Turning the tide on evictions: Using federal aid, support to reduce Oklahoma’s eviction crisis

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended its eviction moratorium until the end of July, giving renters and governments another month to organize efforts to prevent mass displacement after the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts have warned for months of an eviction wave coming when the moratorium lifts and millions of renters owe a combined billions in back rent. Eviction has devastating effects on a family’s long-term well-being, and a wave of family displacements would be a serious threat to public health.

Fortunately, rent assistance funds from federal COVID-19 relief bills are still available, and this will be the most important tool in preventing displacement and making landlords financially whole going forward. Combined with the Advance Child Tax Credit that will send cash directly to families with children starting in July, the financial supports put into place in recent months may help Oklahoma avoid an eviction wave in the short term, and building upon them could  help turn the housing crisis tide over the long term.

Evictions are lower than they were before the pandemic, but Oklahomans still experience housing insecurity at alarming rates

In a typical year, more than 42,000 evictions are filed in courts across Oklahoma, and nearly 22,000 are granted. Tulsa and Oklahoma City ranked 11th and 20th respectively among cities with the highest eviction rates in the country in 2016. Displacement is an extremely destabilizing event for families, disrupting work and education as all energy must be redirected toward finding a place to live. People who are evicted experience negative health, housing, and economic effects for years, making it harder and harder to get back on track. Eviction even worsens birth outcomes.

In 2020, eviction filings dropped precipitously as courts slowed down and tenants received protection from displacement and rent assistance. Court records collected and analyzed by Open Justice Oklahoma show that after dropping nearly to zero in April 2020, evictions filed and granted rose back up in July 2020 but remained about 30 percent lower than 2019 for the rest of the year.

Though eviction rates are below pre-pandemic levels, the fundamental imbalance in the rental market will reveal itself at some point. Census survey data shows that nearly one in 10 Oklahoman adults is not current on their rent or mortgage and have slight or no confidence they can pay next month, the sixth highest rate in the country. Of those approximately 200,000 adults, more than half believe that an eviction or foreclosure is likely in the next two months.

With the eviction moratorium set to expire, rental assistance will be the only support left for Oklahomans

Although the eviction moratorium expires at the end of the month, the good news is that rental assistance will remain in place. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds that were sent to states by Congress during the last year do not have to be spent soon: the second round of funds does not expire until September 30, 2025. Program administrators in Oklahoma have indicated that millions remain in their coffers. By helping people stay in their homes over the next few years, this assistance will help to avert years worth of negative effects from eviction.

There is reason to believe that rental assistance will keep evictions low even after the moratorium expires. Tenants seeking protection through the moratorium had to fill out a declaration and submit it to their landlord, which included an affirmation that the tenant had attempted to obtain rent assistance. Court records indicate that many people did not submit the declaration when the court granted the eviction filing to the landlord, suggesting that many didn’t know or were unable to take advantage of the moratorium in the first place.

It’s likely that rental assistance on its own will continue to be an effective hedge against housing insecurity. It both keeps people in their homes and ensures that landlords are made whole, so there’s no reason landlords shouldn’t support it as well.

Financial supports must be the centerpiece of both short- and long-term solutions to the housing crisis

Rental assistance will continue to be a critical tool to preventing eviction during the next several years. It may even allow Oklahoma to sustain a reduction in our very high eviction rate, as people have access to funds when they need it most. Now would also be the perfect time for the Legislature to provide greater protections for tenants and legal representation for tenants

Over the long term, financial stability is the key to housing stability. Direct support to families, like the monthly child tax credit payment going into effect this month, could be the foundation to such support in the long term. Oklahoma’s eviction crisis will not be resolved overnight, but rental assistance could very well be enough to lessen its impact until more comprehensive solutions are put into place.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an 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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