TULSA — The courtroom is crowded. The hallway, too. Those who arrive early have a seat. The rest stand or pack the hall.
It’s familiar territory for Amy Forsythe. In her previous job, she helped find housing for the homeless and eviction court was a regular stop. Today, Forsythe, 45, is here so the JGS Real Estate Company can evict her from her home.
Forsythe owes $2,656 in back rent.
Most people here are poor. Some groups such as Legal Aid, Restore Hope, Community Cares Partners and the Homeless Alliance attempt to help. Many Oklahomans facing eviction still do so without legal assistance.
Like Forsythe, many have taken the day off from work in an attempt to keep the roofs over their heads.
Most of the time their efforts are unsuccessful.
In Oklahoma, it’s easy to be evicted. Moderate- and low-income families face skyrocketing rent, utility and food prices and the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting economic storm coupled with a lack of affordable housing and weak protection from Oklahoma’s Landlord Tenant Act has pushed thousands from their homes.
In Tulsa County, 2,936 evictions were filed in March 2020, up from 1,700 a year earlier. This year, Oklahoma County eviction filings increased by 1,799 through June compared to the same period in 2019.
“Evictions are skyrocketing in some areas of Oklahoma, part of a nationwide crisis in affordable housing,” wrote Ryan Gentzler, an analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “In several counties across the state, including Canadian and Oklahoma counties, evictions in the first half of 2022 were at an all-time high.”
For Forsythe, a mother of five, the trouble began after she was injured on the job. A housing coordinator for Housing Solutions, Forsythe was checking on a client who was living in a shed. She was crossing a fence when her leg was caught and broken.
Workers’ compensation payments were sporadic, she said.
“I wouldn’t get paid for three weeks at a time,” Forsythe said, “and because of that he evicted me for untimely payments.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress authored more than $100 million in federal aid and established a federal eviction moratorium. Those efforts helped keep many Oklahoma families in their homes.
Those funds have been spent, the eviction moratorium ended and rent keeps rising. It rose 13.5% in Tulsa and by 15.7% in Oklahoma City since 2021, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
“Oklahoma legislators and judges can amend laws and eviction procedures to ensure the law is being followed consistently statewide and even the playing field,” Gentzler wrote. “Without intervention, it may be years before the eviction wave crests.”
Some help may be on the way.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum used his state of the city speech on Nov. 15 to announce a two-year, $500 million investment in affordable housing and a new low-barrier shelter for the homeless.
“When I ask the experts in Tulsa what we lack, what is the greatest cause of homelessness in our city, what comes up over and over again is housing,” Bynum said in announcing an initiative to include public funds and private investment incentives.
Odds That Favor Landlords
Evictions take place in Small Claims Court, under the Forcible Entry and Detainer docket. In Tulsa, that docket is held at 2 p.m. on weekdays except for Wednesday. In Oklahoma City, the docket starts at 9 a.m. on weekdays.
The law requires those awaiting eviction to appear in court, with or without an attorney. A tenant’s absence results in a default judgment. Landlords can send a representative. With so many eviction cases happening at once, the judge calls the case number and tenant’s name and often sends them into the hall to negotiate with a representative from the rental property.
The parties are supposed to reach an agreement known as a Judgement Under Advisement, generally allowing the tenant more time to pay what they owe and move out.
Without an agreement, participants return for a bench trial in which both sides can present evidence.
The odds favor the landlord.
Almost 45% of the 1,395 cases filed in Tulsa’s eviction court in January 2020 resulted in default judgments, according to a study by the University of Tulsa’s Terry West Legal Clinic.
Forsythe was officially evicted on Thursday.
She’d already moved her possessions. Whatever didn’t fit in storage, she abandoned.
Part of her eviction agreement includes paying $50 a month until her debt is settled. Even with two jobs, she is behind.
“I have to keep making those payments at the end of each month to keep an eviction off my record,” she said.
Forsythe said she, her three young children and their dogs and cats will stay in a $300-per-week motel off Admiral Boulevard until she gets her tax return sometime in the spring.
“We’re all right now in survival mode because we don’t know what else to do,” she said.
A Law That Makes Evictions ‘Fast and Cheap’
Slightly more than 44,600 evictions were filed statewide in 2019, and more than 25,000 were approved.
Tulsa ranked 11th in the nation for eviction filings, according to the Eviction Lab, which collects national housing data. Three other Oklahoma cities were among the top 100: Oklahoma City (20), Norman (83) and Broken Arrow (90).
Many evictions are filed in bulk by a single attorney who represents many landlords.
Court records show that four attorneys accounted for 75% of Tulsa County eviction filings for the 18-month period ending June 2021. Tulsa County attorney Nathan Milner filed 7,865 cases, Tulsa attorney Blaine Frierson filed 6,163 and Oklahoma City attorneys Tracy Persons and Michael Decarlo filed a combined 5,737 cases.
For attorneys representing landlords, Oklahoma’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act is a sharp weapon. The 1972 version included an anti-retaliation provision that prevents landlords from evicting tenants who complain about the rental property or code violations. Lawmakers stripped those protections in 1978.
Today, Oklahoma is one of only six states that doesn’t include anti-retaliation language.
“It makes evictions both fast and cheap,” said Katie Dilks, the executive director of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation.
“Our landlord tenant act is considered one of the five worst in the country,” said Dan Straughn, the executive director of the Homeless Alliance. “Tenants don’t have the right to withhold rent if the unit needs repair. And landlords can be bullies. You can get an eviction notice on Monday and be out by Friday.”
It’s difficult for tenants to sue their landlords for failing to maintain the property, Legal Aid attorney Eric Hallett told state lawmakers during a September hearing.
“The number one question I get is, ‘Can I force my landlord to make repairs?’” Hallett said. “Unfortunately, my calls often end with, ‘I can’t force your landlord to do anything because there’s a good possibility you’ll be evicted for asking for repairs.’”
Many times, Hallett said, repairs are never done.
Other Holes In State Law
Industry groups say the eviction problem is more nuanced and the Landlord Tenant Act has been modernized. A 2022 amendment increased the repair deductible for tenants from $100 to one month’s rent.
Many tenants were not aware of the new provision and that lack of knowledge could be part of the eviction problem, said Will Roberts, government affairs director for the Oklahoma Association of Realtors.
“If owners are not keeping up their property, then you have these remedies in statute,” Roberts told a state House committee. “Ultimately the person who is responsible for this is the person who owns the building.”
Roberts said Realtors would be willing to discuss including anti-retaliation language in the act during the next legislative session.
“We’re not defending these bad landlords,” he said. “What we are trying to do is just ensure that people are in control of their own property.”
Still, there are holes in the state law. Though health codes require running water and heat for the winter, neither the Landlord Tenant Act nor state health codes require air conditioning during the summer.
Enforcement of the act also is hampered.
Dilks said Oklahoma law bars municipalities from setting up local property registries, databases of rental real estate and their owners. The databases typically include contact information for owners and can be updated when property changes hands.
“We are fairly confident that we are the only state in the country that has barred local property registries,” she said. “Often these properties are changing hands so quickly that those people who are renting don’t even know who the owner is.”
The Role of Rising Rental Costs
The eviction process isn’t the only way to get rid of tenants. Some renters are simply priced out of their homes.
Multi-unit rental properties are regularly sold to large out-of-state investors. One mortgage company, CMG Financial in Edmond, told The Oklahoman that half of its loans made in the fall of 2021 were to investors, with 60% of those investors located out of state.
Oklahoma ranks third nationally for corporate ownership of residential homes, according to a National Association of Realtors report. Institutional buyers account for 18% of state residential purchases, the report showed.
Once a new owner takes possession, they can move quickly to raise rents and force out tenants.
That’s what happened to Rita Cooper-Roberts.
Cooper-Roberts, a behavioral wellness coach at an Oklahoma City-based behavioral health center called NorthCare, works with many Oklahomans who have been forced out of their homes or evicted.
Now Cooper-Roberts is being forced out of her home.
Kansas-based Prism Real Estate purchased Cooper-Roberts’ apartment complex in April and raised the rent almost immediately.
Utility costs, which were originally included in the rent, are now hers to pay. For Cooper-Roberts that means scrambling to cover the large deposits required for gas and electricity. Divorced after a 43-year marriage, Cooper-Roberts said she never had utility service in her name.
“Three years ago, I was paying $750 and everything was included,” she said. “Now we’re up to $900 plus the utilities and they said they are going to add another $50 at the end of the month. I just can’t do that.”
Cooper-Roberts, who has lived in her apartment for 10 years, said many tenants in her building struggled to get the property manager to make basic repairs.
“Many air conditioners were broken,” she said. “And they (the rental company) refused to fix them. There was one woman who lived upstairs from me. She had seizures. It was the summer and her air conditioner didn’t work. She told them she wouldn’t pay rent because they didn’t fix her air conditioner. They tried to evict her.”
Cooper-Roberts said she’s been unable to find a new apartment she can afford. Even if she does, her lease requires her to give 60 days’ notice. And getting a new place will be costly, too.
In addition to about $300 for utility deposits, Roberts will have to put down a security deposit for a new apartment — about $2,200 — before she gets the keys.
“I’m not sure where I’ll go,” she said.
A Path To Substandard Housing, Homelessness
Many non-profits that assist with housing are having difficulty finding homes for their clients, said Megan Mueller, the associate director for the Homeless Alliance.
“We have people with the housing vouchers in hand,” she said. “But we can’t find the landlords who are willing to accept the subsidy. We’ve reached out and had zero luck.”
The story echoes others across the state.
In northeast Oklahoma City, the new owners of the Grand Boulevard Townhomes, an apartment complex, evicted all their tenants. The owners, Grand Circle Investments LLC, sent each tenant a notice saying they had 30 days to move out.
The Homeless Alliance said it gets about 200 daily requests for housing assistance. Some families find new housing. Others move in with family members or couch-surf at a friend’s house. However, many of those who have been evicted or forced out of their homes quickly become homeless.
The impact on children is often devastating: 26,623 Oklahoma public school students experienced homelessness during the 2017-18 school year, according to U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness data.
Of 26,896 verified cases of child neglect in 2016, about 1,500 were due to inadequate or dangerous housing, according to the state Department of Human Services.
Roni Amit, the law professor who led the 2020 TU study, said the lack of affordable housing, the push for evictions by big-box landlords and Oklahoma’s permissive legal environment have helped cause a large number of evictions and the increase in homelessness. The state’s homeless count was estimated at 3,932 in 2022, according to the National Alliance to Eliminate Homelessness.
For those who find a new place to rent, affordable housing doesn’t always meet housing standards, Amit said.
“People are living in substandard housing conditions because that’s all they can get,” she said.
Oklahoma is one of 20 states with a minimum wage set at the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
“A minimum-wage worker would need to work 92 hours to pay rent,” said Sabine Brown, an analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, during testimony before a legislative committee.
Brown told state lawmakers that Oklahoma needs 70,000 affordable rental homes.
Approaching that goal, amending the Landlord Tenant Act and repealing the state law banning municipalities from developing property registries would benefit both the tenant and the landlord, said Ginny Bass Carl, executive director of Community Cares Partners.
“Knowing who owns the property and how to get in touch with them would help tenants protect their rights,” said Carl, whose group distributed federal rental assistance during the pandemic.
Even if those changes come, it will be too late for Amy Forsythe.
She hopes to eventually move to Missouri to be closer to Forsythe’s older daughter.
“Tulsa is where I’m from. Tulsa is home. But after all this, I don’t want to stay,” Forsythe said. “I went to court today and I was sitting with one of my clients I had housed, she was getting evicted. I don’t want to be here. You can be one accident away from losing everything. That’s what happened to me.”