TULSA — The first time Terra Atkins came to help tenants at the derelict apartment complex, she stumbled and fell down several steps, ripping the sole of her shoe. As she landed in the grass, she looked up at what she thought was an approaching kitten.

It was a rat.

The fall gave her a limp, but that didn’t keep her from offering help to tenants in the complex where eviction notices were already on many of the doors — some graffitied, some with a gaping hole where a deadbolt was supposed to be — or stuffed in the crack of their doorway. 

Some were written warnings from management. Others were taped to the door by sheriff deputies giving occupants 48 hours to vacate.

One notice Atkins found blowing around in the parking lot warned a tenant they were being evicted over an unpaid balance of $16.  

Thousands of Oklahomans are likely to be forced out of their homes this summer as one of their last safeguards expires.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide eviction moratorium in September with the goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19, whether it be in overcrowded shelters or in the streets. The moratorium, which temporarily halts evictions for unpaid rent, was extended for a third time at the end of June in hopes of keeping people housed while federal funding is still being disbursed. 

While the moratorium kept some families off the streets, it didn’t protect tenants from piling up months of debt from back rent that will soon be due. 

With some landlords struggling to make mortgage payments due to months of uncollected rent and renters struggling to catch up, tenant advocates fear an eviction spike when the moratorium ends July 31. 

Terra Atkins, a tenant rights leader, reads an eviction notice taped to the door of an apartment complex in east Tulsa. A national eviction moratorium kept landlords from evicting tenants who didn’t pay their rent during the pandemic. But it did not protect tenants from being evicted for other reasons that are laid out in their lease. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Not All Evictions Were Paused

Atkins, a volunteer tenant-rights leader with Allied Communities of Tulsa Inspiring Our Neighborhoods, commonly known as ACTION, spends her days marching around Tulsa County apartment complexes with high eviction rates, helping tenants find rental assistance. She carries flyers in English and Spanish that ask if tenants need help paying rent or if they need to “retrasar un desalojo” — delay an eviction. 

About three years ago, Atkins needed surgery for a neck injury and was unable to work while she recovered. She couldn’t pay her rent and was evicted from her home. 

“When you’re facing eviction, to people who have never been there, it’s just a piece of paper. But it’s your whole livelihood,” Atkins said. “It’s like when someone’s hiding around a corner and jumps out and scares you and your heart beats fast. That’s what it feels like, but it never goes away. Your heart never starts resting again, you never catch your breath.”

She has made it her mission to help others avoid that dread.

The CDC moratorium did not stop all evictions. Only people who met certain requirements, such as receiving a stimulus check and losing most or all of their income, qualified for protection. Those who qualified needed to fill out an online declaration to give to their landlord.

Some tenants were too scared to apply, fearing rejection or deportation if they were undocumented. Others were unaware help was available. Renters protected by the moratorium could still be evicted for lease violations such as failing to maintain the property or having pets when pets are not permitted.

Of the 37,639 evictions filed in Oklahoma since the pandemic began, 15,262 were granted as of Wednesday, according to Open Justice Oklahoma, a program from the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Nearly 29% of those were in Tulsa County.

Crossings at Oakbrook, owned by Crossings at Oakbrook LLC, has the fourth-highest eviction rate among Tulsa County apartments, having filed at least 180 evictions since March 2020, the Institute reported. Trinity Multifamily, a property management company based in Fort Smith, Arkansas, became the complex’s property managers in April. 

In response to interview requests, the company provided an emailed statement. 

“We, as well as every other multifamily company, have been impacted by Covid and all of the pieces that come along with it,” spokeswoman Misty Steuart said in the emailed statement. “We have done our best to take things day by day and help any resident that has been impacted as well. We have worked with several local agencies to find rental assistance for those willing to help us submit the request on their behalf (and) have honored any declarations we have received.” 

Terra Atkins talks to tenants at an apartment complex in east Tulsa about rental assistance that could help them stay in their apartment after the national eviction moratorium expires. The tenant does not speak English but her teenage daughter translated for her and Atkins left a flyer with information in Spanish. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Landlords Struggle as Back Rent Builds

David Chapman, a landlord and vice chairman of the Oklahoma Real Estate Commission, said it was unrealistic to relieve renters from their payments and expect landlords to stay current on mortgages. 

“(The moratorium) was a good move initially, possibly to give some relief to tenants, but all the people that I work with did that anyway,” said Chapman. “I mean, we're humans. We want to work with good tenants and we want to keep them. If they can't and they're struggling, we're going to help them initially.”

Chapman, who is also a real estate professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, said some landlords are having to ask their banks for a break due to tenants not paying their rent.

More than 6.3 million U.S. households are behind on rent, owing landlords an estimated $21.3 billion, according to data from the National Equity Atlas.

In Oklahoma, an estimated 74,000 households are behind on rent — about 45% are home to people of color — owing $176.8 million in back rent, the data shows.

“Landlords did not get any relief, no relief at all from their payments,” Chapman said. “If you’re going to give grace to the tenant, you’ve got to turn around and give grace to the landlord on their payment and then you’ve got to give grace to the bank from their investors.”

Comanche County ranks third in evictions per capita in the state, behind Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. Family Promise of Lawton, a Comanche County nonprofit that helps homeless children and families find stable housing, is preparing for an increase in people seeking shelter once the moratorium ends.

“(We are) making sure we have enough food, making sure we have enough water, making sure we have enough room to allow families to be socially distant if that’s something they feel like,” Executive Director Tiffany Escoe said. 

Faces of Eviction

Among those fearing eviction is Atkins. 

After she was evicted in 2018, it took more than a year of working double shifts as a waitress before she was finally able to save enough money for another place of her own.  With the eviction on her record, she had to pay double the security deposit along with the first and last month’s rent.

Then came the pandemic. Four months after Atkins moved into her new home, she lost her job, had $104 in her bank account and found herself fearing eviction again. 

Spurred by her own eviction experience, Terra Atkins began helping Tulsa residents find rental assistance through a local nonprofit called ACTION. Atkins is a volunteer tenant advocate who spends her days knocking on doors at apartment complexes with high eviction rates. Since losing her job during the pandemic, Atkins once again fears her own housing might be in jeopardy, which is why she continues the work of helping others who face a similar fate. Produced by Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

Atkins said she started writing to city council members, members of Congress, and anyone else she thought could help. Her cries for help were met with silence until she visited Restore Hope Ministries. She was referred to ACTION, where she started advocating for other struggling renters like her.

ACTION is a nonprofit made up of other nonprofits and congregations. The tenant-rights team was developed after hearing renters’ stories of struggle.

Along with creating a utility assistance program, the eight-member team has been working to connect Tulsans with rental assistance through Restore Hope Ministries. Restore Hope was chosen by the city of Tulsa and Tulsa County to administer $19.6 million in federal funding to aid residents with rent and utility payments through 2021.

When Atkins returned to Crossings at Oakbrook last month, there were no clouds in sight. Dressed in shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and tennis shoes, the 48-year-old armed herself with a bag of neon-colored flyers, pens, paper, and a roll of blue painter's tape around her wrist. Atkins sweated as she made her way to knock on every door across the complex’s 23 acres at 1433 S 107th E Ave., taking a few breaks in the shade of the entryways to cool off.

Terra Atkins was diagnosed with liver cancer last fall. Despite her diagnosis, Atkins continues going door to door, switching between her wig and head scarf in the summer heat. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

As she rounded another building, Atkins came across a woman and a toddler who had set a small blue, plastic pool under the stairs next to their first-floor apartment to escape the sun. The woman sat in a chair with her jeans rolled above her ankles and feet in the water while the young boy splashed around. 

Atkins greeted the woman. “¿Hola, cómo estás? ¿Hablas Inglés?” 

The woman pinched her pointer finger and thumb close together. “Poquito.”  

Despite the language barrier, Atkins tried her best to explain that the flyers contained information about where to go online for rental assistance, placing a Spanish copy in the woman’s hands. 

Before getting involved with ACTION, Atkins was a single mother who worked two, sometimes even three jobs, to provide for her three children.

“There were times where the lights would go out and I’d say ‘Hey, we’re just going to camp out tonight; I turned the electricity off so we could camp out,’” she said.

Atkins’ kids are grown and on their own now, but seeing other mothers struggle takes her right back to those dark campouts.

“They’re moms just like me,” she said. “They love their kids just as much as I do and they can’t even provide a house that has windows or a door. If someone would’ve come and knocked on my door and said ‘Hey, here’s some help,’ that would have meant everything to me.”

Atkins said many tenants are unaware that help is out there, especially if they lack internet access.

As she made her way to one of the last buildings, Atkins met residents Jesse Edwards and Dianna Arroyo. During the three years the couple has lived in their apartment, they've been repeatedly frustrated by the management’s lack of urgency in resolving issues in their home. The couple has complained about mold numerous times, but the most pressing problem was when their air conditioner stopped working in May. The complex didn’t provide them with a window unit until mid-June.

Tulsa renters Dianna Arroyo and Jesse Edwards live at the Crossings at Oakbrook, which has the fourth highest eviction rate in the county. Arroyo's disability benefits recently dropped leaving the couple struggling to pay rent. Atkins provided some resources when she visited with the couple last month, but the residents remain fearful that they will be evicted from their home. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

“We do continue to handle all of the outstanding maintenance requests in order of priority while ensuring the health and safety of our residents and our staff,” Steuart said in an emailed statement.

Fed up with the complex, the couple would like to move, but since Arroyo is in a wheelchair, has limited income, and no longer has a car, the couple said it has not been an option. Arroyo said she was receiving assistance from both the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency and her Social Security Disability Insurance benefits to help pay their $798 rent. However, Arroyo said she stopped receiving help from OHFA about two months ago. 

“It just breaks my heart very bad,” Arroyo said. “People shouldn’t have to live like this.”

Now with an even tighter budget, the couple is worried about eviction. 

“I don’t know when they’re going to do it, but it’s coming sooner or later,” Edwards said. “I don’t really know what the next move is.”

Rebecca Najera is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at rnajera@oklahomawatch.org or (903) 808-0314. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaNajera42.

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