It’s time for action to address Oklahoma’s eviction crisis

Evictions are skyrocketing in some areas of Oklahoma, part of a nationwide crisis in affordable housing. In several counties across the state, including Canadian and Oklahoma counties, evictions in the first half of 2022 were at an all-time high. With the last rental assistance program having closed applications on August 31, the state’s eviction crisis has no clear short-term relief in sight. During the next legislative session, state lawmakers can improve protections for renters against unfair evictions, but the larger housing crisis will take bold federal and state efforts to fix.

The long-feared eviction tsunami has arrived in Oklahoma County

Eviction filings began rapidly increasing at the start of 2022 and remain at record highs in several counties. Oklahoma County, in particular, stands above the rest, with eviction filings rising and staying above pre-pandemic levels this year. Tulsa County, by contrast, has seen an increased number of filings this year but remains below 2019 levels. Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which make up most of the population of their counties, already had very high filing rates before the pandemic, at 20th and 11th nationally.

Oklahoma County’s large population and high pre-pandemic eviction rates make these trends alarming. Oklahoma County saw 1,799 more filings through July of this year compared to the same period in 2019. Typically, evictions across the state drop sharply in March and April as tenants receive a financial boost from federal tax refunds and use refunds to get current on their rent. This year, however, Oklahoma County set an all-time high of 1,610 filings in March, counter to the typical trend.

Statewide, the springtime spike in evictions is not the norm. Among 34 counties with more than 10 eviction filings between January and July in both 2019 and 2022, 22 counties had fewer eviction filings this year and 11 had more. (Grady County had exactly 93 filings both years.) Craig County in far northeastern Oklahoma went from 10 eviction filings in 2019 to 27 this year, giving them the largest percent increase.

It’s not just Oklahoma. Cities in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere have also seen notable spikes in filings this year, according to Eviction Lab’s Eviction Tracking System. Even cities with much stronger eviction protections, like New York City, are seeing a growing wave of filings.

As housing prices spiked, the eviction moratorium ended and rent assistance expired

Federal actions such as eviction moratoriums and massive rent assistance funding were critical to keeping people in their homes in the months following the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The first federal COVID-19 response legislation, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, established an eviction moratorium starting in March 2020 until the Supreme Court ended it in November 2021. The moratorium was aimed at preventing eviction for nonpayment of rent.

As the pandemic continued, Congress authorized over $46 billion in combined rent assistance through legislation in December 2020 and March 2021. In Oklahoma, two organizations — Community Cares Partners of Oklahoma and Restore Hope Ministries —  administered the funds, distributing more than $100 million to keep thousands of Oklahoma families in their homes. Both organizations stopped accepting applications for rent assistance as those funds ran out.

These federal measures undoubtedly kept thousands of Oklahomans in their homes while ensuring that landlords were made whole. But the expiration of rental assistance has been compounded by soaring rent. At the same time, vacancy rates are the lowest they’ve been in years in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa. With more people competing for fewer affordable housing units and climbing costs due to inflation, it’s a recipe for a crisis for low- and middle-income renters.

Oklahoma needs more affordable housing and stronger tenant protections

The legislature has begun to pay attention to issues facing renters, making a small but long overdue change to the Landlord Tenant Act this year to increase the amount renters can deduct from their rent to make repairs neglected by landlords. Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma is expanding access to eviction defense through a major federal grant, a key intervention that leads to better outcomes for tenants.

The larger problem, however, is a nationwide lack of affordable housing. Oklahoma needs at least 70,000 additional rental units to meet the needs of extremely low-income renters. The federal Build Back Better plan that failed in early 2022 included $170 billion in investments across the country that would have made enormous strides; those provisions were excluded from the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 that passed in August. Without an influx of deeply affordable housing, low-income renters will struggle to keep up with rising rents and will be left with few alternative housing options.

State legislators and court officials can take positive measures even without any new investments. The current eviction process is “an assembly line of rushed conversations and haphazard deals” that varies enormously among courtrooms and judges, as a recent report by the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation stated. The report points to increased mediation, more stringent requirements for filing, and allowing tenants to use text messages and emails as evidence in their defense. If judges want to level the playing field, they can do so by a simple administrative order. Cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City could join others that provide free representation to defendants in eviction cases. Additionally, lawmakers could pass legislation to protect renters from landlord retaliation. Oklahoma is one of only six states that doesn’t protect renters from retaliation – including evictions – for lodging a complaint about health and safety concerns in their home. Legislators could ensure renters don’t risk homelessness simply for requesting needed repairs. 

The eviction crisis requires structural solutions and actions

The eviction tsunami has arrived in Oklahoma County and may not be far behind elsewhere across the state. With pandemic-driven federal assistance now phasing out, tenants  face soaring housing costs and a severe shortage of affordable options. Across the country, renters are in a similar predicament, in desperate need of huge investments in affordable housing. In the meantime, Oklahoma legislators and judges can amend laws and eviction procedures to ensure the law is being followed consistently statewide and even the playing field. Without intervention, it may be years before the eviction wave crests.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Gentzler joined OK Policy in January of 2016 as a policy analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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