Hello readers. Multimedia reporter Whitney Bryen here.
I hope by now you’ve discovered the video series we launched in January called “The Invisibles.”
Each week, we take you inside the quiet struggles of Oklahomans who personify some of the larger issues we face as a state.
In 2016, more than 21,814 Oklahomans were evicted, according to the latest data. That’s 60 evictions every day.
Tulsa and Oklahoma City both ranked in the top 20 that year for highest eviction rates in large cities nationwide.
For this video, I rode along with two Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office deputies, spent a morning in evictions court and talked to residents as they were being kicked out of their homes.
Inside the Courtroom
On Jan. 31, Judge Elizabeth Kerr was relieved to have a light morning with fewer than 30 eviction cases on the docket. The prior two days had seen 160 to 170 cases each, which is much more common.
Eviction court rotates between four Oklahoma County judges. Kerr, who is new to the docket, opened by addressing the tenants. She encouraged them to resolve their issues with the landlord before their case was called. “By the time you get here to me, I’m going to have to follow the strict order of the law,” she said.
Tenants rushed to the hallway to talk to a lawyer about their options. Most had none. They had failed to pay rent. It didn’t matter why. They would have 48 hours to get their things and get out.
“This is where my job is awful,” Kerr said to a tenant as she ruled in favor of the landlord. “Illness, lack of job, whatever, it’s not a defense…”
Most cases default in favor of the landlord because the tenant didn’t show up to court. If the landlord doesn’t show, the case is dismissed but can be refiled at a later date.
Kicking people out of their homes is a swift process. I was so swept up in the efficiency and systematic approach to the whole thing, I had to keep reminding myself there were people, families even, behind all of those “rent and possessions.” It only took a few seconds once I exited the courtroom to bring me back to reality. In one corner a mother hugged her toddler as she cried on the phone. A man waiting for the elevator buried his face in his hands and shook his head in disbelief. They were effectively homeless.
If you ask Attorney Richard Klinge, Oklahoma’s eviction system is stacked against the tenants.
Klinge is the director of Oklahoma City University’s pro bono housing eviction assistance program, which has taken on 200 cases and helped 450 Oklahomans since it launched last spring. The program has already saved tenants $45,000 in back rent.
Many of Klinge’s clients withhold rent because of poor living conditions or because the landlord is not holding up their end of the lease. Klinge describes his cases as “the worst of the worst” and tears up when he talks about his clients.
Klinge has a huge heart for Oklahomans in poverty, who are disproportionately affected by evictions.
“They’re working two and three jobs,” Klinge said. “They have no spendable income in the bank. And they have nobody to turn to.”
But Klinge remains optimistic. He says the churn of displacement can be reduced by providing more legal support to tenants. Klinge points to a recent Philadelphia study that found the city could save more than $40 million a year if it provided legal aid to low-income tenants instead of paying for the fallout of evictions, like homelessness and increased emergency room and mental health costs. Meanwhile, Oklahomans keep being turned out.
I tagged along on about 10 lockouts in Oklahoma County. All of the homes were vacant, which is typically the case. A couple were completely empty and pretty clean. Most had some remnants and trash from the previous tenant, but were left in decent condition. A few were trashed with massive holes in the walls, belongings and garbage everywhere, bathtubs with standing water, stained carpet and damaged floors.
Oklahoma County Sheriff’s deputies said about half of their job is serving eviction notices and lockouts. Deputies Rick Yarber and Jim Bauman said they hate evicting families from their homes, but once a judge signs the order, they don’t have a choice.
Both deputies were emotional as they recalled elderly residents with dementia who didn’t understand why they had to leave and families with young children with nowhere to go.
Reach reporter Whitney Bryen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (405) 201-6057.