OKLAHOMA CITY – Reps. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa, and Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, today held combined interim studies focusing on potential updates to the Oklahoma Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. The studies were held before the House Judiciary-Civil Committee.
“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed some startling gaps in our Landlord-Tenant laws that we feel must be addressed to better protect both parties,” Bush said. “Private property owners should expect the right to quickly regain access to their property if they are not able to collect rent. But on the other hand, we need a compassionate and equitable solution for tenants who are struggling.”
“Oklahoma’s landlord tenant laws are overdue for a review,” Bennett said. “They are outdated, and our disproportionately high rate of evictions suggests that something isn’t working. Just like I don’t think there’s a justifiable reason Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any other place in the country, I don’t believe that Oklahoma renters are somehow worse than those in other states. It appears that the issue lies in the language of our laws, and my hope is that this study will yield some constructive reforms with bipartisan support.”
Becky Gilgo, executive director of Housing Solutions, showed Oklahoma has had over 17,000 evictions since the pandemic started. She said landlords and tenants alike are negatively affected by evictions as both suffer financially.
“Oklahoma landlords are working incredibly hard to keep their tenants housed and balance the needs of running a business that their own livelihoods depend on,” Gilgo said in her presentation.
She said out-of-state corporations result in most evictions – 83% - taking advantage of Oklahoma’s legislative environment to prey on residents and resulting in an outsized impact on the state’s eviction courts.
She said 18% of those surveyed in Tulsa’s annual Point in Time Count attribute their homelessness to an eviction in the past year.
“Evictions disrupt our communities, drain our social services and threaten our public schools,” Gilgo said.
Katie Dilks, executive director of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, showed that Oklahoma’s eviction rate in 2016 was 4.24%, with one in 20 rental households facing eviction annually. That is double the national average and ranks Oklahoma sixth highest nationally.
“This isn’t because our state is poorer, or because rents are higher,” Dilks said. “It is directly to our laws and policies.”
Dilks said the purpose of the Landlord-Tenant Act is to first ensure adequate, safe and habitable housing, second to protect the property rights of owners and third to protect tenants from unsafe living conditions and harassment.
Dilks said there are two primary challenges: lack of protection against harassment and exploitation, and inability to ensure safe and habitable properties.
She had three suggestions for House members studying this issue.
First, increase the deduct and repair cap, which is currently set at $100, to a meaningful level. If a repair costs less than $100, a tenant may currently tell the landlord they will fix it themselves and deduct the amount from rent.
Second, create anti-retaliation laws to ensure predatory landlords are not trapping tenants in unsafe conditions. Third, support localities to adequately investigate and address code violations, including creating property registries.
Eric Hallett with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma also spoke about the effects of retaliation against tenants. He said this results in poor housing conditions and supports discrimination and abusive behavior. He would like to see the notice period for eviction for tenants be lengthened to allow them to schedule time off work and arrange for childcare as well as to bring counterclaims. He repeated the concern about repair and deduct cap.
Dilks said 48 states currently have anti-retaliation protections while Oklahoma has the lowest deduct and repair cap in the country. She said none of our neighboring states bar property registries. In her opinion, these moves will strengthen communities and can only negatively impact negligent or predatory landlords.
Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries in Tulsa, and Ginny Bass Carl, executive director with Community Cares Partners, and Tim Newton, a landlord, showed a series of before and after pictures of properties that have been rehabilitated and several photos of families that have been positively impacted through their partnership.
Study participants also heard tenant perspectives.
Information from the Tulsa Housing Authority suggested there are better options than eviction court when rents are late. The authority nearly eliminated eviction filings in two years by asking how they can help renters who are late on their payments rather than recommending immediate eviction.
Other study presenters included Mack Haltom, executive director of the Tulsa Day Center; former Rep. Josh Cockroft, now senior director of government affairs with the Oklahoma Realtor Association; Keri Cooper, speaking on behalf of the Oklahoma Apartment Association; Elliott Nelson with Business Impact and Ryan Gentzler with the Oklahoma Policy Institute.