By Janelle Stecklein
CNHI State Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY — Thousands of Oklahomans face eviction in the coming days as courts statewide begin to sort through a backlogged docket filled with people who have fallen behind on their rent payments.
In all, Oklahoma landlords have filed 2,300 eviction cases since March 15 — the day Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a state of emergency for all 77 counties, said Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma, which has been tracking filings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courts still have pre-pandemic eviction filings to sort through as well, he said.
“There’s going to be a bigger wave (of evictions) than normal because of the backlog, and people are really struggling economically right now,” Gentzler said.
The most recent U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey found 36.2 percent of Oklahomans adults — or 736,000 — reported housing insecurity from May 7-12. That’s up from 24.8 percent the week prior.
Nearly 48 percent reported losing employment income, up slightly from the week prior. The weekly survey is trying to track how Americans’ lives are being impacted by the pandemic to help shape recovery planning.
Most county court systems, which have already delayed eviction hearing for almost two months, implemented a piecemeal approach to clearing the backlog.
Tulsa County, for instance, won’t hear the eviction filings until June 1, but most other counties started hearing them this week, Gentzler said.
“I think there’s a lot of risks to evicting people right now,” he said. “Obviously, we are in the middle of an unemployment crisis that is extremely acute and very sudden, so we know that there are just tens of thousands of Oklahomans who have lost their income in the last couple of months."
He said there’s a couple of different possible “disastrous outcomes.”
Gentzler said courtrooms could be packed with litigants, increasing the possibility of spreading COVID-19. If people don’t show up, they risk being automatically evicted. The judicial system is encouraging courts to use teleconferencing and video conferencing as much as possible, but debtors then risk being evicted if they can’t communicate that way, he said.
“There’s not a lot of great news here unless state or federal policymakers act quickly or decisively,” he said. “The governor has the ability to basically halt evictions with an emergency order. That’s what we’ve seen in some other states.”
Stitt, though, said Wednesday that he’s not planning to use his emergency health powers to delay evictions proceedings.
“We need to be really cautious at this time with so many people who are out of work and give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
But, Stitt said landlords have their own bills to pay too.
“That’s not something my administration is weighing in (on), especially as our state has safely started reopening and we’re trying to get folks back to work,” he said.
Karey Landers, executive director of the Apartment Association of Central Oklahoma, said owners and management companies need to keep their properties functioning and employees paid. Rents pay for that.
The nonprofit trade organization’s members manage more than 67,000 residential apartments across central Oklahoma.
“It can be difficult to keep properties functioning and hard to provide an above-par place to live if there is no income to help supply those needs and demands,” she said.
Landers noted a slight increase in nonpayment of rent since March.
But most members report waiving late fees and setting up payment plans to help those suffering pandemic-related hardships, she said.
Landers urged Oklahomans, who expect to miss a payment, to contact their leasing offices to discuss setting up a payment plan.
“They are working with residents every day to help keep their homes and keep them caught up as much as possible without it being a hardship on them,” Landers said. “Typically, the only court or eviction processes we have seen is if (landlords) have had no communication with the resident after multiple attempts of trying.”
At that point, the owners need judges to intervene, she said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.