Two weeks after moving into her first apartment, Jennifer Johnson’s daughter was hit by a drunk driver and the injuries put her out of work for a while. When the rent came due, she couldn’t afford it.
“Without having resources like Mom and Dad to call,” Johnson says, “she would have been under eviction.”
So landlords like Johnson, vice president of property management for Capital Assets and chairwoman-elect for the Tulsa Apartment Association board of directors, can understand how circumstances can conspire against renters and leave them, through no fault of their own, unable to pay.
But landlords also understand the simple, stark realities of business.
“We have expenses, too,” Johnson says, such as mortgages, taxes, payrolls and maintenance costs. “If people don’t pay their rent, we can’t pay our bills.”
Local landlords file more than 1,200 evictions a month, giving Tulsa the 11th highest eviction rate in the country, according to data from Eviction Lab, a nationwide research project based at Princeton University. The Mayor’s Office has declared that Tulsa has “an eviction problem” and plans to hire a director of housing, in part, to address the issue. But no clear plan has been formulated, and the position has not yet been filled.
Local landlords, meanwhile, can offer the city some advice. And they start by saying: Don’t blame us for the problem.
‘Can’t stay for free’
Tenants give a lot of excuses for not paying rent. They’ve been sick and missed work. They had to pay for car repairs. Their hours got cut or they got laid off.
“There are times when I cry,” says Sherri Daley, director of operations for ASC Development and Management Company and a Tulsa Apartment Association board member. “The stories really pull at my heartstrings.”
She believes her tenants, and she feels bad for them, Daley says. But she will still evict them if they don’t pay.
“At the end of the day, some words were given to me: ‘Sherri, unless you’re willing to pay the rent for them, they’re going to have to move.’ I can’t pay for them, and they can’t stay for free, so what else are we supposed to do?”
Tenant advocates suggest extending deadlines and waiving late fees, at least for people who have legitimate reasons for falling behind on the rent. But ironically, fair-housing laws that are meant to protect tenants can make it harder for landlords to be lenient, Daley says.
“We have to treat everybody the same,” she says. “If I give one person an extra week to pay, everybody is going to want an extra week.”
It started as a simple update on a post war-era house in midtown. But fixing one problem revealed another, and before long, Beverly Rains was tearing out walls and ripping up the floors, leaving little more than bare studs.
By the time she is finished, it will basically be a new house in a historic shell, and Rains will have a significant investment to recoup.
“I’m not going to want it sitting here empty,” she says. “Once I get a tenant, I want to keep that tenant.”
Most landlords will file an eviction only as a last resort, says Rains, who bought her first rental property in 1996 to bolster her daughter’s college fund.
Court costs are minimal and usually passed along to the evicted tenant. But the real cost for the landlord comes from finding a new tenant, Rains says.
She has to clean, paint and advertise the unit while not collecting rent as long as it remains empty. And some houses will require more extensive repairs or updating before new tenants move in.
“I’m losing money while I’m doing all that,” Rains says. “Why wouldn’t I do everything possible to keep the tenants I have?”
Once tenants fall behind on rent, however, they almost inevitably struggle to catch up.
“The truth is, a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “If there’s an unexpected expense — maybe it’s a medical bill or their car breaks down or whatever it is — they’re very quickly in a hole they can’t dig out of.”
She can see three possible solutions for Tulsa’s eviction problem:
• One, put more money into charitable efforts like Restore Hope Ministries, which helps people pay overdue rents and late fees.
• Two, offer money-management lessons to low-income households.
• And, most importantly, encourage investment in low-income housing.
“There are so many rules and outdated regulations that make it very difficult,” Rains says. “For example, you could do manufactured housing, but the city won’t let you. We need to give people cheaper options.”
‘No easy answer’
In 2017, landlords filed nearly 15,000 eviction cases against tenants, or about 60 evictions per business day, according to a Tulsa World analysis of data provided by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Since 2008, landlords have filed nearly 143,000 eviction cases in Tulsa County District Court.
Only a fraction of tenants show up to contest the evictions. But with the sheer volume of cases, they often find themselves sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the courtroom, where landlords and property owners are usually represented by attorneys while the tenants come alone.
“The system is set up for efficiency, to process as many cases as quickly as possible,” Eric Hallett, an attorney for Legal Aid Services, told the Tulsa World recently. “It’s not a fair fight in court, so landlords just keep winning, and that’s how we end up in this situation.”
Hallett has recommended several reforms to lower Tulsa’s eviction rate, starting with higher court fees to discourage “frivolous filings.” But landlords suggest it could backfire on the tenants, who often end up paying the court costs.
Hallett has also recommended reforms that would send eviction cases to mediation before going to court. But again, landlords argue that it would only prolong the eviction process while tenants sink further and further into debt.
“There’s no easy answer,” says Amy Bors, a property manager in Tulsa. “I wish there was because, believe me, nobody likes evicting people.”