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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — On Tuesday, City Councilors JoBeth Hamon (Ward 6), Niki Nice (Ward 7), and James Cooper (Ward 2), along with District 1 County Commissioner Carrie Blumert, hosted a panel discussion on the topic of eviction prevention.

The elected officials welcomed three guests who are local experts on the housing crisis and eviction prevention. 

Michael Figgins, Executive Director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma was the first to speak. Figgins was followed by Dan Straughan, Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance. Ginny Bass Carl, Executive Director of Community CARES Partners (CCP) came third to address the efforts of her organization.

The attendees of the panel were largely landlords and members of the press.

To begin the meeting, Hamon pointed out that before the COVID-19 pandemic, Oklahoma City had one of the highest rates of eviction in the nation. The experts who followed gave more insights into that statistic and the current crisis being faced by many members of our community.

Legal Aid

Michael Figgins, Executive Director of Legal Aid Services, explained some of the most important steps and tools in preventing eviction.

He pointed out that most of the people going through evictions are black and Hispanic. The majority are women, often single mothers. Many people facing eviction live hand to mouth, demonstrated by the high utilization of payday loan services.

In August of this year, there were 1,064 eviction filings in Oklahoma County. Due to the involvement of Legal Aid and Community Cares Partners, along with some other local agencies, 764 of those evictions were prevented.

Figgins said that the right to counsel is crucial in stopping evictions. An even better tool is pre-filing mediation between tenants and landlords. If accommodations can be made before a landlord files for an eviction, the landlord and the tenant are spared cost and time.

Two dollars of every eviction filing fee is directed to a program for pre-filing mediation, but few people use the program or even know of its existence.

Figgins underscored the need for collaboration between organizations and agencies. Legal Aid can represent a person facing eviction, but without an organization that can help with rental assistance or other services, that person will be unable to get out of their difficult circumstances.

Homelessness

Dan Straughan of the Homeless Alliance was asked to give some insight into homelessness as a result of the current housing crisis.

Straughan said there are about 860 shelter beds in the City of Oklahoma City, ranging from large shelters like City Rescue Mission to smaller shelters like Sisu Youth and Pivot.

Tonight in Oklahoma City, over 1,500 people will be experiencing homelessness.

Straughan referenced Figgins’s number of eviction filings in August. He suggested that people attending the panel should presume that those households facing eviction average three persons each.

Now, he urged, imagine adding three thousand people to our system that is already 100% overcapacity.

Straughan said that while his agency and others working to house people experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City have gotten very good and efficient at doing their jobs, this inflow of new clients finding themselves homeless has swamped the systems that are in place.

“That inflow needs to be choked off,” Straughan said.

Years ago, the Oklahoma Housing Finance Authority (OHFA) determined that Oklahoma City was short on truly affordable housing by at least 4,000 units. That deficit has only grown in recent years as rents have increased significantly while wages have remained stagnant.

Straughan said, according to recent census information, almost 15% of people in Oklahoma City live at or below the poverty line. That means 150,000 of our neighbors make less than $10,000 a year for a single person and less than $26,200 for a family of four.

Eviction prevention can help ease the inflow of people experiencing homelessness, but more truly affordable housing is necessary to end homelessness.

Community CARES Partners

Ginny Bass Carl, Executive Director of Community CARES Partners (CCP), spoke about her organization’s administration of federal relief funds.

CCP works in all 77 counties of Oklahoma but has contracts with Oklahoma City, Oklahoma County, and Canadian County. So far the organization has spent nearly $60 million in rental, utility, and mortgage assistance in Oklahoma.

Money for CCP came first from the CARES Act, then some other federal rental assistance money, and soon, one hopes, the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).

Carl said that eviction prevention is only one part of the solution in our community. CCP does not offer wrap-around services, so having collaboration with organizations like the Homeless Alliance helps the people they serve not only remain housed, but to get other needed services to prevent homelessness.

So far, according to Carl, landlord buy-in has been difficult to get for their program. Straughan mentioned that the program should have been marketed from the beginning as “Landlord Assistance,” since the landlords are the ones who are made financially whole.

CCP is often able to pay arrears as well as current and, in some cases, future rent.

Landlords

Some landlords attending the virtual forum had many questions.

One property owner asked if a tenant received assistance, then violated their lease, could they still evict the tenant?

Tenants who have received assistance are still at the mercy of their leases. Violating a lease may result in eviction, but CCP has no role in that transaction. CCP only assists with the inability to pay rent or utilities. If CCP had paid rent in advance, the advance would need to be returned to CCP.

CCP only pays directly to a tenant when a landlord has refused to participate in the program, a decision that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Again, this is, according to Straughan, Landlord Assistance.

One landlord asked, “Why do they get legal aid and nobody advices (sic) me?”

One reason for that is that the tenant doesn’t have money, because they have given it to their landlord.

Another landlord suggested that rental and utility assistance, as well as SNAP benefits, be tied to work training programs.

That landlord did not divulge what labor skills they bring to bear on their passive income from owning a shelter they rent to somebody who doesn’t own their own shelter.

At the end of the meeting, Figgins reminded everybody that what was needed to alleviate the housing crisis is more affordable housing.

“The City and County have land. We should be building public housing for everybody.”

Last Updated September 21, 2021, 6:59 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor