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With more than 100,000 Oklahomans currently unemployed amid a pandemic, the possibility of eviction and homelessness is becoming reality for too many of our state’s residents. Many will face eviction for the first time in their lives and likely will be unprepared for the complex systems that oversee the process. A recent study performed by students with the Terry West Legal Clinic at the University of Tulsa (TU) College of Law took a critical look at the eviction process in Tulsa County.
Even before the pandemic, Tulsa and Oklahoma City already had some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. Observers expect the eviction rate will increase in the coming weeks and months as more residents find themselves unable to pay rent and bills. A key recommendation from the TU Law study was to better connect tenants with legal help and representation while they navigate the eviction process. While we cannot legislate away the pandemic, we can better structure and operate our justice system to ensure that every tenant knows their rights and understands the process.
Legal representation is a game changer for defendants in eviction cases
Unlike defendants in criminal cases, defendants in eviction and other civil cases are not entitled to legal representation. Legal Aid and other programs provide free representation to defendants in a small portion of the 40,000 or so eviction cases filed across the state each year. The vast majority of tenants, however, represent themselves. As such, they are responsible for preparing their own defense often against a landlord represented by an attorney. This imbalance in legal knowledge and processes puts defendants at a severe disadvantage.
The research is conclusive that tenants who are legally represented during the eviction process are much better off than otherwise. The TU Law report found that tenants who are represented were almost twice as likely to keep their home and less than half as likely to be hit with a financial judgment compared to when they received no assistance.
Sometimes, legal representation for tenants even rendered trials unnecessary. Tenants with representation were far more likely to enter negotiations with landlords and have their evictions dismissed compared with those who were not represented by counsel. When represented, 7 out of 10 tenants entered agreements with their landlord, as opposed to less than 1 in 10 overall. Additionally, a tenant was able to get outright dismissal during negotiation in almost a third of cases overall. That is, a third of tenants could avoid the stress, money, and time wrapped up in eviction trials and come to an agreement with their landlord with the addition of legal aid before the process began. All of these benefits make it clear how important legal representation can be for tenants during eviction proceedings.
Self-represented defendants often face heavily experienced landlord attorneys
Unfortunately, tenants are rarely, if ever, connected to these benefits via legal representation. The TU Law report noted that tenants were represented less than five percent of the time. Landlords, on the other hand, were represented approximately 8 times out of 10. The results of this imbalance are significant: Tenants without representation who came to an agreement with their landlord paid on average $800 more in assorted fines and fees, according to the TU Law report. Having an attorney on your side means having someone to guide you through the process to remind you of your hearing, help you get to court, and ensure that you have what you need to present your case. Given the scarcity of represented tenants, it’s not surprising that almost half of all eviction cases ended in default judgements, indicating these evictions occurred automatically when the defendant did not appear for their hearing.
Evidence shows that low-income residents have insufficient or no legal assistance in almost 90 percent of all civil legal problems they face. In the absence of such assistance, the evidence is also clear that tenants are often given the short end of the stick during the legal process.
Preventing evictions is a moral issue — and a fiscal one
In many cases, evictions threaten not just a momentary loss of housing, but it creates a perpetual weight on the backs of tenants. Evictions tend to become a permanent blot on tenants’ credit records, which severely impacts their ability to obtain credit, good interest rates, and future housing. For those living in federally subsidized housing, an eviction could mean being barred from using such housing forever.
Reducing evictions would not only alleviate the moral anguish within our community, we would also reduce the fiscal stress on state budgets. Providing legal services to poor tenants and investing upfront in their well-being would benefit the local and state budgets. For example, several cities and states have provided a “right to counsel” for defendants in eviction cases much like the public defender model for criminal cases. Studies have shown how a right-to-counsel program in New York City was estimated to have saved up to $320 million dollars each year by keeping unhoused tenants out of shelters and off the streets. In Massachusetts, a right to counsel program was estimated to save $3 million dollars in emergency homeless shelter costs alone. In other words, such a program in Oklahoma would provide assistance to low-income Oklahomans, while also providing financial benefit for taxpayers.
The epidemic of evictions in Oklahoma is leading to a massive drop in the quality of life for thousands of people. The COVID-19 crisis has brought attention to this long-standing issue as it begins to threaten a broader swath of our neighbors, but its roots are well-established in our courts. Eviction moratoriums and rent assistance could help to curtail the current emergency, but to strike at the eviction problem’s roots, we must give our justice system the resources to ensure that tenants get a fair shot at justice.
About the Author
Frederick Drummond served as an intern on the Open Justice Oklahoma team during summer 2020. He is a senior at Rice University, working towards a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in business and a certificate in civic leadership.