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Groups Agree State Landlord-Tenant Act Needs Updated But Largely Differ On Substance Of Changes

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While they may not see eye-to-eye on many things, landlord and tenant groups agree Oklahoma’s rental housing laws need updating, and there’s some agreement on what needs to change.

One provision on both sides’ radar discussed during an interim study last week is increasing the cap on rent deductions tenants can make for repairs their landlord refuses to do. The limit has been $100 for 40 years.

"I flip houses on the side, personally, and it’s hard to buy a doorknob for less than $100 nowadays,"  Oklahoma Association of Realtors Senior Director of Government Affairs Josh Cockroft said after telling lawmakers the organization is in favor of a higher cap.

Tulsa Apartment Association Executive Director Keri Cooper said increasing the deduction limit should be just the start.

"We want to continue to explore ideas to prevent evictions from occurring, and we want to talk about the opportunities for eviction record expungement. We haven’t really talked about that a lot, but we think there’s an opportunity there," Cooper said.

Cockroft and Cooper were also, however, quick to tell lawmakers any changes to the state's landlord-tenant act should be done cautiously so they don't hurt local property owners who own just one or possibly a few rental units. They said changes that drive mom-and-pop landlords out of the market couuld serve to hurt tenants by reducing the number of affordable units available.

Tenant advocates are also calling for provisions that would protect renters from retaliation if they report unsafe living conditions and allow cities to create rental property registries. Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation Executive Director Katie Dilks said those changes could help reduce the state’s eviction rate, currently sixth-highest in the U.S. at one in 20 renters a year losing their homes.

"And this is not because our state is poorer, because our rents are higher, because our tenants are more rent burdened, because we have worse renters in some way. It’s directly tied to our laws and policies," Dilks said.

Oklahoma is among just a handful of states without nonretaliation provisions in its landlord-tenant act. Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Statewide Coordinator of Housing Advocacy Eric Hallett told lawmakers that contributes to an imbalance of power that supports poor housing conditions because landlords can avoid fixing poor or unsafe living conditions by simply evicting a tenant and finding new ones.

"The tenant's right in Oklahoma is to move. If you don't like it, move. And moving is expensive. Moving is not easy," Hallett said. "Moving disrupts those social networks that you have in your current home: that neighbor who watches your kids after school or gives them a ride to school or gives you a ride to work. Your access to health care and employment centers all depend on your housing stability."

Hallett said retaliation protections would also help in cases of abusive behavior, telling lawmakers about a pregnant woman who complained about an apartment complex security guard photographing her and her young son from the bushes. Hallett said after she complained to the apartment manager, she was subjected to a surprise inspection and had her truck tagged to be towed away.

After a couple months of trying to lay low, the security guard had her truck towed early one morning, and he allegedly assaulted her when she confronted him. Hallett said she was given an eviction notice after again complaining to the manager, and an eviction would ultimately cost her housing vouchers for three years.

Community Cares Partners Executive Director Ginny Bass Carl agreed that lawmakers should be looking for ways to guarantee tenants habitable housing and crafting other legislation that holds bad landlords accountable, and she says that as a landlord.

"I’ve evicted one person during COVID because they got arrested three different times, three drug busts, in the house, and after the third time, we did have to evict. And they didn’t pay their rent. So, I get it. There are crappy tenants, and there are some really crappy landlords," Bass Carl said.

There have been more than 7,000 evictions filed in Oklahoma since the start of the pandemic. Landlord groups are quick to point out not all of those resulted in someone becoming homeless, saying some eviction filings are used to spur late rent negotiations, while in other cases, tenants have family or friends they can stay with.

Housing Solutions Executive Director Becky Gligo said the connection between eviction and homelessness was clear during the last Tulsa County point in time count — an annual, one-day census of people experiencing homelessness — when 18% of those contacted said an eviction in the past year is what put them on the street.

"So, we are seeing a direct pipeline from eviction court onto the street, which is taxing our social service systems, our public schools and our social safety net, essentially," Gligo said.

Gligo noted more than 80% of Oklahoma's evictions are filed by corporate landlords, not the mom-and-pop landlords lawmakers and trade groups are concerned law changes could hurt.

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