A pause in residential evictions while the state deals with the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the whole landlord-tenant dynamic on its head.
Tenants short on rent have now found themselves with some breathing room, while some landlords wonder if they will get any relief.
And so it goes until at least May 18, the earliest that courts have said they will consider resuming eviction hearings in the state.
Landlords and property managers likewise are trying to figure out how to navigate a world amid sudden double-digit unemployment and eviction restrictions.
“The scary part is landlords are getting scared and desperate just like tenants are,” said Eric Hallett, an attorney and coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
Since March 13, when the state began implementing a series of COVID-19-related orders and restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus, it’s been increasingly harder for landlords to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent.
That doesn’t mean some have stopped trying.
One Woodward County landlord, according to Hallett, shut off the utilities for a tenant after the courthouse closed and he was unable to evict them lawfully.
“His position was ‘If I can’t evict them lawfully, I’ll just turn off their water,’ ” Hallett said.
Residents across the state are losing their jobs and ability to pay their bills due to COVID-19, he said.
“The result is not only do we have all of these people, who for the first time are experiencing life without the financial ability to sustain themselves, and that is kind of freaking people out,” Hallett said. “And then you have landlords in a similar position, and they are upset.”
While most eviction proceedings are on hold, landlords are still permitted to file cases.
In Tulsa County, landlords and property managers filed 537 eviction cases in district court between March 16 and April 5, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Open Justice Oklahoma program.
The three weeks of eviction filings marked a 44% increase over the same time period the prior year, according to Open Justice Oklahoma.
Keri Cooper, executive director of the Tulsa Apartment Association, said she believes the rush of evictions filed in mid-March represented tenants not paying their February or March rent on time, before COVID-19 affected the local economy later in March.
“There could be an argument there as to the hardship picture then,” Cooper said. “I think in most cases apartment owners and management companies are looking to work with those who have experienced a hardship related to COVID-19, but beyond that there is still a business responsibility for those who are simply not paying rent.”
She said the apartment association, which serves northeast Oklahoma, is encouraging property managers to work with their residents “if they have a COVID-19 related hardship” to come up with a plan so they can stay in their homes.
That’s the situation in which Bethea Carroll finds herself.
The 57-year-old single mother has been out of work since mid-March, when she was laid off from a health care agency.
Carroll’s landlord filed an eviction case against her April 6 in Tulsa District Court, online records show. That case is on hold until at least June 1.
Carroll said she is thankful for the pause in her court case, as well as the $1,200 in federal relief funds that the government is sending to those who qualify.
“That was a blessing for a lot of people because they were struggling anyway,” Carroll said of the relief checks. “A lot of people would have been evicted by now and go where?”
Hallett said while Tulsa County District Court was quick to pump the breaks on eviction cases, other counties were not.
About 15 renters have been evicted in Muskogee County since mid-March, Hallett said. About the same number have been evicted in Cleveland County, he said.
Those counties and one other have since stopped evictions, he said.
One thing both Hallett and Cooper agree on: Eviction court will be extraordinarily busy when reopened.
“When all of this is over and courts start back up, we’re going to have a floodgate of evictions,” Hallett said. “The courthouse is going to be jam-packed. There will be hundreds and hundreds of cases the first week.”
Cooper said she believes many property managers who have filed eviction cases since the COVID-19 outbreak started did so to ensure they are at the head of the line when hearings resume.
Meanwhile, property owners and managers are still awaiting word on whether they will receive any federal relief, Cooper said.
Landlords won’t qualify for Small Business Administration no-interest loans if they own the property but are not involved in its operations, Cooper said.
Property management firms may qualify for SBA loans if they have less than 500 employees, Cooper said.
Landlords whose properties were purchased with federal loans, accept Section 8 vouchers or have received a federal tax credit for the rental property can seek a 90-day mortgage forbearance, Cooper said. As with renters, the payments will still be due but can be remitted at a later date.
However, tenants who live in federally subsidized properties cannot be evicted for another 30 days after July 25, Hallett said.
Tulsa Housing Authority has suspended evictions “outside of those that pose a threat to health and safety of residents,” said Ginny Hensley, THA vice president of communications. The agency has also waived March late fees and April rent payments for its tenants, Hensley said.
The rent waiver does not apply to Housing Choice Voucher holders/Section 8 tenants because those properties are privately owned.
Hallett said persons with qualifying incomes facing eviction can seek assistance from Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
Applicants must be within 125% of federal poverty guidelines or up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, if they have certain fixed expenses, Hallett said. There are no income limits for those older than 60.
An estimated 825,000 Oklahomans qualified for legal aid prior to the tens of thousands losing their jobs in the past four weeks, he said.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates a little over two in five occupied housing units are renter-occupied in Tulsa County.
For more information about the Legal Aid program, try the 211 help line, go to oklegalconnect.org or call 1-888-534-5243.
Graphic: Oklahoma unemployment claims over time
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