Oklahoma’s district courts suspended most of their activities as the state grappled with the COVID-19 crisis. However, landlords and mortgage lenders continued to file evictions and foreclosures for weeks after the emergency began, putting Oklahomans at risk of losing their homes as soon as the courts open back up. This could create a public health catastrophe if state and federal policymakers do not take bold action to prevent evictions and foreclosures while COVID-19 remains a threat.
The Oklahoma Court Tracker, a tool by OK Policy’s Open Justice Oklahoma program, displays information on who is filing eviction and foreclosure cases and where those cases have been filed. As of April 1, plaintiffs have filed 1,137 evictions and 159 foreclosures since Oklahoma’s emergency declaration on March 15.
District courts statewide have suspended eviction hearings except in “emergencies”, meaning that most evictions can’t be completed until hearings resume. Without action by policymakers, these cases will become an enormous wave of evictions when courts begin holding regular hearings again. Tulsa and Oklahoma counties each have one judge who each oversees about 14,000 eviction cases per year, about half of which result in an eviction with the rest mostly dismissed or settled. The thousands of people who are unable to pay their rent over the next several months will continue to stack up.
When courts re-open, these tenants will face an impossible choice: either show up for the hearing with hundreds of others — a potential disaster for transmission of the COVID-19 virus — or don’t show up and be evicted automatically through a default judgment.
Federal regulators have suspended mortgage payments for people who lose income during the pandemic, but that information may not have reached those most at risk for foreclosure in these chaotic times. While many states and cities have taken action to protect people from eviction in the coming months, Oklahoma has not. The Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas already had two of the highest eviction rates in the country, putting residents in these communities even further at risk.
State and federal policymakers must do more to prevent evictions and foreclosures for the foreseeable future. A universal eviction moratorium would ensure that thousands of at-risk families maintain a home where they can stay and avoid spreading the virus. Even better, federal action to provide rent payments for unemployed workers could keep them in their homes. During this period, landlords that evict tenants through informal means – like locking them out of their home or paying them to leave – should face steep monetary penalties.
The economic disruption caused by COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented rise in unemployment, and policymakers have not yet pursued critical changes to support Oklahomans who are suddenly out of work. That loss of income will make it all but impossible for tens of thousands of families to cover basic expenses like rent or mortgage payments.
Staying at home as much as possible is among the most important things we can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, some Oklahoma landlords and mortgage lenders have continued to take action to deprive people of their homes at the worst possible time.