Tulsa has an eviction problem and it's estimated there will be more Tulsans experiencing homelessness this year.
To combat those issues, the City of Tulsa created an Affordable Housing Strategy. According to the City, it is a living document designed to guide policy, process and decision making for housing in Tulsa. In other words, it's the City's attempt to help create more affordable housing to meet the needs of the residents.
The strategy addresses strengthening neighborhoods, affordable housing preservation, affordable housing development, vacant and abandoned properties, evictions and homelessness.
TulsaPeople continued its conversation with Becky Gligo, the City's housing policy director, on what she learned while creating the strategy and what it will take to overhaul a broken system. The first interview can be found here.
Did you learn what you expected to learn with Tulsa's affordable housing situation? Is the situation better or worse than what you anticipated?
Obviously the eviction rates were a shock. I know that that was a known factor, but finding out that 75% of our evictions are coming from out of state property owners. That was really surprising to me. Also, the lack of tenant protections we have just having worked in other states was a little bit shocking to me. And the need was greater than we realized.
Knowing that we need about 4,000 affordable units, I think was a lot larger of a gap than we had anticipated. But that could be workforce affordable. It's not just for people making 30% or less of an area median income.
Beyond that, I think that these are problems that most cities are facing across the country. And it was more of the data behind it that was shocking. We know now that 52% of Tulsans rely on some form of public assistance to survive, and we know that a third of Tulsans are rent burdened. Those numbers are shocking for a city that's so affordable relatively speaking in the country.
You put together this housing strategy. In an overview, what do you hope this strategy accomplishes?
It's going to guide our investments in housing as a city for the next five years, and it's going to be a roadmap for neighborhoods to do self determination and revitalization efforts. It's important to me that the strategy outlives any certain position or any mayoral administration. And so the next four years really are around aligning resources, capacity building and neighborhood engagement so that the tide starts turning and no matter who's in office, neighborhoods can turn themselves around.
That brings me to strengthening neighborhoods. The first goal you have is the neighborhoods of Tulsa be given the tools and training to be successfully self determine their community development efforts. What tools will they be given and what are you going to do there?
We're going to realign how we're deploying federal dollar (Community Development Block Grant) and home funds, which are what we've always used. They're just federal caster dollars. We've sort of diluted their impact by having them go in a variety of small projects across the city. Now we're going to really concentrate them in neighborhoods for maximum impact.
There's also going to be an affordable housing trust funds that neighborhoods will be able to access. So those are the sort of the financial resources.
In terms of capacity building, we're starting what's called a CHODO Academy and CHODO is a community housing development organization. It's a nonprofit developer, essentially, that can go in and rehab homes in a neighborhood. So we're going to have curriculum, mentor developers, we're going to walk people through how to apply for the funding that's available so that neighborhoods feel prepared to keep getting access to those things.
And also just do some real on the ground visioning. A lot of neighborhoods have worked with planning on small area plans. And those were great, but we want to get really realistic about these are the resources, this is the timeline, what do you want to do?
So just helping neighborhoods understand what's truly available to them in a practical sense, and also just kind of taking the guesswork out of housing development.
I think that we talk in acronyms a lot. I know I'm guilty of that. We pulled all the resources and we make them really hard to apply for. And so making that as smooth as possible, and then doing a series of education sessions in the neighborhood so that they don't need somebody in City Hall to tell them what they need, they have the access to demand it.
Tulsa ranks 11th nationally in evictions. That's a big problem. What has to happen to change those outcomes?
We're going to come at this from a few different fronts. One is proactive education. I'm hiring somebody to run what's called the Abode Initiative and they'll be somebody that landlords can call when they're struggling with the tenant, that tenants can call to help understand their rights. We're also going to be going out into the community and doing their housing training, that kind of stuff.
We need to beef up tenant protections, and I think that's going to be one of the bigger fights that we have to engage with the strategy. We have really great landlords and property managers in Tulsa that are doing the right thing, and we have people who are essentially taking advantage of cheap investments in a city they've never stepped foot in and generating income from fees. So we're going to have to put some guardrails around what it means to be a landlord and find ways to reward the good landlords and hold the bad actors accountable.
The other thing is we're going to do some piloting that I think is pretty innovative. We know that for most people, the last thing they stopped paying before they get into a financial position where they can't pay rent is utilities. So we're working with water, which is within the City and also talking to our other utility companies on how can we share data in such a way that when people fall behind on their utilities, we use that as an early warning sign. And we have a proactive text message that goes out that connects people to resources so that they never get to the point where they have to choose between rent and their other bills.
Let's talk homelessness. What is the current number estimated homelessness in Tulsa and how will this strategy address the growing issue?
We know that in 2018 a little over 5,000 people reported themselves as homeless at some point throughout the year. That doesn't mean they were homeless all year, but they were experiencing housing instability to a point where they either came into contact with shelters or other homeless service providers. We're projecting there'll be about 7,000 this year. We'll know based on the point-in-time count and some other data around April.
We only have 260 people experiencing chronic homelessness. Those tend to be the folks that are maybe a little bit more visible that aren't sheltered at all. But the problem is also even greater than the data we can count because we still have people who are couch surfing or sleeping in their cars that maybe aren't coming into contact with services in such a way that we know that they're experiencing homelessness. We're growing about 5% every year, and it's something that we really need to get in front of.
Because of that, I am now the Interim Executive Director of the lead agency for the Way Home for Tulsa. So the city is essentially sharing me to do strategic plan implementation. We just rolled out the strategic plan for A Way Home for Tulsa.
A lot of what we need to do to address homelessness is the same thing we need to do with the rest of the housing strategy. We simply need more affordable housing. This is all a pipeline, right? So people get into a situation where they're on that razor's edge of housing affordability. Then they get evicted. Now they have that Scarlet E on their credit report, and it becomes very easy to fall into an unsheltered situation.
So we need to stop homelessness before it starts by stemming the eviction crisis. We're also looking at utilizing best practices. So housing first and low barrier points of entry. In the past, it's been difficult for people experiencing homelessness to even get shelter, because they have to have certain forms or they can't bring their dog or they can't bring their partner with them.
So we're looking at how do we get people house quickly and then wrap services around them, rather than make them jump through a series of hoops to be able to get the support that they need. Studies have shown pretty confidently that once we take people out of the trauma being unsheltered, it makes it a lot easier to get them access to mental health services, connections to jobs, whatever they might need. So we need to make sure we're not another barrier for folks who have really systemically been oppressed.
A big part of the problem is once you get an eviction on your record, you're pretty much screwed in the current system. The Scarlett E as you referenced. So what are you doing there? Like, is there any sort of eviction leniency or programs to get that expunged from a record? Because it haunts people like they're a felon.
So Matthew Desmond calls that the Scarlet E in his book "Evicted," and he estimates that it takes up to seven years for that to really stop affecting you. We're precluded by state law from expunging evictions, but we can seal them.
That's definitely something we're exploring and looking at how can we support folks in that, whether it's financial literacy courses and getting people the savings that they need to get back into an apartment or just expunging because we know that frankly, a lot of these evictions are done in a power dynamic where if that person have had legal counsel, they would never have been evicted.
So I think looking at those cases, throwing out the ones that have merit and then the ones that do getting people onto that road to sealing the eviction is going to be a really powerful tool.
For you to hold education sessions and such, it takes money to do them. Where are these funds originating? Is taxpayer driven? Is it all based off funding from the federal agencies or other sources?
Part of it is just using our federal dollars in a smarter way. And a big part of it will be that Affordable Housing Trust, and that initially will not have any impact on taxpayers. We're using existing city funds in a different way. I'm talking to some of the councilors about some of their discretionary Improve Our Tulsa funding and talking to banks about their Community Reinvestment Act funds, talking to philanthropists about investing in housing in a different way.
However, for this test survive long term, we will need to look at some sort of income stream for it. So whether that's something like Oklahoma City did with MAPS 4 or bond initiative. Denver just funded their legal marijuana and got something like $150 million dollars for affordable housing. So we'll have to explore how to institutionalize the funding long term, but upfront, it won't cost anybody anything.
The housing strategy covers a lot of issues. People can go online to read the strategy, but if they want to get more involved, what's the best way to do that?
If you go to CityofTulsa.org/Housing, that's where all of this information lives.
I've been trying to get out and speak to neighborhood associations and different town halls. That's a great way to just come and ask questions. Emailing me directly. I'm going to have a series of work groups for all of the strategies. Anybody can come and get involved and give their feedback on those that will be open to whoever is interested. So that's a way to have direct impact.
For addressing people experiencing homelessness and what we're doing with A Way Home for Tulsa, one of our year one implementation goals is to have really clear volunteer opportunities for folks, because a really common question is "I want to help. I don't know what to do besides giving someone money or volunteering at a shelter?" which are great as well.
We're going to have some trainings for folks that they can come learn what it means to experience homelessness and learn about different ways they can get involved.
First thing I would say is go to the City's web page and kind of get well versed in affordable housing strategy and figure out what part of that you're passionate about.