Oklahoma’s long-standing eviction crisis has been slowed by the infusion of millions of dollars in rental assistance during the last year and a half. While it’s heartening to see major investments in keeping people housed, the eviction process itself is broken, and we need to make it work better for both tenants and landlords.
Small “mom and pop” landlords file relatively few evictions, but when they do, they need a process that effectively helps them to resolve disputes. As it stands, a small number of businesses file the vast majority of evictions, often as a rent collection tactic rather than a genuine effort to remove a tenant. This deluge of filings leaves little space for the purpose of these courts: resolving disputes between individual landlords and tenants. Much-needed reforms to landlord-tenant law should aim to stop the flood of eviction filings by big, corporate landlords and a handful of attorneys, and instead implement mediation and other alternate methods of dispute resolution that can level the playing field between landlords and tenants.
Oklahoma’s eviction courts are dominated by corporate landlords
Residential evictions in Oklahoma are filed in small claims court. Small claims courts were created to be easier for parties to resolve disputes without attorneys, and they are limited to disputes less than $10,000. They were designed to be accessible, and they serve an important purpose, such as an individual plaintiff with a few rental properties who occasionally needs the court to help them resolve disputes with tenants, and vice versa.
In practice, however, relatively few of the evictions in Oklahoma courts are filed by these small “mom and pop” landlords. Instead, large, multi-family complexes and property management companies flood court clerks’ offices with filings month after month. Businesses filed more than five of every six eviction cases between January 2019 and June 2021, according to an analysis by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Only one in six involves an individual as the plaintiff, and a small number are filed by county or tribal housing authorities.
These trends are consistent with other parts of the country. “Most landlords evict tenants rarely, if they ever do—even in neighborhoods that have high overall eviction rates,” write researchers at the Eviction Lab. “Yet, a small set of landlords displace large numbers of tenants, year after year.” In Cleveland, Ohio, landlords from 116 buildings (out of a total of 19,000) accounted for one in five evictions; in Fayetteville, North Carolina, 100 buildings out of 7,700 accounted for one in five evictions. Similar dynamics were found in city after city that the group looked at, just as Open Justice Oklahoma found when looking at eviction filers in Tulsa County in a brief earlier this year. Just 53 plaintiffs out of 3,000 in Tulsa County filed two in every five evictions.
It’s too easy to file evictions in bulk
The small number of big businesses that fill eviction courts are usually represented by one of a handful of attorneys. These attorneys make it easy for eviction filings to become a routine part of the rent collection process. Instead of a landlord working with the tenant to understand their situation, the landlord directs their attorney to file an eviction within a few days of a missed payment. The tenant – who may receive their paycheck a few days after rent is due – then must pay their rent in addition to late fees, court filing fees, and attorney fees in order to stay in their homes.
This dynamic has allowed a few attorneys to file astonishing numbers of evictions in recent years. Court data shows that a single attorney in Tulsa County represented landlords in nearly 8,000 cases, an average of nine eviction filings every single day, between January 2019 and June 2021. Another attorney in Tulsa filed more than 6,100 in this period, and two attorneys in Oklahoma City represented landlords in more than 4,600 cases. In all, just four attorneys represented landlords in more than 75 percent of eviction cases in Tulsa County.
Fixing the eviction process should focus on the heavy users
Oklahoma’s eviction problem is deep but narrow. Big, corporate landlords and their attorneys file for the vast majority of evictions, and efforts to reduce displacement and other impacts created by these filings should focus on this dynamic. Lawmakers could force mediation for such disputes, rather than sending them immediately in front of a judge. They could fund more proactive inspection of rental homes for health violations, keeping them accountable to laws already in place. They could repeal the 2014 law that banned property registries, which hampers efforts to track problem landlords.
Policy changes can help ensure that court capacity is best used to resolve legitimate disputes between small landlords and their tenants. That’s what housing court is meant to be — and could be with the right changes.