One of the important but complex issues likely to come up next session is evictions. The economic dislocation occurring because of the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated this already existing crisis facing many Oklahomans. In a ranking of the top 100 U.S. cities for evictions released before the pandemic, Tulsa was number 11 and Oklahoma City was number 20. The added economic misery caused by the pandemic can only have made the problem worse.
Granting of eviction orders was delayed for a while because of courthouse closures, although some landlords continued to give eviction notices and file cases. In addition, the CARES Act delayed foreclosures on mortgages guaranteed by the federal government. But both those barriers have now been removed, and the full force of the problem will soon be felt.
Eviction statutes exist to allow landlords to recover their property from a renter who fails to pay rent on time or violates some other provision of a lease. Landlords can also recover their court costs, attorney fees, back rent, and damages to their property. Although the statute provides claims arising under the Oklahoma Landlord and Tenant Act may be included in the same action, the question at issue is usually whether the renter has violated the terms of the rental agreement. Tenants often do not appear or don’t know or can’t prove violations that might offset what they owe. Both parties are entitled to hire a lawyer, but indigent defendants are not entitled to court-appointed counsel as in a criminal case.
Existing eviction statutes should be modernized for several reasons. The social costs of eviction are not dealt with. Evictions add to poor health and education outcomes, domestic issues, and continued loss to people already in economic distress. In today’s world, because of the widening gap in income and assets, home ownership is becoming less the norm. Renters, as well as people paying monthly mortgage payments, are living closer to the financial edge and can be temporarily unable to meet their obligations.
Our current statute has no “workout” method such as provisions to consider exigent circumstances not likely to recur, ability to catch up past rent, payment history, hardship, or other factors. The court has no statutory guidelines, absent agreement, to order a workout short of eviction. Despite the fact that the presence of an attorney has been shown to drastically effect outcomes, there is no right to court-provided counsel for tenants.
With the trend toward rent rather than ownership, there is little incentive for landlords to work with tenants to keep them in their homes, although many do so. Some states have created a funding mechanism for “landlord mitigation funds” to encourage leniency by landlords in certain cases. Reps. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, and John Waldron, D-Tulsa, are sponsoring an interim study to begin the discussion. Solutions will not be easy to find, but the search for them is certainly worth the time and effort.