OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions that was enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, has been the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and have fallen months behind on their rent.
Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing that they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rent.
As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they would face eviction within the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.
Here’s the situation in Oklahoma:
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
Oklahoma did not enact its own moratorium on evictions, so when the CDC's expires, thousands of renters will lose their protection. Before the CDC moratorium took effect, the Oklahoma Supreme Court required anyone filing an eviction petition to include an affidavit stating whether the tenants were protected from eviction under the federal CARES Act, which had eviction safeguards before the CDC moratorium took effect.
WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
Oklahoma set aside $260 million in federal funding last December to help with emergency rental assistance, according to Katie Dilks, the executive director of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, a nonprofit that develops policy initiatives that expand access to justice for low-income Oklahomans.
Rental assistance is being distributed in Oklahoma by two groups: Community Cares Partners in Oklahoma City, which covers 57 counties in central and western Oklahoma, and Restore Hope in Tulsa, which oversees 20 counties in the state's northeast. So far, Community Cares has distributed more than $20 million in assistance to nearly 6,000 households, while Restore Hope has distributed more than $4 million to more than 900 households.
The state also has used about $1.3 million to provide legal representation for people facing eviction, Dilks said. There are employees in each of Oklahoma’s 18 legal aid offices who are at least partly paid with the federal funds, Dilks said.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
Despite the CDC moratorium, more than 14,227 evictions have been granted by courts in Oklahoma since March 2020, according to Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think-tank.
Dilks, with the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, said that because the moratorium only protects tenants from eviction for nonpayment of rent, many landlords have pursued evictions for other reasons, alleging lease violations or damage to property.
In some cases, Dilks said evictions were granted because tenants never appeared in court to argue that they were protected from eviction.
“The vast majority of people who have evictions filed against them, particularly in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, don't bother to go to court for a variety of reasons," Dilks said. “They don't have enough notice. They can't get time off work. They can't find childcare. They can't find transportation. Or, quite frankly, before the existence of the moratorium and the current protections, they knew they were going to lose.
“That made it a real challenge when the moratorium was put in place, to let people know about it and let them know how important it was now to go to court because the rules really were different."
HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
Although Oklahoma City has the lowest overall median rent among the country's 50 largest metropolitan areas, at $834 per month according to a June report from Realtor.com, the costs are increasing due in part to a lack of affordable housing.
As of May, the median monthly rent in the Oklahoma City area had risen by 5.6% over the past year, according to Realtor.com. Median rents for a two-bedroom apartment in the Oklahoma City area were $895, which was 4.7% higher than the previous year.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
It’s difficult to say how much homelessness will increase in Oklahoma. Dilks said she and other advocates expect homelessness to spike because of a tightening of the rental market and a lack of affordable housing. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing that nearly 44,000 state residents said it was “somewhat likely" that they could be evicted in the next two months.