Tulsa is bracing for another courthouse rush now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared the nationwide eviction moratorium unlawful, local officials said Friday morning.
The city saw a wave of new eviction cases in early August after the Supreme Court had said the moratorium couldn’t remain in place any longer without Congress changing federal law to allow it.
The Biden administration initially abided by the court’s decision but reversed course just three days later and imposed the moratorium again, despite Congress’ having taking no action to approve it.
On Thursday, high court judges did what most experts expected and overturned the moratorium, saying federal officials had no legal authority to prevent landlords from enforcing the terms of a lease.
“Our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends,” the majority opinion says, acknowledging that the moratorium was intended to prevent homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue,” the opinion said, “Congress must specifically authorize it.”
More than 15 million people nationwide, including thousands in Tulsa, have fallen behind on rent payments during the pandemic, according to federal officials.
“If Congress doesn’t act,” said Eric Hallett, a Legal Aid attorney who works with Tulsa tenants free of charge, “we will see another rush to file eviction cases.”
Several Tulsa agencies worked together to open an “evictions hub” in early August, when local officials thought the moratorium had ended for good. Located at the Iron Gate soup kitchen, directly across the street from the downtown courthouse where eviction cases are heard, the hub offers a one-stop location where tenants can find several types of help, including free legal advice.
Perhaps most importantly, the hub can help tenants sign up for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which can pay overdue rent for them if their landlords agree to cooperate.
“If you receive a court summons,” Hallett said, “you must go to court. You should show up an hour early so you can access the services at the hub.”
At the very least, attorneys can get more time for evicted tenants to find new places to live.
“Tenants who don’t go to court will not get extra time to move,” Hallett said.
Tulsa’s federally funded rental assistance program has distributed more than $7.4 million in rent payments since the effort began in March, when it was intended to help the city prepare for the end of the eviction moratorium.
The program sent nearly $1 million in rent payments to Tulsa landlords on Thursday alone, said Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries, the local nonprofit agency that is administering the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
“We know landlords are hurting right now,” Jaynes said. “We’re here to help the landlords just as much as we’re here to help the tenants.”
If tenants have fallen behind on rent, Tulsa landlords have two options, Jaynes said: Take the tenants to court “or refer them to us.”
“We’re working as fast as we can to make sure landlords get paid. But we can’t help the landlord if the tenant has already been evicted.”
Photos: City helps Spanish-speakers sign up for emergency rent assistance
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