Renters need protection against landlord retaliation

Unlike most other states, Oklahoma does not protect tenants against landlord retaliation when they report health or safety violations to their landlord, a government agency, or when they organize other tenants to advocate with their landlord for needed repairs. Oklahoma renters risk higher rents or losing their lease simply for asking their landlord to address basic habitability standards. People shouldn’t be penalized when they request needed repairs or act as responsible tenants by reporting problems in their rental to their landlord or a government agency. 

Renters shouldn’t be punished for attempting to address health and safety violations

Retaliation protections would ensure that tenants won’t risk homelessness or housing instability for asking their landlords for essential services and safe living conditions. Retaliatory actions can include filing an eviction, ending a lease, increasing rent or fees, or denying the use of premises or service in response to a tenant reporting a health or safety issue. When a landlord fails to properly address a habitability concern, renters should be able to exercise legal rights such as reporting code violations to a government agency or organizing a tenant union. For example, anti-retaliation protections would allow a tenant to contact the health department about unaddressed mold or circulate a petition among tenants to demand working air conditioning without fearing retaliatory eviction, lease termination, rent increase, or other retaliatory actions.

These aren’t hypotheticals. Oklahoma renters have faced backlash for asking for habitable living conditions. Several tenants in one Oklahoma City apartment complex received eviction notices after complaining about the hot conditions in their rental units after two months without working air conditioning in August 2022. One eviction attorney reported to Oklahoma lawmakers during a 2022 interim study that several of his clients have chosen to live with sewage rather than risk homelessness. Without retaliation protections, tenants can be forced to stay in unsafe conditions or risk losing the only home available to them as affordable housing options become scarce.

Anti-retaliation laws would protect about a third of Oklahoma households

One in 3 Oklahoma households rent their home. These households tend to have lower incomes and housing represents a larger percentage of their income compared to homeowners. This group is more financially impacted when forced to move or face increased fees or rent. Rising rents and low vacancies mean low-income households may not be able to simply move when faced with habitability issues. Renters are disproportionately Black and therefore more impacted by the lack of tenant protections. This disparity in homeownership is created by systemic racism and the legacy of racist housing policies like segregation and redlining. Anti-retaliation laws for renters would help protect people who already face significant barriers to housing.

In the midst of a nationwide affordable housing crisis, anti-retaliation protections would also help preserve existing affordable housing by allowing tenants to report issues and have them repaired before their rentals become uninhabitable. As Oklahoma faces a shortage of more than 71,000 rental units for extremely low-income renters, anti-retaliation protections are one way Oklahoma could keep much-needed housing stock on the market. 

Oklahoma is 1 of only 6 states without tenant protections against landlord retaliation

Ensuring Oklahoma has anti-retaliation protections consistent with the rest of the country will prevent out-of-state and foreign investors from exploiting Oklahoma’s lax landlord-tenant laws. Oklahoma ranked third in the nation last year among states where institutional investors – entities that invest several millions or even billions of dollars in real estate on behalf of clients or shareholders – are buying up single-family homes to turn into rental properties or to renovate for quick resale. In 2021, institutional buyers made up 18 percent of single-family homes sales in Oklahoma. Institutional investment in single-family rental homes is expected to grow dramatically over the next eight years, according to a 2022 report. Out-of-state investors are also buying up multi-family housing. For example, in 2022 a New York investment firm bought a 264-unit Tulsa apartment complex for one of the highest per-unit prices in the city’s history. In 2019, a California-based investment firm bought a 280-unit apartment and townhome complex in Oklahoma City. International investors also make up an increasing share of the real estate market. In 2018, Oklahoma ranked as the 12th-highest state for money coming from outside the U.S. Nationally, multifamily housing represents 19 percent of international real estate investments. Anti-retaliation laws would protect Oklahomans from out-of-state bad actors who would keep tenants in unsafe conditions to increase their profits.

Most of our neighboring states have added retaliation protections to their state statutes, which ensures tenants can exercise their legal rights. For example, Texas and Kansas prohibit landlords from retaliating against tenants who complain to their landlord or government agency or participate in a tenant organization. In addition, anti-retaliation laws have been shown to reduce the number of evictions. Counties in states that prohibit landlord retaliation have around 24 percent fewer evictions. As evictions are skyrocketing in several parts of the state, anti-retaliation laws would help more Oklahomans stay in their homes.

Anti-retaliation laws would protect both renters and Oklahoma’s housing stock

Renters should be able to expect that their homes meet basic habitability requirements. If those standards aren’t met, renters should have the means to hold landlords accountable. An anti-retaliation law would give Oklahoma tenants much needed protections against bad actor landlords who would choose to punish their tenants rather than keep their property in good condition. Additionally, this law would prevent out-of-state investors from taking advantage of our lax tenant protections and exploiting Oklahomans to pad their bottom lines. 

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Sabine Brown joined the Oklahoma Policy Institute as Housing Senior Policy Analyst in January 2022. She previously worked at OK Policy from January 2018 until September 2020 as the Outreach and Legislative Director, and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. Before joining OK Policy she served as the Oklahoma Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Sabine also earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Science from the University of Oklahoma and was a physician assistant prior to discovering advocacy work. She grew up in Germany but has called Oklahoma home since 1998.

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