With eviction moratorium lifting soon, local and state programs are still offering assistance.
As the state begins to slowly back up, there are still many families across Oklahoma that are struggling to pay their rent or utility bill.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 104,000 people in 55,000 Oklahoma households use federal rental assistance to afford modest housing.
As many as 64% of those assisted are families with children. Rental assistance programs help about 67,000 people in families with children avoid homelessness.
According to Enterprise, a national nonprofit organization that aims to address the country’s affordable housing crisis, 31% of the population in Carter County are renters while the remaining 69% are homeowners. The median gross rent in the county is $753. 3% of households are considered overcrowded while 10% of households are doubled up which means there are more than one family living in that household.
Both state and local organizations are still offering rental assistance to Southern Oklahoma renters. Daela Echols, Executive Director of United Way of South Central Oklahoma said the organization originally had some trouble getting the Emergency Food and Shelter funding to local agencies, but when the program was relaunched, they were able to work with local individuals in order to receive the funding.
“We actually worked with Ellen Roberts from Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative,” Echols said. “She was our board chair, and we worked with some other local individuals to try to get funding for Carter County. That funding had actually not been available for quite a while due to some issues, but we were able to actually get that done.”
Echols said United Way sponsored agencies such as Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, Catholic Charities, Impact Ardmore, Restoring Lives and their champion agency, Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Center were some of the agencies that received the funding for their rent relief programs.
Laura Akers, Executive Director of the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, said the Grace Center has offered rental assistance since 2000, but thanks to federal funding more organizations have been able to offer rent relief programs.
“We are in a unique situation here in Carter County and perhaps the rest of the nation.” Akers said. “There are a lot of dollars that are being designated towards rent assistance programs in ways that there never has been before or perhaps not in recent decades. The reason for that is because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact that it’s had on the economy at large.”
Akers said when COVID hit, the organization had to look at the services they provide and figure out how they could continue providing those resources during a time where people were told to stay at home. The Grace Center traditionally relied on in person conversations, so it was hard to transition to online work at first, Akers said.
The Grace Center put their application online and made it where applicants who didn’t have a computer could use their phones to apply. Akers said the center started using a text messaging service where people could take pictures of important documents like their ID or lease agreement and replaced in person interviews with phone interviews. Even though the office has been open for people to come since September, Akers said people are still using the online system.
“We have had great success with that as a program that works with our clientele, the people we stand to impact,” Akers said. “A lot of people are able to text these days and have phones that have the ability to take pictures. That is something that we put in place so that we wouldn’t prohibit individuals from accessing our assistance because of COVID-10 precautions.”
“That’s what the ultimate goal of programs like Community Cares program and funding from the Emergency Food and Shelter program, and why the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma and Catholic Charities have had longstanding rental assistance programs,” Akers said. “There needs to be programs like that to help people keep the housing that they have and stabilize them, so they don’t fall into homelessness.”
Besides the local organizations, the Community Cares Partner program also offers Carter County residents and renters across the state rental and utility help. Ginny Bass Carl, CEO of Community Cares Partner, said the organization has until September to use 65% of its funding, or the funds could get redirected.
Community Cares can pay for rent owed back in March 2020 and three months of future rent payments at a time. Each household can receive a total of 15 months of assistance. To be eligible for assistance, potential applicants need to be renting in Oklahoma, demonstrate a housing risk such as inability to pay rent or being a victim of domestic violence, have financial hardships due to COVID-19 including a job loss or increased expenses and have an income level that is at or below 80% area median.
Bass Carl said the organization makes sure to prioritize those on the eviction docket. Community Cares aims to be in the courthouse in Oklahoma County and Haywood County every day that there is an eviction docket. Bass Carl said the pandemic has shown how the laws are more favorable to landlords and how few tenants know their rights.
Bass Carl said the organization is anticipating more evictions once the eviction moratorium is lifted at the end of the month and is working closely with Legal Aid of Oklahoma to help.
“What we try to stress especially to landlords is that you don’t need to evict your tenant to get assistance,” Bass Carl said. “Encourage them to apply and get help immediately, so that you don’t have to go through the evictions. It’s very costly for landlords to evict, and it's obviously costly to the tenant because they have other fees added and they have this debt and eviction added on their record.”
Bass Carl said funding is also available to undocumented immigrants. When applying, applicants need to provide a copy of their lease and/or a utility bill as well a photo ID or two other forms of ID. The photo ID doesn’t need to be from the state or country.
One of the main issues the program has run into is getting residents in rural Oklahoma to take advantage of their program.
“The other struggle we have is gaining solid footing out in rural Oklahoma,” Bass Carl said. “So they know about the program and know that help is available. Getting people to ask for help sometimes [is a struggle]. [We want them to] know help is available and get them to apply and just get that trust built up. We are partnering as much as we can with statewide as well local agencies to gain that trust.”
In order to bring more awareness to their program, Bass Carl said the Community Cares often partners with local agencies like the Grace Center to help more people apply to the program. The organization recently had training with the Department of Libraries, so now applicants can go to the library to apply, Bass Carl said. Renters can also call 211 to be directed to the site and can reach out if they need assistance.
Bass Carl said the Community Cares Partners program is good for everyone.
“There is no shame in asking for help,” Bass Carl said. “This pandemic has affected everyone, and if we work together, we can overcome the negative aspects of it more quickly. This program is such a win win. This is something for the landlords, tenants and for the utility companies. So there are no losers in this scenario.”
Akers said an unfortunate aspect of the pandemic is that more people are learning that many families in the country are living paycheck to paycheck and can easily lose their housing if something bad happens.
“Maybe there will be this will and force of wanting to do something to make sure that we are covering these sorts of situations for our fellow neighbors in need, so it doesn’t happen again,” Akers said. “Perhaps what we will see is an interest to fund programs like these and to keep them around, maybe not at the magnitude that they have been, so that we are protecting those that need this sort of assistance.”