Of the nearly $310 million in federal emergency funds Oklahoma received to help those at risk of eviction or having their electricity cut off, only 17.4% has been distributed, according to the U.S. Treasury.
A non-profit the state contracted to distribute the majority of the funds says it has a backlog of 13,000 requests, prompting it to close applications for the next six weeks in hopes of catching up.
An estimated 95,000 Oklahoman households are behind on rent, racking up a combined debt of $187.5 million, according to data from the National Equity Atlas. The delay in receiving rental assistance is far from their only challenge.
Last month, the Supreme Court’s decision ending the federal eviction moratorium provided relief for landlords who said the moratorium left them with considerable debt but further complicated things for delinquent renters. On Monday, federal unemployment benefits officially expired Monday, though Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt ended the $300 federal bonus for the state’s unemployed two months earlier in a bid to entice them back into the workforce. A state court still hasn’t ruled on a legal challenge to Stitt’s decision.
Of the 42,018 Oklahoma evictions filed since the start of the pandemic, 17,237 have been carried out, according to Open Justice Oklahoma, a program from the Oklahoma Policy Institute — 3,541 of those have happened since June.
Two separate Emergency Rental Assistance programs have been established within the last year, providing $46.5 billion in federal relief. The first program was passed under the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020 and provided Oklahoma with $264 million. The second one passed in March 2021 under the American Rescue Plan Act, giving the state an additional $46 million.
Community Cares Partners , a program of Communities Foundation of Oklahoma non-profit, was created with the help of city, county and state governments specifically for distributing rental and utility assistance to people in all parts of the state. The program was allocated approximately $244 million by the state and Oklahoma and Cleveland counties to help residents through the end of September 2022. The approximately 130-member team has been receiving an average of 400 applications a day, said Shannon Carr, director of communications for Community Cares Partners, said.
While applications are temporarily closed to the public, Carr said tenants who are on the eviction docket can still apply for relief. If tenants are served an eviction notice while waiting for their application to be approved, they are encouraged to tell their landlord they are awaiting approval and to alert the organization. If summoned to court, Carr said tenants should not skip as it would be an automatic judgement and the tenant would be evicted.
“We have teams that are at the Oklahoma County courthouse and the Cleveland County courthouse on the days that the eviction dockets are seen,” Carr said. “We have close relationships with Legal Aid, so anyone who applies throughout the state who is on the eviction docket (will) still be able to apply with our program. But again, they have to go through those avenues.”
As of Sept. 3, about $52 million has been used to assist 12,749 households spanning all 77 counties for an average of $4,100 per household, Carr said.
Oklahomans in the northeastern part of the state have another resource they can turn to for emergency rental assistance. Restore Hope Ministries, a faith-based organization, serves a 20-county region and has a partnership with the city of Tulsa and Tulsa County, which provided just under $20 million to help people with rental assistance, said Jeff Jaynes, Restore Hope’s executive director.
Restore Hope is also seeing a high amount of applications — Jaynes said about 9,000 to 10,000 applications are awaiting approval. Despite this backlog, the organization is keeping its applications open.
“Even before COVID in a normal year, it can take some time to do rental assistance,” Jaynes said.
Jaynes said getting the necessary documentation and information from the tenant and landlord and working out the payment details can take some time.
“When you add in a brand new program that the treasury department had never done before, (the) administration switch in the middle and kind of new rules along the way, and really historic numbers of applications, all of that has certainly added to the time,” he said.
Jaynes said applicants with eviction notices are prioritized. Generally, he said applications are processed within four to six weeks, though sometimes help is received in as little as 48 hours. The approximately 45-member team has been reviewing an average of 500 applications a day, Jaynes said.
“We all know that we need to work harder, faster, stronger — all of those things,” Jaynes said. “And we’re doing that. I’m really thankful for our team who have just worked tirelessly and have given blood, sweat and tears for this effort. I do want people to know we really are trying every single day to get these resources out to the families who need it.”
Renters who experienced a loss of income, gathered significant debt, have a household income at or below 80% of the area median income, may be experiencing housing instability or are at risk of homelessness, or have qualified for unemployment benefits since March 13, 2020 are eligible for rental assistance.
When applications are open, even undocumented Oklahomans can apply for assistance with Community Cares Partners. After filling out the applications online and providing any supporting documents (the only requirement is a photo ID — even if it’s expired or out of state), the applicant usually has to wait six to eight weeks.
For those seeking rental assistance, the application goes to the housing team which contacts the landlord to request a copy of the lease and ledger showing the back rent amount, Carr said.
Once the necessary paperwork and signatures are received, the application then moves to the accounting team. Carr said payments can take anywhere from two weeks to 30 days.
Community Cares Partners also works directly with Oklahoma’s major utility companies to pay applicants’ outstanding bills and projected utility costs as much as three months in advance.
“For example, if someone needs help with their OG&E bill, we would reach out to OG&E directly to find out the outstanding balance,” Carr said. “We then estimate the previous three months to determine the prospective payment. Then we submit a pledge to the utility company and send payment.”
Applications will reopen on Oct. 15. For those without Internet access or who may not be as tech savvy, Community Cares Partners hosts application stations around the state for people to visit in person and also encourages people to visit their local library for help. Oklahomans seeking rental and utility assistance can visit this link for a list of additional sources.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify eligibility requirements for federal Emergency Rental Assistance.
Rebecca Najera is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at email@example.com or (903) 808-0314. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaNajera42.