robust federal economic support to families is the only way to avoid a major crisis in the coming months.
The CDC eviction ban covers most renters, but requires action by at-risk tenants
The CDC eviction moratorium prohibits landlords from both filing new evictions and executing previously filed evictions against tenants who qualify for protection through Dec. 31, 2020. To qualify for protection, renters must meet one or more of the following income criteria:
- They will earn less than $99,000 in 2020 (or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return)
- They were not required to report income to the IRS in 2019
- They received a CARES Act stimulus check
Renters must provide their landlord with a declaration stating that they meet the income qualifications and that they have attempted to obtain rent assistance, cannot pay their rent, and will become homeless if they are evicted. After a landlord has received the declaration, they cannot file a new eviction or complete a previously filed eviction against the tenant until the end of the year.
Oklahoma renters are still vulnerable to eviction
Unfortunately, the CDC’s action has not stopped evictions from marching on in Oklahoma. For the moratorium to be fully effective, tenants must be aware of their right to challenge an eviction filing, fill out the declaration, and provide it to their landlord, and the courts must enforce the law. The courts and landlords are not required to make tenants aware of the moratorium. With the legal situation confusing and constantly shifting, it is unsurprising that many tenants are unaware of the protections it provides.
Court data gathered and analyzed by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of OK Policy, show the volume of eviction filings is trending up. More evictions were filed in September than in any month since April, the first full month after the crisis began.
Even for those who are kept in their homes, the CDC moratorium does not prevent rent from accruing through the end of the year. In January, people who have been unable to pay their rent will owe thousands of dollars to their landlords and will almost certainly face an eviction despite the previous moratorium. Without broad, substantial financial help to struggling families, the eviction wave could crest in the dead of winter, leaving thousands homeless in the freezing cold and still amid a pandemic.
Court, state, and federal decision makers must act decisively to delay the emergency and provide financial support to families
The CDC eviction ban, at best, buys time for families whose incomes have been reduced or eliminated by the COVID-19 crisis. In order for this measure to achieve its fullest potential, Oklahoma courts should require notice of the moratorium to every defendant in an eviction case and provide a copy of the declaration along with every eviction notice. The courts — and state and city officials at every level — should be acting urgently to inform the public that they may be protected by the current moratorium.
Federal policymakers must recognize that the economic crisis is not going to abate by the end of the year. Direct financial support to individuals, through ongoing stimulus payments and/or enhanced unemployment benefits, is the best way to ensure that Oklahomans have the money to cover their rent, provide for their other needs, and give landlords the income they depend on for their own solvency.
The CDC moratorium is not enough
The CDC eviction moratorium is a hugely important development for keeping people in their homes through the end of 2020. Those who are aware of the moratorium and are able to fill out the declaration are protected from an eviction, buying them precious time while the COVID-19 economic crisis makes work scarce. State and court leaders must step up to ensure that people are aware and able to avail themselves of the protection it affords. However, it is only a temporary, narrow fix for the much larger problem of widespread unemployment and economic deprivation.
The financial devastation wrought by the COVID-19 crisis will not be repaired by the end of 2020, and the federal government is the only entity that can provide resources to people at the scale necessary. Without robust financial support for the vast population of struggling families, evictions and homelessness are bound to skyrocket when the CDC’s moratorium expires.