HELP for Oklahomans Facing Eviction During COVID-19

OBF Grantee, the Housing Eviction Legal Assistance Program (HELP) at Oklahoma City University School of Law provides legal assistance to tenants facing eviction. Dick Klinge, Director of HELP, says calls have doubled during the COVID-19 emergency as many Oklahomans face eviction due to unemployment.

The program was recently highlighted on CBS This Morning for the work they are doing to help local renters stay in their homes during the pandemic. Klinge is featured in the video. Watch the story here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-us-unemployment-eviction/

Dick Klinge, Director of Pro-Bono HELP

Where Do Vulnerable People Turn When a Pandemic Collides With Oklahoma’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Act?

By Dick Klinge

In 2018, a grant from the Oklahoma Bar Foundation allowed OCU School of Law to launch its Housing Eviction Legal Assistance Program (HELP). HELP’s mission is to provide effective access to justice for people who otherwise have limited access to legal assistance when facing eviction from their homes or other landlord/tenant disputes.

Since its launch in 2018, HELP has provided pro bono legal representation for more than 650 families facing eviction or other residential landlord disputes in Oklahoma County.  Its client base cuts across all race, ethnicity, and age categories.  Although HELP does not have income or legal status qualifiers for its services, approximately 98% are at the bottom of the economic scale. Almost all clients are rent burdened paying well in excess of 30% of their income towards housing.  They do not have the funds to retain private firms to represent their legal interests in housing related issues.

With the ongoing support of the OBF, HELP has provided zealous legal representation for its clients both in eviction proceedings and subsidized housing administrative proceedings. HELP advises clients on how to understand and exercise their tenant rights whether they arise under statutory, contractual, agency, tort, constitutional or other applicable legal principles.

In 2018, neither the OBF nor OCU knew HELP would be confronting novel, complex and unique legal issues for its tenant clients arising out of the COVID-19 related Emergency Orders issued by Governor Stitt, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt and orders of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.  These issues were further complicated as the Federal Government issued new COVID-19 related regulations for subsidized housing and then enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).  Additionally, HELP had to gain an immediate understanding of Oklahoma’s Health Emergency Powers Act (OHEPA) and how its general and preemption provisions in particular can be potentially used to protect and expand tenant rights.

The ongoing OBF funding has allowed HELP to gain a thorough understanding of tenant rights under both Oklahoma and Federal law.  This foundational knowledge has enabled HELP to quickly identify and analyze how COVID-19 related orders and statutes will impact and expand tenant rights.

Although the Supreme Court Orders have effectively delayed most eviction proceedings, an eviction tsunami is building on the horizon as thousands of Oklahomans are losing their jobs and their ability to meet their rent and other financial obligations.  In the calm before the storm, HELP is analyzing case specific legal issues which have arisen out of conflicting provisions of those Emergency Orders.  It is also analyzing how the preemption provisions of OHEPA can be used to potentially override provisions of applicable Oklahoma statutes which otherwise limit tenant rights.  The CARES Act is being carefully analyzed so that HELP is prepared to both zealously advocate for the tenant protections and aggressively enforce the landlord obligations thereunder.

Additionally HELP is working with other community organizations in Oklahoma County and statewide to inform them about the new COVID-19 related statutes, regulations and legal issues arising so they can help their tenant clients.  Since its launch, HELP has focused on the education of community and governmental organizations. It is these groups tenants seek assistance on eviction or other landlord/tenant disputes.

Thus, the answer to the question, “Where Do Vulnerable People Turn When a Pandemic Collides with Oklahoma’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Act,” is simple.  They turn to HELP and other legal non-profit organizations funded by the OBF. OBF Grantees are focused on serving vulnerable and under served members of society to ensure that they have effective access to our system of justice.  Without that funding, too many families are left without legal representation and they cannot successfully navigate the complex legal system. Families face threats of eviction, a need for shelter and even homelessness in these challenging COVID-19 times.

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