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Right to Counsel Program seeks to reduce eviction rates in Oklahoma County

Tasheen Marshall sits with her emotional support animal, Bonsai, in her Oklahoma City apartment.
Hannah France
/
KGOU
Tasheen Marshall sits with her emotional support animal, Bonsai, in her Oklahoma City apartment.

Oklahoma’s eviction rates are on the rise post-pandemic — more than 48,000 evictions were filed across the state last year. One solution being pursued by housing attorneys is simple, yet effective — increasing access to legal representation.

Tasheen Marshall loves her dog, Bonsai. But he’s not a pet — he’s an emotional support animal.

"He really keeps me calm, keeps me focused on what I need to do about the day. He just keeps me smiling and laughing," Marshall said. 

When Marshall was applying for a new apartment for herself and her teenage son in Oklahoma City earlier this year, she was asked to pay pet screening fees and a pet deposit for Bonsai — which she did. Shortly after she moved in, she was notified she would have to pay a monthly pet rent as well. When they didn’t pay up, they were locked out.

"I was literally standing outside, spinning in circles, real circles, not knowing where to go, what yard to sit on," she said. 

What Marshall didn’t know at the time is that under the federal Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities, like herself, are allowed to make requests for reasonable accommodations, such as an emotional support animal. Essentially, the initial fees she did pay and the additional pet rent she didn’t pay shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.

"It's, I think, incredibly important to empower tenants with that information so that they can be their own advocate in a lot of situations," said Ashlee Barker, a housing attorney with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

Through additional funding secured at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the organization was able to hire enough attorneys to regularly attend the eviction dockets in Oklahoma County. That’s when they initiated their Right to Counsel Program, which provides free representation to people facing eviction. Barker said the program has significantly changed the eviction landscape in Oklahoma County.

"Before we sort of were coming to the courthouse all the time, the rate of default judgments — so, people who are being evicted without ever coming to court for one reason or another — was very high. When we started going, one of the things we started also doing was sending direct mailers to all of the tenants on the eviction dockets. So a lot more tenants were getting notice at that point and calling us ahead of time for advice, because they know more. They know they can seek legal representation. They're not kind of going through this alone," she said. 

Marshall did go through it alone — an experience that is not uncommon in Oklahoma City. According to data from Oklahoma-based housing stability project Shelterwell, nearly 18,000 evictions were filed in Oklahoma County last year — approximately half of which resulted in eviction.

Marshall eventually got in touch with Legal Aid, and Barker helped her get her apartment back.

"She was on it with communicating with me and making sure she had all the right information. Didn't mislead me or anything, and she got it done. She really made me comfortable through the whole process and got us back in here with no problem. Flying colors," Marshall said.

Some Oklahoma lawmakers are also working to address eviction rates. Democratic State Senator Julia Kirt proposed a bill to extend the window of time from when an eviction notice is issued to when a defendant must appear in court from three days to seven. She said eviction doesn’t just impact those being evicted — it hurts taxpayers’ wallets.

"The daily cost for someone who's unhoused is significant to our society. And taxpayers are paying that because those folks are either incarcerated, they're going to inpatient care, or they're at a shelter," Kirt said.

While Kirt said she received some support from colleagues and her bill, Senate Bill 1575, advanced through committee, it ultimately was not heard on the floor this legislative session.

"The big challenge has been people understanding the gravity of the problem. And understanding that it's a societal problem and it's a policy problem. Because people think it's one family making a bad decision with their money instead of the fact that it's actually, people are not making enough money to pay their rent. They're driven to eviction. And unfortunately, our system really doesn't help that," she said.

And while services like the Right to Counsel Program have helped, Barker said its ability to continue helping hinges on whether the program receives new funding.

"It's still pandemic related funding that's currently funding the Right to Counsel Program, and it does end in June. And so, we are very much hoping we can secure funding from the city or, you know, other community organizations so that we can extend these efforts beyond June," Barker said.

But regardless of legislation passing or funding being secured, Marshall has one piece of advice for tenants who may find themselves in a similar situation.

"Definitely know your rights," she said. "When you need help, social media is out there. 2-1-1 for sure."

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Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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