A state House committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would prevent courts from halting evictions, even during a health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Bill 1564 says courts have no discretion to extend terms of a lease. Some supporters, including bill author Rep. Tom Gann (R-Inola), said they’ve talked to landlords with tenants who simply refused to pay because they couldn’t be evicted during a federal moratorium.
"These were people who some of them were not affected at all by the COVID, and they were doing everything that they could to skirt the rent and steal a man’s labor," Gann said.
Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation Executive Director Katie Dilks said tenants aren’t covered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium unless they file a declaration with their landlord and are making their best effort to pay rent.
"They have to be tapping into those rental assistance funds. Otherwise, they’re not protected by the eviction moratorium. So, to argue that people are choosing not to pay their rent because they can’t be evicted is just not accurate with the situation we have right now," Dilks said.
Dilks said she’s not aware of judges extending lease terms as the bill seeks to prohibit, only judges granting tenants a few more days to remove their belongings or when someone has a health issue.
Several supporters of HB1564 on the House Business and Commerce Committee said they believe anyone who needed rental assistance was able to apply for it. Housing Solutions Executive Director Beckly Gligo said thousands of area tenants applied for millions of dollars in rental assistance late last year, but there were instances where landlords rejected the funds or took it and then evicted tenants anyway.
"So, I find it sort of ludicrous to think that a finite amount of money, some of which some landlords didn’t even accept, can meet the needs of a now year-long pandemic," Gligo said.
At one point, Gann suggested letting evictions continue unimpeded is necessary to boost affordable housing availability.
"This is an industry. If we want affordable housing for the homeless, we have to allow for someone to benefit from the fruits of their labor," Gann said.
That idea didn’t sit well with Gligo, whose Tulsa nonprofit leads work to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.
"How does it make sense to displace people who need affordable housing to make room for more affordable housing? And many of these landlords won’t even accept someone who’s had an eviction on their record," Gligo said.
In addition to blocking action by judges and ensuring evictions are enforced during a health emergency, HB1564 allows for late payment fees up to 15%. Dilks said no state with legislation to cap late fees has set it that high, and just two states have capped late fees at 10%.
An additional $260 million in federal relief funds for rental assistance is on its way to Oklahoma and should be available next month. The new funding carries fewer restrictions than a first round of rental assistance funding, and landlords can apply for the funds directly.
Dilks said state officials should be focused on maximizing those funds.
Nearly 20,000 evictions have been filed in Oklahoma courts since last March, according to Open Justice Oklahoma.
HB1564 passed committee on a 7–3 vote. Reps. Meloyde Blancett (D-Tulsa), Trey Caldwell (R-Lawton) and Judd Strom (R-Copan) voted against it.