© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As eviction filings rise, Oklahoma could enact right-to-counsel laws

A man sits alongside his belongings on June 10 near NW 2 and Lincoln Blvd in Oklahoma City.
Heather Warlick
/
Oklahoma Watch
A man sits alongside his belongings on June 10 near NW 2 and Lincoln Blvd in Oklahoma City.

Unlike the public image of people experiencing homelessness, recently evicted Oklahomans might push a cart with an antique clock or an ottoman that was their grandmother’s prized possession. A person evicted may find themselves with no place to go and their belongings bagged up, weighing them down on the side of a road near their former home.

Evictions can be a pipeline to homelessness. They linger as permanent blemisheson a person’s court record in Oklahoma.

While groups such as Legal Aid Services and Shelterwell are tracking and publicizing the state’s standing as one of the worst for evictions, the problem is not correcting itself. Rather, it’s getting worse. A grant opportunity from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could fund a right-to-counsel program in Oklahoma if local lawmakers are willing to create city codes to qualify.

Right to Counsel is a nationwide movement to provide free, guaranteed legal representation to tenants involved in eviction cases. Also known as Expanded Tenant Protections, cities that have enacted right-to-counsel ordinances have seen significant positive results with fewer filings, fewer defaulted cases and many more people staying in their homes than in cities without right-to-counsel laws.

Evictions are Projected to Exceed 2023 Numbers

In 2023, 48,278 eviction cases were filed in Oklahoma.

A new report from Legal Aid Services Oklahoma shows that eviction filings this year are increasing in Oklahoma City and stagnating in Tulsa.

Tenant advocates scramble to provide legal services and mediation to help people during their eviction hearings and to prevent eviction filings before they happen, but with no ordinances mandating tenants’ right to counsel, people facing eviction are often left to fend for themselves during the complicated eviction process.

According to the Legal Aid Services report, between January 1 and April 30, Oklahoma City courts received more than 5,700 eviction filings. Tulsa is trending toward the same number of eviction cases filed as last year with about 4,100 filings in the same period.

While eviction filings don’t always end in judgments against tenants, as many as 70% of tenants fail to show up for their hearings, resulting in losses by default, said Brad Senters, director of eviction prevention at Shelterwell, an agency that collects eviction court data in Oklahoma City and provides mediation services for tenants and landlords in eviction disputes during their hearings at Oklahoma County District Court.

When tenant rights are balanced with landlord rights via legal representation, far more defendants show up for their hearings, cases are dismissed for improper or illegal filings and tenants and landlords are able to agree on arrangements to pay late rent and fees.

Codes Could Guarantee Right to Counsel in Oklahoma

This year, HUD is offering cities grants of $2.4 million for right-to-counsel programs, but to qualify, Oklahoma City and Tulsa will need to pass right-to-counsel ordinances.

Without right-to-counsel laws in place, tenants who do show up to eviction court can receive free legal representation by Legal Aid Services Oklahoma, known as LASO, but they must know to do so, and there is no guarantee of legal support.

Data from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel shows that only about4% of Americansfacing eviction access attorneys to fight their cases; 83% of landlords employ attorneys to lead their cases.

Travis Hulse, Tulsa’s housing policy director, said city leaders, Legal Aid Services, and Tulsa Public Schools have been discussing measures to curb evictions. The talks have gained urgency as evidence, such as the Point in Time counts that track people experiencing homelessness, shows direct correlations between evictions and homelessness.

48,278 eviction cases were filed in Oklahoma in 2023Hulse said Tulsa would likely approve changes in the municipal code to stem evictions and homelessness. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum’s office and the Tulsa city council have expressed support for right-to-counsel laws, he said.

Since August 2022, Legal Aid Services has been operating a right-to-counsel pilot program during which it provided free legal representation to 1,824 households with 3,749 residents.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the right-to-counsel pilot program resulted in impressive returns on investment. Legal Aid Services spent $860,000 on the pilot between August 2022 and June and estimated a fiscal impact of about $6.3 million, a return on investment of $7.37 for every dollar spent.

“Right to counsel is like a city service,” said LASO Executive Director Michael Figgins. “Courts cannot deny representation. In the long run, fewer evictions will result, not only in court but largely by preemptive legal help to avoid a case being filed altogether.”

Population Boom Coincides with Eviction Increases

Oklahoma City councilman James Cooper said a nationwide housing shortage fuels evictions. His ward includes ZIP code 73120, one of the state’s districts with the highest monthly eviction filings.

The disproportionate number of evictions in certain ZIP codes can be attributed partially to the presence of many large, corporate-owned apartment complexes that file eviction cases after a single month of late rent and the state’s low $7.25-per-hour minimum wage.

When essential workers, such as teachers, don’t earn the wage required to support a two-bedroom apartment in most areas of the city, estimated at more than $19 per hour in Oklahoma City, rent burdens force people to make choices between paying rent and other essentials such as food and medications.

"We’ve let too many people fall through the cracks for too long."Oklahoma City Councilman James CooperOklahoma City’s high eviction rate could also be in part due to a boom in population during the past decade.

According to the Legal Aid Services report, Oklahoma City was one of only 14 cities nationwide to see an increase of more than 100,000 residents from the 2010 to 2020 censuses.

While Oklahoma suffered from a so-called brain drain in decades past, Cooper said that trend is reversing. People are moving to Oklahoma City for positive reasons, including the cultural success of the MAPS projects and an increase in well-paying jobs, he said.

However, with high-wage earners relocating to Oklahoma City, massive housing shortages and skyrocketing rents, the city’s low-wage earners are suffering, Cooper said. Whereas once, landlords may have struggled to fill their units, today, landlords can be selective.

Having an eviction on an applicant’s court record in many cases disqualifies them from being approved for housing rentals. The state is short about 77,000 housing units.

Cooper said he’s hopeful Oklahoma City, like Tulsa, will see the value in creating a Right to Counsel ordinance to protect those who live paycheck to paycheck and could be one eviction away from homelessness.

“I really think these things are worth exploring,” Cooper said. “We’ve let too many people fall through the cracks for too long. And we have to acknowledge that and then move forward.”


This article first appeared on Oklahoma Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Heather Warlick is a reporter covering evictions, housing and homelessness for Oklahoma Watch
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.
Related Content