TULSA, Okla. — Serial evictions continue to pose problems for tenants in Oklahoma, trapping low-income renters in a vicious cycle of owing not only back rent to stay in their homes but other fees and court costs.
Legal experts describe it as a way for landlords to collect more money, and it adds to the eviction crisis existing in Tulsa County. Eric Hallett, with Legal Aid of Oklahoma, said it is a form of financial abuse.
"That family's credit is destroyed," he said of serial evictions. "That family cannot find somewhere else to go."
Property managers can use the courts to collect rent and late fees while passing the legal costs to tenants. In one Tulsa County case, a Cobblestone Apartments tenant had 14 evictions filed against her dating back to 2019. All but one ended in a default judgment. The tenant in this situation wished to remain anonymous in fear of another eviction.
"There are no protections against retaliation in Oklahoma," Hallett said.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute launched a project called Open Justice Oklahoma, which tracks the most prolific serial evictors in the state. The data found Cobblestone Apartments in Tulsa County to be at the top of that list, with 629 evictions filed from 2019 to 2020.
A TMC Managment, who owns Cobblestone Apartments, said in a statement it was made aware of this data in June of 2021. Since that time it says Cobblestone has made several changes in operating procedures, working with tenants to avoid eviction.
TMC's statement reads in part:
"Accurate and updated data proves that our efforts have been very successful so far. In January of 2021, Cobblestone Apartments, a 432-unit apartment community, filed eviction on 41 residents for non-payment of rent. Shortly after, In February of 2021, a new Community Manager was hired, and the Director of Operations was tasked with improving operations. In only 4 months, the new management team improved an many ways, resulting in only 13 residents having to face eviction filing in June of 2021. This was after several attempts to remedy their non-payment status. Most of these residents are not responsive to our attempts to mediate, but rather stay silent and just pay their dues before the day of scheduled lockout. We always allow them to “pay to stay”, though we do have the right to not accept the payment and move forward with the lockouts."
Cobblestone said 12 of the 13 residents were able to stay in their apartments.
"Unfortunately, we have some companies whose entire business model is filing dozens and dozens of evictions each month," Ryan Gentzler, with Open Justice Oklahoma, said.
Experts said the problem is driven mainly by corporate or out-of-state landlords filing hundreds of evictions each year.
"The vast majority of evictions that we see are not those mom-and-pop landlords based in Tulsa getting their retirement income; it's these large corporations that are filing by far the majority of these filings," Gentzler said.
Tenants with multiple evictions on their record are not good candidates when applying to live somewhere else; therefore, they have two options: Potentially become homeless, or stay put to repeat the cycle.
"Then what happens is if say the water stops working, the landlord says 'I don't have to fix that. If you complain, I'm going to just throw you out based on this court order I have against you,'" Hallett said
Serial evictions are legal, but there are some questions about Cobblestone's filings against tenants during the eviction moratorium.
At the beginning of the pandemic, landlords with federally backed mortgages were not allowed to evict tenants. The CARES act mandated landlords to give a 30-day written notice to residents before starting the eviction process for federally-backed loans. However, that expired in July of 2020.
Clifton Adcock, an investigative reporter with the Frontier, found a discrepancy in the apartment complex's eviction filings.
"The CDC declarations that they are filing, basically the paperwork to show that they are complying with the eviction moratorium and things like that, they actually say on there that they don't have a federally backed mortgage. However, I was able to find that indeed they do have one." Adcock said.
He said county mortgage records show the apartment complex received $10.7 million from Fannie Mae in October 2020. According to court records, evictions filed in 2021 by Cobblestone show the apartments still marking "no" when prompted whether the "mortgage is a federally backed mortgage loan."
"They are not filing new affidavits that reflect that," Hallett said of Cobblestone's eviction filings. "What happened is the eviction mill, the debt company that files these evictions against people, is taking the old affidavit and slapping a new front page on it and filing that with the court."
Nathan Milner, Cobblestone's attorney, said that all the evictions at Cobblestone were conducted in accordance with the law and met state and Federal requirements. However, when the Frontier reached out to Milner, he said he was unaware at the time Cobblestone had a federally backed mortgage.
It's issues like these drumming up confusion about the law and the protection tenants have regarding evictions.
The bottom line is getting out of a serial eviction cycle is complex. To avoid it, tenants should always appear in court if they'd like to contest their eviction before a judge.
2 News Oklahoma Investigators, along with the Frontier, did make attempts to speak with the owners of Cobblestone; however, they did not respond.
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