The tenants barricaded the front entryway with a couch and left through the back door just before Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Davine Hopkins pulled up to a house in northeast Oklahoma City to serve an eviction order on a recent weekday morning.
The landlord waited outside to change the locks as Hopkins stepped over piles of trash and dirty clothing the renters had left behind.
Four days a week, Hopkins criss-crosses Oklahoma City enforcing court orders to evict tenants.
There’s still a steady stream of orders to lock tenants out of their homes despite a federal moratorium on evictions that has been in effect since last year, she said.
Frequently, the tenants have already moved out by the time Hopkins arrives. Other times, they’re still scrambling to move furniture or say they have nowhere to go and no family or friends to call.
Hopkins gives renters a list of resources — phone numbers for nonprofits that help people find housing and churches with food pantries. She also provides people with information on rental assistance for people affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But sometimes landlords don’t want to accept the relief payments and just want a difficult tenant gone, she said.
Hopkins always tries to remain neutral. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives, she said.
“I don’t judge,” she said. “You can’t count what’s in someone else’s pocket.”
Since March 27 last year, a federal moratorium has been in place that is intended to prevent landlords from evicting tenants who have been unable to pay rent because of the pandemic, though some landlords in Oklahoma have found ways to get around the moratorium.
Since the start of the pandemic, over 28,000 evictions have been filed in Oklahoma, according to Open Justice Oklahoma, which has been tracking evictions. Only 11,000 evictions have been granted.
The moratorium has kept many tenants from being evicted. But it didn’t do away with the rent owed by tenants, resulting in many owing thousands of dollars in back rent, due when the moratorium ends.
Oklahoma now has $264 million available in federal rental assistance throughout the state to help pay off back rent owed by tenants facing eviction. An additional $25 million will become available to help people at risk of homelessness once the moratorium is lifted.
Advocates for both tenants and landlords hope the funds in Oklahoma will stem what could otherwise be an enormous spike in evictions, homelessness and foreclosures as a federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire at the end of this month.
The moratorium was most recently scheduled by Congress to expire on March 31, but the CDC last week moved to possibly extend it, though it is not clear for how long.
Advocates say they anticipate programs using these federal funds are ready to flex under the weight of individuals looking for help once evictions resume.
Last year the state and local governments awarded agencies more than $20 million in rental assistance received from the federal CARES Act that helped thousands of families. But most of that money was spent by December.
The federal government then gave an additional $264 million to Oklahoma in rental relief as part of the second coronavirus relief package Congress passed in December.
Community CARES Partners, a public-private partnership, distributes rental assistance on behalf of the state, Oklahoma City and Oklahoma and Cleveland counties. Restore Hope is responsible for assistance in Tulsa County.
To apply, a person must be financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and show a risk of homelessness or housing instability.
Only those who make 80 percent or less than the area median Income are eligible. For a household of one in Oklahoma County, that’s about $41,000 per year.
There is no dollar limit per applicant or household, so back rent can be covered for the last 12 months, and can be used to pay up to three months rent in advance. The program can also pay for utilities.
It’s taken the last three months for the state to receive the relief funding and distribute it to partner agencies, leaving rental assistance programs on hold, said Ginny Bass Carl, director of Community CARES Partners.
“The program was on idle,” Carl said. “We had to tell a lot of people ‘I’m sorry, it’s closed. You’ll have to wait.’”
Oklahoma County judges have postponed hundreds of eviction cases filed earlier this year involving people who could be eligible for rental assistance down the road, Carl said.
For tenants whose eviction cases are on hold because of the moratorium, applying for the funds is a requirement, said Eric Hallett, coordinator for housing advocacy with Legal Aid Oklahoma.
Part of the notice tenants are required to sign to keep from being evicted mandates that they apply for rent assistance when it becomes available, he said.
“It’s important that all families who have been relying on this protection to take advantage of the rent assistance processes so they can continue to have the protection of the CDC order,” Hallett said.
Keri Cooper, executive director of the Tulsa Apartment Association, said three months without rental assistance have been difficult for local landlords, faced with mortgage payments and maintenance costs on their properties.
While larger landlords and property management companies were able to weather the situation better than some smaller ones, they too have had to cut staff and defer maintenance to keep their businesses running, she said.
“That’s a long time to go without getting any rent payment for some people,” Cooper said.
Money is only the half of it
Funding for rental assistance is necessary, advocates say, but other barriers mean funding alone won’t solve the looming eviction problem.
Organizations administering rental assistance funds have until September to award 65 percent of the assistance, otherwise the funds have to be returned to the federal government, Carl said. If they make it over that hurdle, funds can be given out until the end of the year.
Landlords and tenants must know about assistance programs to take advantage of them, and, Carl said, community education and outreach is vital for the programs to work, especially since some people may not have access to the Internet.
When landlords know assistance is available, they’ll encourage tenants to apply and maybe hold off on filing an eviction, Carl said. When tenants don’t know about the assistance or rental protections, Carl says she hopes to catch people at eviction court.
But getting to court can be difficult without transportation or time off work, and if a tenant doesn’t show up, they’ll likely be automatically evicted by a default judgement.
Landlords also have to be willing to participate, and some have not.
Legal Aid encountered issues last year with landlords who wouldn’t accept payments from the rent assistance programs in what Hallett said was an attempt to collect additional late fees.
Housing payments have typically been made directly to landlords or utility companies, but this round of assistance allows programs to give assistance to tenants to move to a new location if landlords won’t accept the funds.
“You’ll have a more equal balance of power over these funds,” Hallett said. “The tenant didn’t have any options. This time, the tenant does have options.”
In Oklahoma City, Community CARES Partners has contacted the 1,400 landlords it previously worked with to let them know assistance is available again.
And despite the moratorium, evictions are still happening.
Protections don’t automatically apply. It’s up to the tenant to know about the safeguards, decide if they qualify and deliver legally binding papers to their landlord.
Other resources to rely on
In addition to the $264 million in federal rental assistance, a handful of Oklahoma entities have also received roughly $25 million in Emergency Solutions Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But these funds come with more restrictions, and most of the assistance won’t be eligible to be spent until after the moratorium ends, said Marshall Vogts, director of community development with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
“The biggest number of people in need are those who will be at risk of homelessness as soon as it is legal to evict them,” Vogts said. “As soon as the moratorium is lifted, we expect a very large number of evictions to be filed based on that overdue rent, and that’s when we can use more of the ESG funds to help those who will be at risk of becoming homeless.”
The program guidelines by HUD say people have to be at risk of becoming homeless for the funds to be used, but the eviction moratorium, at least on paper, is supposed to prevent that, said Jerod Shadid, a city planner with Oklahoma City who focuses on homelessness.
“The eviction moratorium essentially indicates that they are not at risk of homelessness,” Shadid said. “It says that is not going to happen, though of course we know that it is happening. … People are still getting evicted.”
Oklahoma City has received roughly $7 million from HUD. Only a small portion of that funding was allowed to be used for shelter services and outreach, Shadid said. About half of the funds have been preemptively contracted to various organizations in the metro area.
This delay has pros and cons, Shadid said.
The ability to spend the funds over the last several months would have kept more people away from the courts in the first place, but an additional pot of money set aside for after the moratorium is like an insurance policy.
“That’s one thing that gives me hope about the current funding – even if we go through it faster than expected, we have other resources we can rely on,” said Jaynes, with Restore Hope.
And another $200 million more in future federal funding will also come to Oklahoma in the next several months from a third coronavirus relief package Congress passed in early March.
Those dollars will buy time for renters and landlords, providers say, but Oklahoma will need to look at structural fixes once the money runs out.
“The pandemic really exposed how fragile our economy is in some ways,” Hallett said. “People are recognizing we need to make sure renters and people facing homelessness and eviction are protected in court the best we can.”