The judge read the names of each of the Cobblestone Apartments tenants facing eviction to the nearly-empty courtroom, repeating each one three times. Each short pause between names was greeted with silence, and a default judgement for the landlord was declared.
None of the 14 tenants from Cobblestone Apartments facing an eviction hearing on June 10 showed up to their court hearings at the Tulsa County Juvenile Center, where eviction hearings have been held since shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across Oklahoma.
Had they shown up, most tenants would have been eligible for free legal counsel and, due to the ongoing federal moratorium on evictions, more time to pay their rent without an eviction judgement against them.
In Tulsa County, most people do not show up for their eviction hearings, which gives the process an assembly line-like process. There were 102 eviction hearings scheduled for that day.
Tulsa County has consistently ranked among the highest in the country for its rate of eviction filings. In 2016, it was ranked 11th highest in the nation for the rate of eviction filings, while Oklahoma County ranked 20th.
And while data shows that the eviction moratorium put in place since the COVID-19 pandemic first began to sweep into Oklahoma has certainly slowed the number of evictions being filed, it has not stopped them completely. Oklahoma law also lacks critical provisions to protect tenants, allowing many evictions to proceed.
The Cobblestone Apartments, 7643 E 51st St., in Tulsa, is one of the most prolific filers of evictions in the state, racking up a total of 275 evictions filed during the pandemic and the federal eviction moratorium, according to data from Open Justice Oklahoma, a project of the progressive think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute. Cobblestone filed nearly 400 evictions in 2019, far more than any other single landlord in the state.
Cobblestone often files multiple cases against a single tenant in a short period of time—a practice known as serial eviction. Serial evictions pile additional late fees and court costs to the amount owed.
Oklahoma law does not regulate when landlords can impose late fees on tenants, how much they can charge or whether the fees can be subtracted from past-due rent, according to a report this month by the University of Tulsa’s Terry West Civil Legal Clinic.
Of the 14 Cobblestone eviction filings on the June 10 docket, half of the individuals had been previously filed on at least one other time in the previous four months. Cobblestone filed 14 eviction cases against one tenant over the previous two years. All but one of those cases ended in a default eviction judgement.
Eric Hallett, statewide coordinator of housing advocacy at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, said even a single eviction judgement against a person can tank their credit and prevent them from finding new housing, in addition to the late fees that make it hard to move, essentially trapping a tenant in the rental arrangement.
“They (serial evictions) also prevent a family from being able to move anywhere else or save any money to move,” Hallett said. “It’s like financial exploitation. That family is now trapped because of their credit at this housing provider who has, on paper, a $600 rent, but on their books, they’re collecting much more than that.”
The tenant spoke to The Frontier on the condition of anonymity because she feared retribution. Unlike most other states, Oklahoma’s landlord tenant act does not protect tenants from retaliatory action by landlords. The woman also said didn’t know that Cobblestone hadn’t dropped some of the eviction cases it had filed against her.
The tenant said that there were several times that she brought the apartment managers the money she owed on or before her court date. She said management told her that she would not be evicted and did not need to show up to court. However, court records show the apartment’s attorneys continued with the eviction anyway and won a default judgement against her when she didn’t show up.
The woman was able to catch up on her rent for part of 2020 after receiving federal stimulus money. But Cobblestone has sued her for eviction three times again in 2021.
There’s a late charge each time her rent is late, and additional legal fees are added when Cobblestone files an eviction, adding hundreds of dollars to her debt, she said.
“I’m a month behind every month, but slowly catching up,” she said. “It’s just the fees add up. When the fees add up, that’s where I’m screwed. So I just put it (rent) off until I got it.”
Cobblestone, as well as other Tulsa apartment complexes with higher-than-average eviction numbers such as Huntington Hollow, 4343 S 109th E. Ave., and Lincoln Glens apartments, 6732 S. Peoria Ave., is owned by the Jamison family of Redondo Beach, California.
The owners did not respond to numerous requests by The Frontier for an interview. Larry Jamison, the majority owner of Cobblestone, did not return phone messages and emailed questions from The Frontier seeking an interview, nor did Todd Slatcher, vice president of acquisitions for Jamison Management Company.
Cobblestone has also failed to comply with a federal law intended to provide renters with more notice during an eviction from properties with government-backed mortgages during the coronavirus pandemic, court records show.
An attorney who represents Cobblestone in Tulsa County eviction cases said he was unaware there was a government-backed mortgage on the property.
The apartment complex has closed access to its front office for tenants and visitors alike. A request to office management for an interview was forwarded to the company’s vice president, who did not respond.
In nearly all eviction cases filed in Tulsa County, the landlord is required to file an affidavit showing compliance with the federal CARES Act, legislation passed by Congress last year to provide economic relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the questions in that affidavit is whether the landlord has a federally-backed mortgage on the property.
In its eviction court filings, Cobblestone’s CARES Act compliance affidavits state that the company does not have a federally-backed mortgage, though county mortgage records show the apartment complex received a $10.7 million mortgage from Fannie Mae in October 20.
The signature page for all of Cobblestone’s filings appears to be a photocopy of an affidavit originally filled out in May 2020, Hallett said.
Early in the pandemic, landlords with federally-backed mortgages were not allowed to evict tenants. Though most of those blanket protections have since expired, a few protections still remain, according to the U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau.
One of those protections is the requirement that landlords with a government-backed mortgage give renters a 30-day notice before their tenancy is terminated, according to the Federal Housing Finance Authority. Oklahoma law allows landlords to terminate a rental agreement after only five days’ written notice. All of the recent Cobblestone eviction filings provide only five-day pay-or-quit notices, court records show.
Paul Morris, owner of Asset Recovery Management in Broken Arrow, the collection company that files the evictions on behalf of Cobblestone and several other Oklahoma landlords, did not return phone messages requesting an interview.
Nathan Milner, a Tulsa attorney who represents Cobblestone and numerous other landlords in eviction cases, said he was unaware that Cobblestone had a federally-backed mortgage.
“That would be news to me,” Milner said. “Sometimes they don’t tell me what their loans are or if a property has changed hands until somebody brings it up.”
However, there is considerable confusion at the local level about whether a tenant living in a dwelling with a federally backed mortgage has any additional protections.
Even early on during the pandemic, there was confusion about or outright ignoring of the rules, said Roni Amit, director of the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic and assistant professor of law at the University of Tulsa College of Law.
“Nobody’s checking that, unless the tenant happens to know that and is there to challenge it,” Amit said. “At the beginning … people were trying to compile lists of who had federally backed mortgages. But given how high the default rate is, it wasn’t always getting challenged.”
Two Cobblestone tenants who spoke with The Frontier said they had never heard of the protections offered to tenants in covered properties and did not know Cobblestone had a federally-backed mortgage.
Legal Aid Oklahoma believes that 30-day eviction notices are required for those covered properties, rather than the standard five-day pay-or-quit late notices that Cobblestone and other landlords issue.
Hallett characterized the affidavits as “fraudulent” and said he believed Cobblestone had failed to comply with protections for tenants under the CARES Act. The shorter five day notice also makes it harder for tenants to access rental assistance and other housing programs, Hallett said.
“It really contributes to that financial exploitation,” he said.
In interviews, both Miner and Special Judge Deborrah Ludi-Leitch, Tulsa County’s only judge who hears eviction cases, both said they believed all of the tenant protections in properties with federally-backed mortgages expired last year. Ludi-Leitch said the issue has never been brought up in court.
With so few tenants actually showing up for their eviction hearings, it might not ever be.
Hallett said that while Oklahoma’s eviction laws require a tenant to show up in eviction proceedings, even when they’re represented by an attorney, it does not require a landlord to show up. And there are often barriers, such as work or lack of child care, that can hamper a tenant’s ability to show up to court, he said.
And when a tenant doesn’t show up, it’s a default judgement for the landlord, though those default judgments can be vacated if a tenant protests later.
Two Cobblestone tenants told The Frontier that they believed if they paid the amount owed prior to the court date, they would not have to show up to court. One tenant said that information came from Cobblestone management.
However, court records show that in some cases, the court still entered a default judgement to evict even after the tenant paid because they didn’t show up to court. The landlord can use that judgement to throw the tenant out even if they have paid their debt.
“Because they have that judgement against (a tenant), if at any point they decide they don’t want to mess with him anymore, they’re tired of him complaining or they want to flip that unit to a higher rental, they have a judgement they can call the sheriff and get executed any time they want to evict him,” said Katie Dilks, executive director of Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand access to the civil justice system for low income Oklahomans.
Milner said the decision of whether or not to go through with kicking the tenant out after a judgement comes down to whether the landlord is willing to accept the money or not, and sometimes those default judgements for possession only are entered because the tenant paid on the day of the hearing and the attorneys were not informed.
“They (landlords) still have a legal right to continue with the execution regardless, because the judge has already awarded possession at that point,” Milner said. “It’s just done in our good graces that we don’t execute.”
Oklahoma law does not regulate how much a landlord can charge in late fees, the conditions for when late fees can be imposed, or whether late fees can be taken off the top of tenant payments toward rent, according to a report released earlier this month by the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Tulsa’s School of Law.
“In serial evictions, in a lot of those cases people aren’t actually evicted,” said Amit. “The serial evictions are used as a mechanism to collect money, essentially. Collect unpaid rent, collect late fees. I think it’s part of this business model to use evictions to make money, and they benefit from economies of scale.”
Falling into a serial eviction situation can make it almost impossible to catch back up, Amit said.
“You’re constantly behind. You can pay your rent but you have all of these late fees that just keep getting piled on. Then you can’t really move, because once you have an eviction filing on your record, it’s much harder to rent a property. So you kind of end up being beholden to your current landlord and you get stuck in this cycle.”
In one study of evictions in South Carolina, late and legal fees raised the average effective rent paid by around 20 percent.
“The goal of a serial filing is not to remove someone from the property,” Dilks said. “The goal of a serial filing is to extract additional late fees and legal fees because the landlords and their attorneys have figured out how to maximize the system for profit.”
However, Milner, the attorney for several landlords in Tulsa County, said that a property owner often doesn’t want to kick a tenant out on the street, even if they do win an eviction against them.
“I think they try to give them an opportunity to get caught up or make a payment to get there. Sometimes, it could be pure sympathy,” Milner said. “Sometimes, you don’t know what those circumstances are and you try to give them a little bit of grace.”
And while there are some situations that arise, such as a person being paid in the middle of the month when their rent is due on the first, an apartment with hundreds of tenants can’t change its rules or rent schedule for just a handful of individuals, Milner said.
And at some point, he said, it is incumbent on the tenant to try and find a solution.
“It’s tough if a person is paying late every single month,” Milner said. “Sometimes, it’s on the tenant to decide ‘hey, I can’t afford this. My paychecks are not lining up with my due date. Maybe I should terminate and go somewhere else. It shouldn’t always be incumbent upon the landlord.”