Donnie Pompey, 32, found himself in Oklahoma County eviction court on March 11. He knew his rent was late; Pompey said he had a medical problem that caused him to fall a month behind.

Pompey showed up at the courthouse without a lawyer. In general, only about 10% of people facing eviction filings arm themselves with attorneys. Pompey was fortunate to find attorneys from Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, known as LASO, at the courthouse. The statewide nonprofit offers free access to attorneys for people facing eviction.

From the LASO attorney, Pompey learned that his eviction was unlawful; the landlord had posted a generic five-day notice to move out, and had tried to force him out by turning off his electricity and water, he said. On top of those blunders, the landlord misspelled his last name on the lawsuit.

Without the help of LASO, Pompey said, he wouldn’t have known the filing was improperly served and the utility cuts were illegal.

“He probably would have gotten away with it, who knows?” Pompey said.

In addition to LASO, Housing Eviction Legal Program also provides free legal help in eviction cases. But in Oklahoma, there are no Right to Counsel laws, statutory guarantees of free legal representation for tenants in eviction cases.

A nationwide push toward ensuring tenants’ rights to access legal services is emerging. The Right to Counsel in eviction cases has been adopted in four states and 17 municipalities. Oklahoma advocates defend Right to Counsel by referring to the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

Everyone has a right to counsel in eviction proceedings, said Robert Goldman, by nature of the court system. An Oklahoma City-based eviction attorney, Goldman has practiced housing law since 1977, and said 90% of his cases are for nonpayment of rent.

Nationally, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that one in five households is behind in its payments. A low minimum wage combined with affordable housing shortages in the state leaves many Oklahomans walking a thin line between housing stability and eviction.

New York, San Francisco, Denver and other places that have enacted Right to Counsel laws have reported favorable outcomes for tenants, with more tenants staying in their homes, cases being dismissed, and fewer evictions filed in the first place.

Research by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, showed that when Tulsans have legal representation, they are 75% more likely to stay in their homes.

Pompey said he already has a new apartment lined up. The landlord will have to refile the eviction properly and meanwhile, allow Pompey access to his belongings. The landlord may not refile the eviction, knowing Pompey is planning to move out.

A National Crisis Affects Oklahoma

To call evictions in America a crisis is an understatement, said attorney John Pollock, coordinator of National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, or NCCRC. More than 3.6 million evictions are filed in a typical year, according to The Eviction Lab. In America, someone is served eviction papers every four minutes.

In 2016, Eviction Lab named Oklahoma City the 20th worst in the nation for its high number of evictions. Tulsa ranked 11th worst. Since 2016, eviction filings have climbed by about 27%, Eviction Lab data showed.

In Oklahoma, landlords filed more than 48,200 eviction cases in 2023. More than 17,860 were in Oklahoma County alone, according to Shelterwell, an Oklahoma advocacy group focused on housing rights for low-income tenants. The group collects eviction data, offers training to landlords and tenants, and pre-filing mediation services.

People served with evictions have few options for their day in court. They can find free legal representation such as Legal Aid, pay an attorney, represent themselves, or skip the hearing entirely, resulting in a loss by default.

Goldman noted that not all eviction filings result in families displaced from their housing. In some cases, arrangements are made between landlord and tenant to settle.

However, not knowing where to find free or affordable legal representation, a large portion of people being evicted miss their hearings altogether, losing by default.

“The fact is that roughly half of tenants, at least in most jurisdictions, don't even respond to the complaint or appear in court, because the system is so disempowering and confusing and overwhelming,” Pollock said.

Balancing the Courtroom

Dilks prefers the phrase Expanding Tenant Representation over Right to Counsel. She said people are often averse to changing laws that affect peoples’ rights.

“Think about it as just investing in a service that ensures our playing field is leveled, that our legal system is fair and equitable and acceptable and understandable,” Dilks said.

Goldman said he thinks eviction court is already level for tenants and landlords and that plenty of safeguards are built into the system protecting tenants.

“When it comes down to nonpayment of rent, I don’t see that there’s a tremendous benefit of legal counsel to get in there, except for a possibility of making sure the cases are being filed properly,” Goldman said.

“When you interject representation for the tenant, it changes the whole dynamic and (judges) have to pay attention to the tenant.”

Michael Figgins

However, Pompey’s case shows attorneys are more likely than laypeople to find legal discrepancies in evictions that can include discrimination or other problems, that could favor tenants in court.

“When you interject representation for the tenant, it changes the whole dynamic and (judges) have to pay attention to the tenant,” said Michael Figgins, executive director at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

Proactive Jurisdictions See Positive Outcomes

NCCRC tracks eviction outcomes across the nation. In New York City, the first to enact a Right to Counsel law in 2017, about 84% of tenants experiencing eviction have been able to remain in their homes. Eviction judgments dropped 41%.

San Francisco’s No Eviction without Representation Act of 2018 resulted in two-thirds of tenants with legal representation staying in their homes after eviction filings, NCCRC reported.

Maryland, South Carolina, Washington and Connecticut along with cities Newark, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boulder, Baltimore, Seattle, Louisville, Denver, Toledo, Minneapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans, and Detroit have enacted similar Right to Counsel laws.

The ACLU in 2022 issued No Eviction Without Representation, a report detailing the positive results for tenants in Right to Counsel jurisdictions. Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program helped 93% of unrepresented tenants in eviction cases avoid a judgment against them.

Taxpayer cost savings that could result from Massachusetts’ Right to Counsel laws amount to almost $37 million annually, for a return of about $2.40 for every dollar spent on Right to Counsel programs. 

Expanding Representation in Oklahoma

Tenants need proactive legislation to avoid the dangerous path toward homelessness that evictions can present, Dilks said.

LASO is working on a statewide pilot to expand Right to Counsel and their free assistance to tenants in areas in Tulsa and Oklahoma City where eviction rates are higher than average, Figgins said.

Figgins and the LASO team are focused on high-eviction zip codes 73111, 73120 and 73119; in Tulsa, 74136 and 74105.

“Sometimes you find things that are really bad,” Figgins said, referring to the unlawful cases LASO attorneys assist tenants with. “I mean really bad examples of discrimination. Or tenants being forced to live in just uninhabitable situations.”

Paying for Expanded Protections

In Cleveland, Ohio, United Way partners with other philanthropic organizations and the city to fund tenant representation.

Federal funding streams, development grants and HUD funds can also be allocated to stem Oklahoma’s growing problem of housing instability, Dilks said.

“We have a really robust (network of) philanthropic donors that are really interested in these issues, and I think that we love public-private partnerships in Oklahoma,” Dilks said.

She said prioritizing families with school-age children addresses the chronic absenteeism of children in eviction situations and helps stabilize students.

“I think there are ways you can overlap that geographic prioritization and a certain client prioritization that would really dramatically start to shift the landscape,” Dilks said.

Heather Warlick is a reporter covering evictions, housing and homelessness. Contact her at (405) 226-1915 or hwarlick@epictextbooks.com.


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