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Housing — and all its issues — are Tulsa city council's primary focus in 2023

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Max Bryan
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KWGS News
Apartments are seen near 21st Street and Riverside Drive in Tulsa.

If their meeting Wednesday is any indication, housing — in its many forms, and the issues that surround it — is top of mind for Tulsa city councilors this year.

At their annual planning retreat, councilors discussed how the city can involve itself in housing development, addressing homelessness and ensuring legal representation for tenants. These topics were discussed more than any others at the meeting.

Their focus came after Mayor G.T. Bynum's State of the City address in November, where said he wants the city to have half a billion dollars in housing investments over the next two years.

The Tulsa World reported in 2022 that rental rates climbed 19% in 2021. Kristin Maun, director of housing development and incentives for the Tulsa Authority for Economic Opportunity, told the newspaper that the climb was due to "supply and demand."

“We do not have enough housing, and that’s across all areas of housing," Bynum said at the meeting Wednesday.

City Housing Policy Director Travis Hulse said Tulsa is not lacking when it comes to land to build housing. But City Chief of Staff Blake Ewing pointed out that developing in these areas is expensive because the city must build nonexistent infrastructure. He said apartments are more easily built in city limits, as they're more compact and close to existing infrastructure.

But Ewing said councilors have deterred developers from building homes in the city. He said developers have told him it's not worth it to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of their time only to have council deny their developments.

“What they have told us they are now doing is just not doing it. They’re just not even trying," Ewing said.

Ewing acknowledged that councilors are representing their constituents, and encouraged them to work with city planning to figure out where apartments could go in the city without upsetting nearby residents.

But on the flip side, District 9 councilor Jayme Fowler said the city can also hurt areas if it passes developments without scrutiny. He used the area around 61st and Peoria — which Bynum said has more than 100 apartment complexes — as an example.

“It’s the greatest concentration of probably minority, failing schools. This is a snapshot, and we can probably go to every district and probably have similar (place)," Fowler said.

When asked why he spoke about the area using the language he did, Fowler said he was pointing out the racial disparities in the area, and how the residents in the area are treated unfairly when it comes to services.

His comments coincide with remarks from District 6 councilor Christian Bengel, who said greenlighting apartment complexes without much scrutiny leads to tenants getting "targeted to where they don't have walls in their apartments."

"Some of these areas become pockets for crime or magnets for crime, and that's just a fact," Bengel said.

District 4 councilor Laura Bellis said "NIMBY-ism" — a "not in my backyard" mentality — leads to apartments not being built. She said the city could put together educational materials to dispel preconceived notions about apartments to combat this mentality.

Bengel and District 2 councilor Jeannie Cue took issue with Bellis' use of the term — Cue said it was "offensive" given the concerns she hears from residents in her ward.

“I wasn’t using the term 'NIMBY' even as an insult. I just think it’s a challenge," Bellis said.

Bynum mentioned the Zarrow Family Foundation has funded a housing study for Tulsa that will be published in the coming months. He said the study will help identify and guide council's efforts.

Homelessness

For Tulsans who don't currently have permanent homes, greater low-barrier housing capacity is a top priority among councilors.

The federal government recorded 1,063 unhoused people in Tulsa in its 2022 point in time survey. The annual figure has remained above 1,000 since 2015.

Low-barrier housing permits residents with criminal records and do not require drug tests. Some allows sex offenders if they're far enough away from schools or parks in accordance with state law.

The city has said it plans to open a low-barrier homeless shelter in 2023.

“We have to increase that capacity, because some of the folks that you do see on the street are there because they do not have somewhere else to go," Bynum said.

While Bynum doesn't believe the city should act as experts in addressing homelessness, he said the city would be the best party to facilitate public money sources to address the issue.

District 3 councilor Crista Patrick claimed she gets daily calls about crime among the unhoused population in her ward.

“We need to identify people we can help and want help and need help, but we also need to be able to deal with the criminal element — not criminalizing houselessness, but criminalizing criminal behavior that has woven itself through our city," she said.

Patrick suggested the city open an alternative facility similar to the city's sobering center for its unhoused population.

Cue said she wants to make sure the city includes residents who "continually call" their councilors about problems with unhoused people in discussions about solutions.

“We have to include businesses and residents that have to deal with that, and their problems, and how they’re addressed," she said.

Tenant representation

One councilor was particularly interested in legal services for tenants facing problems that may arise between housing and homelessness, their success in this area might be limited.

District 7 councilor Lori Decter Wright suggested the city partner with Tulsa County to pass local policy to protect tenants faced with evictions or unusually high utility bills. She said cities like Denver and Kansas City are more involved in the tenant protection process and thus pass ordinances as a safeguard.

But Tulsa is in Oklahoma, where the state prohibits rent control that goes beyond what's mandated at the state level.

"We need the state to get off of our necks as local bodies and entities of government so that we can hold business owners and property owners accountable," District 1 councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said.

If a partnership were to go forward, Decter Wright said the city and county could model their partnership in how they partnered to use American Rescue Plan Act money.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.