OKLAHOMA WATCH: Why more than 25,000 Oklahomans are still waiting for rental assistance | News

Timia Richardson sat alone in a wooden chair on the sixth floor of the Oklahoma County Courthouse as the courtroom began to fill with people arriving for their eviction cases.

Richardson, her husband and their seven-month-old daughter were going to be evicted from their apartment in northwest Oklahoma City in January, so they applied for housing assistance.

“I ended up borrowing money just so we could pay it off so we wouldn’t get kicked out,” Richardson said. “It was money that we really didn’t have, so now it’s like trying to get that money back to pay people back and then move on to another month in this cycle. (We’re) just pushed behind and this is all really a time sensitive thing.There are so many people asking for this rental assistance that it’s just a waste of time.

Since December 2020, the state of Oklahoma has received $485 million in federal emergency funds to help people at risk of eviction or having their public services cut off, according to the US Treasury.

Yet thousands of Oklahomans were deported.

Of the 60,727 evictions filed since the pandemic began, 22,824 have been completed, according to Open Justice Oklahoma eviction tracker, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute — 6,934 of them have occurred since August, when the moratorium federal on evictions has ended.

The state and county governments of Cleveland and Oklahoma have allocated $408.9 million to Community Cares Partners, a program of the nonprofit Communities Foundation of Oklahoma, to provide emergency assistance to the rental and utility services to Oklahomans during the pandemic.

The organization distributed $174.6 million to people in need.

It was mid-February and Richardson was still waiting for a check from Community Cares Partners despite his aid being approved in January. Her family received another eviction notice, so they were hoping to speak with a representative from the organization outside the courtroom that day, as a representative is usually in the room to meet with tenants.

“We knew we were going to get the money and they even told us how much – it’s literally on hold,” Richardson said. “That’s what’s stressful. You don’t know when it will happen, you don’t know how long it will take. You just know there’s that check over there that’s supposed to go to you.

Long waiting times

Shannon Carr, director of communications for Community Cares Partners, said she knows there are a lot of frustrated applicants.

“We’re an emergency rental assistance program — anyone who’s applied and is waiting for us to work on their application, they’re all in an emergency,” Carr said. “There are so many Oklahomans who need help.”

In September, Community Cares Partners closed applications to clear a backlog of more than 13,000 applications. When applications reopened on October 15, more than 2,000 were submitted within the first 24 hours. Now, with a backlog of over 20,000 applications, applicants are asked to allow the organization 10-12 weeks to review their applications.

Restore Hope Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that serves a 20-county region in northeast Oklahoma, closed its applications Jan. 30 to allow time to process the backlog. Executive Director Jeff Jaynes said 5,000 to 10,000 applications are waiting to be reviewed. This includes some duplicates and people requesting additional support.

“If you’re going to push the pause on new apps, February is a good time to do that because evictions typically drop in the month of February,” Jaynes said. “A lot of that is because people are getting their tax refunds back.”

The organization also helps provide groceries to food insecure people. Jaynes said the nonprofit typically receives fewer requests for food assistance in February as well due to tax season.

“People use their tax refunds for these basic needs,” Jaynes said. “So those are some of the main reasons why we paused when we did, just to clear the backlog and do it at a time when people might have other ways to get help. .”

Speed ​​up the process

Some people are deported before their application can even be processed. Owners also have the legal right to withhold money from these programs.

“When we put the moratorium in place, landlords had no choice but to accept rent assistance because the tenant was going to be able to stay,” said Eric Hallett, housing advocacy coordinator for Oklahoma Legal Aid Services. “As soon as the moratorium ended, they no longer had that incentive to have to get rent assistance.”

Landlords give up some power and control in their relationship with their tenant when they sign a contract with housing assistance programs, he said.

“A lot of these contracts require that they allow the tenant to stay for an additional three months and that they be paid for those three months up front,” Hallett said. “They have a no-eviction clause for those three months, so a lot of landlords aren’t happy about that.”

Community Cares Partners and Restore Hope have made changes to speed up the application process.

When the program was launched, communication was almost strictly by email. Now, Community Cares Partners has partnered with more than 30 Housing Stability Programs across the state to help people apply for housing assistance and receive additional services. Through these programs, people can get in-person help with their claims. The association has also set up a hotline.

If someone is evicted before their application is approved, Community Cares Partners will help with relocation and pay the back rent plus up to three months’ rent up front.

Restore Hope has launched an online chat feature on its website and has partnered with a number of housing solutions programs where people can get help in person. More recently, the nonprofit has partnered with Tulsa Responds, which serves as a primary call center where tenants can speak with representatives in English and Spanish. Tulsa Responds also helps with applying for food stamps, enrolling in Medicaid, getting discounted or free internet services, and filing taxes.

Restore Hope also offers services to rehouse evictees before their applications are approved.

“We (recently) had someone who had to lock out in the middle of the snow,” Jaynes said. “The owner’s first response was, ‘No, we’re not going to take any money. “”

The organization was able to convince the landlord to work with them and keep the tenant housed and off the street, he said.

“We’ve built a relationship with the owners over time,” Jaynes said. “We’ve been doing assistance for 25 years, so we’ve been able to build that relationship (with the owners). Often we are able to either help that tenant get back to where they were or prevent the eviction in the first place.

The impact of a setback

Despite the backlog, Community Cares Partners continues to accept applications. Restore Hope apps will remain paused without an announcement that they will reopen.

Richardson received his check in the mail on Saturday after arriving at the courthouse. His family’s rent has been paid for the months of February and March. She is now looking for work from home jobs so she can earn extra income while being able to stay home with her daughter.

“It was nerve-wracking because I didn’t know when the money was coming. If it had taken longer, we would have been kicked out,” Richardson said. “We’re just saving our money now to prepare for the months ahead.”

Many people in Oklahoma are just one case of the flu away from missing a rent payment, Hallett said.

“Most people in Housing Court are there because they’ve had a one-off financial setback, so we need a better system in place to make sure rental assistance and legal assistance are available. for these tenants, otherwise they become homeless,” he said. “So we all pay more to help this family.”

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