The COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertain times and a growing list of worries to many Tulsans.
The Rev. Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries, believes losing your home shouldn’t be one of them. Founded in 1978, Restore Hope has worked toward hunger reduction and focused on homeless prevention efforts about 25 years ago. However, the current health and economic situation has prompted a new sense of urgency from community leaders regarding Tulsa’s affordable housing and eviction disaster.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” Jaynes says. “We do not want people to become homeless in the middle of a pandemic. Restore Hope has dramatically ramped up our efforts, and we certainly need partners to help us to do that.”
On June 1, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund, administered by the Tulsa Community Foundation and Tulsa Area United Way, announced a partnership with Restore Hope to help pay past-due rent for more than 500 families with pending cases filed on the Tulsa County Forcible Entry and Detainer (FED) Docket.
Jaynes says Restore Hope began contacting landlords and their attorneys as soon as word came out regarding the partnership. Volunteers were at the courthouse everyday eviction cases were heard to connect with parties and provide information. Since 342 of the cases were represented by three attorneys on the plaintiff (landlord) side, Jaynes says he felt confident Restore Hope connected with well over a majority of the landlords involved.
However, “From what we have heard, landlords did not want to agree to not file evictions for the 90 days after the agreement was signed,” he says. “When we put the contract together, we included a provision to ensure that tenants knew they still needed to abide by their lease agreement (which would include payment) and even noted that mediation was available for issues such as non-payment of rent. We also let every landlord know that we would also include payment for June’s rent given the timing of the announcement. So, in effect, we were covering 30 days of the 90-day window up front.”
According to Jaynes, as of July 1, 49 landlords out of 572 cases had agreed to the funding.
According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a 2016 study of the top evicting cities in the U.S. ranks Tulsa 11th out of 100.
“What people don’t understand is how little it takes to get evicted,” says Roni Amit, director of the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic and assistant clinical professor of law at the University of Tulsa.
Amit and a group of students spent the spring semester observing eviction proceedings and analyzing the January 2020 eviction docket from Tulsa County. According to court records, one Tulsa family was evicted over $48. Amit says the students began observing eviction proceedings as a way to think about the eviction issue and what they as future lawyers could do. After observing access to justice barriers in the courtroom, they decided to get a more systemic picture by analyzing a full month of data.
She was surprised to find how few protections were provided for the tenant in the Oklahoma Residential and Landlord Tenant Act.
“It’s a very landlord-friendly piece of legislation,” Amit says, referencing very few protections for tenants. Barriers for tenants to address problems with their properties are greater than for landlords. “Landlords are not even required to return the security deposit unless tenants make a written request within a certain time period, which is something many tenants may be unaware of.”
Both Jaynes and Amit say many tenants do not understand their rights or the eviction process.
“Seventy-five percent of the people who have been filed on for eviction since the COVID crisis started are facing eviction for the first time. That’s really a big deal,” Jaynes says. “They’re scared. They don’t know the process. They’ve never had to ask for help.”
Amit adds, “They are confused about what happens in court, particularly when they are sent into the hallway to negotiate with landlords. There are few resources available to tenants at the courthouse. Tenants also do not understand that they could benefit from consulting with the pro bono lawyers who are present at the courthouse.”
An eviction reflects on a tenant’s record and many landlords are unwilling to rent to someone with an eviction on their record, Amit says. “Even if there is no eviction judgement, the eviction filing still shows up on a person’s record.”
Traditionally the FED docket is heard at 2 p.m. on weekdays except for Wednesday.
“That’s when school and daycare are getting out, and people are working,” Jaynes says. “It’s easy for a landlord or attorney who is paid to be there. It’s another thing for the working families that are needing this assistance to get there.
“On a regular court hearing day there would potentially be 250 evictions cases for a two-hour court hearing. So if all those people show up, that would be 30 seconds a case. That’s just not possible,” Jaynes says.
“What the Schusterman Family Foundation wanted to do was to limit future cases,” as well as help landlords/tenants.
Restore Hope is urging landlords and tenants to take advantage of Early Settlement Mediation, a court-sponsored alternative resolution program that is sponsored by the State of Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“It’s free for the people that participate,” Jaynes says. Both parties come out with a mutually agreed resolution 75% percent of the time, he adds, with this process able to be be accomplished remotely, reducing the need for in-person contact. “The mediators are trained and ready, and they’re completely unused.”
“Sometimes as Americans, as Oklahomans, as Tulsans, we don’t want to ask for help and, especially if it’s our first time in a crisis situation, we’re afraid,” Jaynes says. “Call 211 and ask for help. Go to your hearing and ask for help.”