Fifty-four years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination in housing because of race, national origin, religion, or sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation). In 1988, the law was expanded to prohibit discrimination based on disability and familial status (pregnant women or the presence of a child under 18). Fair housing advocates celebrate the passage of this landmark civil rights law each April by commemorating Fair Housing Month and highlighting the efforts still needed to create equity in housing. Even with this federal legislation, racial disparities in housing still exist. For example, the housing authority in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, in Kiowa County, settled a federal lawsuit accusing the agency of discriminating on the basis of race in January 2022. Policymakers should use Fair Housing Month to commit themselves to addressing injustice and creating equitable housing opportunities.
Legislative gaps in Oklahoma harm tenants, particularly households of color
The Oklahoma Residential Landlord Tenant Act (ORLTA), first adopted in 1978, needs to be updated to create equity. All states and the District of Columbia have laws determining the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords, but Oklahoma’s laws overwhelmingly favor landlords. The ORLTA contains several legislative gaps that favor landlords, including a low bar for allowing landlords to terminate a lease and failure to protect tenants from retaliation. When the landlord fails to make needed repairs to a rental unit, current law allows tenants to make the repairs themselves but caps the amount they can deduct from their rent for those repairs at $100. These gaps make it relatively easy for landlords to evict their tenants and disproportionately impact people of color. People of color are much more likely than white people to be renters rather than homeowners. Nationally in 2019, 58 percent and 53 percent of Black and Latinx households respectively were renters, compared to only 31 percent of white households. In Oklahoma, people of color occupy 33 percent of rental units but only 20 percent of owner-occupied units. While the intent of the state’s landlord-tenant laws was not to cause harm, ORLTA’s net impact has been to disadvantage Oklahomans of color.
Legislators can take purposeful steps to close these harmful gaps
Legislators can strengthen protections for renters by increasing the amount tenants can use for repairs and deduct from their rent. They can also pass legislation to protect tenants from retaliation for reporting health and safety violations. Additionally, passing a right to counsel law for Oklahoma tenants could advance racial equity and protect a tenant’s basic rights. Unlike in criminal cases, people facing eviction in Oklahoma do not have a right to legal representation as they do in some other states. In jurisdictions that provide a lawyer to defendants in housing court, tenants are twice as likely to remain in their home than those without representation.
A renter tax credit could also help level the playing field between renters and homeowners. Oklahoma homeowners enjoy generous tax benefits, like the homestead exemption, while renters have none. The homestead exemption is intended to offset property taxes paid by homeowners. However, tenants pay property tax indirectly through their rent and should also qualify for an exemption. Under the current tax system, homeowners are given preferential treatment simply because they own their own homes. Systemic racism embedded in our laws and policies, including segregation and redlining, have greatly skewed the racial demographics of homeownership in Oklahoma. A renter tax credit could increase racial and economic equity. A separate tax credit for Oklahoma renters was proposed this session but unfortunately failed to advance out of committee. House Bill 1347 would have provided renters with a refundable tax credit of $110 – equal to the average benefit homeowners receive from the homestead exemption.
Oklahoma’s Fair Housing laws and enforcement also need to be strengthened. Oklahoma is one of 11 states with a law prohibiting landlords’ discrimination against would-be tenants based on income sources such as alimony, disability benefits, or housing vouchers. However, Oklahoma’s source of income discrimination only applies if it happens in conjunction with other protected class discrimination such as race, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability. Voucher holders are more likely to be Black compared to the general renter population, so even when race is not a factor in source of income discrimination, people of color are disproportionately impacted when any source of income discrimination is allowed. Additionally, these laws need adequate enforcement to be effective. In 2019, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce pointed out that limited enforcement authority and diminished federal and state funding were an impediment to fair housing. More needs to be done to ensure Fair Housing laws are providing adequate tenant protection.
Finally, state lawmakers could pass statewide zoning laws to promote denser housing in areas with single-family homes. Zoning laws are a by-product of racist housing policy. When discrimination based on race became illegal, exclusionary zoning laws proliferated. These exclusionary laws included minimum housing size requirements and bans on multifamily housing, effectively banning more affordable housing options.
Oklahoma needs to do more to ensure everyone has access to a stable home
A home is vital to well-being. Access to stable housing has been shown to improve health and reduce health care costs. Renters, in particular, face several barriers to stable housing. Renters are more housing cost-burdened – meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing – compared to homeowners. Nationally, 46 percent of renters were cost-burdened compared to 21 percent of homeowners in 2019. Record high rental costs have added to this burden and put households at risk of eviction. Eviction causes families to be uprooted from their communities and can lead to legal fees, job loss, depression, and homelessness. Evictions stay on a person’s record for years, making it difficult to find suitable housing in the future. Policy makers can ensure every Oklahoman has access to secure housing by strengthening protections for renters and promoting affordable housing options.
Oklahoma should celebrate Fair Housing Month by reducing housing disparities
While the birthday of the Fair Housing Rights Act is cause for celebration, more should be done to fix housing disparities. Lawmakers have an opportunity this session to advance equity and fairness in Oklahoma housing policy. House Bill 3409 would increase the amount a renter can spend on repairs to their home and deduct from their rent from $100 to a full month’s rent. While efforts to protect tenants from retaliation were not picked up this legislative session, lawmakers should revisit this issue next year. A renter tax credit bill also failed to get a vote this session but should be reintroduced in 2023. By rectifying the impact of harmful policies, Oklahoma lawmakers can take important steps toward building more equitable and inclusive communities.