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Rural Oklahomans Facing Eviction Lack Legal Resources

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Thousands of evictions have been filed in Oklahoma since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. While a CDC moratorium protects people with evictions filed against them until the end of the year, some rural areas lack legal resources. Some experts say there needs to be more protections to keep people in their homes.

In Oklahoma, 15,182 evictions have been filed since March, according to the eviction tracker at Open Justice Oklahoma — 6,446 have been granted. About 27% of Oklahoma respondents of a Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau say they live in a household where eviction or foreclosure is likely.

Ryan Gentzler, the director of Open Justice, says many people in rural areas lack the resources cities have to get aid when facing eviction. He says there are big organizations that have pro bono clinics and help in cities like Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

In rural areas, it’s a different story.

“There's not as much out there in rural Oklahoma, which, you know, can be a pretty isolating experience,” Gentzler said.

While cities like Tulsa rank No. 11 for highest eviction rate in the country, Gentzler said Comanche, Bryan and Muskogee counties all have very high evictions rates for its population. Muskogee County had 269 filed since March, and 168 granted.

Teressa Webster, fair housing project advocacy director for legal aid services, said there hasn’t been as many eviction filings since the CDC moratorium — about 21 in the Muskogee area since they started tracking it in September. She said the number of evictions could change after the moratorium ends on Dec. 31.

“We foresee that there's a possibility that there may be a lot of evictions filed in January after this order expired unless something else is put in place to protect tenants,” Webster said.

Webster said one challenge rural areas face with evictions is the lack of transportation in the area in order to get to court.

“It's not like in Tulsa County where you can catch a bus every 15 minutes or so, to get to court,” Webster said. “We don't have that. So, a lot of people have limitations when it comes to actually getting to the courthouse, because of transportation.

Gentzler said many people are also unaware of the CDC moratorium or how to use it. He said a group is working to make changes to the Landlord Tenant Act including giving people more time to respond to an eviction notice, the ability for tenants to make repairs for a reduction in rent and the ability to remove an eviction from records after they happened.

“We hope to see some of these (changes) introduced in the next legislative session,” Gentzler said.

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