Residential Leases and Evictions During COVID-19 (Guidelines for Landords)

The vast majority of residential leases, tenancies, and rental agreements have been affected by COVID-19. Many tenants have lost jobs or had their work hours cut, reducing or eliminating their ability to pay rent on time or altogether. In addition, the CDC issued an emergency order which eliminated the ability to evict tenants for the most common eviction justification, the non-payment of rent. This order was extended into 2021 and was recently extended a second time by the new administration.

If you are a landlord who is unsure of their ability to evict or enforce your leases, see the most frequently asked questions and corresponding answers below. These comments apply to all residential properties, whether a single-family home, manufactured/mobile home community, or multi-family units. Commercial rental units are not subject to these rules. 

When can I evict again? 

There are two general types of eviction: those related to non-payment of rent, and those related to all other reasons for termination of a lease. The CDC initially issued an emergency order on September 4, 2020 which stopped evictions for non-payment of rent. This order has been extended to remain in effect until March 31, 2021 – it is highly likely that this order will be extended again. 

The CDC Order has been interpreted in Oklahoma as only prohibiting the termination of residential housing leases and tenancies for non-payment of rent. That means landlords can and should continue to pursue eviction for termination-level lease violations such as criminal activity, waste or physical damage to the leased unit, or other all reasons except non-payment of rent.

To ensure that a landlord cannot complete an eviction while the CDC order is in effect, tenants must complete the CDC declaration and successfully prove the truth of their declaration before the court. 

If my tenant leaves without paying back-owed rent, what can I do? 

Fortunately for landlords, the CDC Order does not alleviate a tenant’s responsibility for eventually paying rent, even if it is late. That means tenants will continue to be obligated to pay back-owed rent. In Oklahoma, debt can be repaid either (a) by voluntary agreement of the parties, or (b) by a civil court judgment and subsequent proceedings. If a tenant (or prior tenant) is willing to repay missed rent over time, landlords should consider accepting such an arrangement. However, if the tenant (or prior tenant) is unwilling to voluntarily repay over time, landlords will be required to pursue that debt through court procedures. In Oklahoma, collecting a debt requires both (1) a court judgment and (2) either voluntary repayment pursuant to the judgment or statutory garnishment proceedings.

What do I do if the landlord wins eviction but the tenant is judgment proof? 

Many tenants (or prior tenants) will be unable to pay back-owed rent even if they have a court judgment against them. Lawyers commonly call these types of parties “judgment proof,” meaning that you can get a court ordered judgment in your favor, but the defendant still won’t be able to pay the money judgment – even if you pursue garnishment. Some tenants will be unable to pay because they are already being garnished in some way; if they are already being garnished, your garnishment proceedings will necessarily require a modification of their existing garnishment schedule. For some tenants, the judgment and garnishment collections amount will be so minimal that the landlord will not even be able to recoup the amount of legal fees necessary to collect. All litigating parties must decide for themselves when to stop investing in litigation due to the minimal amount of potential return. An attorney can help you with this cost-benefit analysis.

Contact Jones Property Law to update your lease agreements with COVID-19 specific terms or to determine whether you are able to evict prior to the expiration of the CDC order. In addition, our attorneys can help landlords and property managers perform prospective tenant background checks and other “vetting”, follow proper eviction procedure, and more.