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Delaware Senate Democrats

Sen. Townsend, Rep. Minor Brown Sponsor Legislation to Combat Eviction Crisis in Delaware

May 6, 2021


DOVER – With thousands of Delawareans expected to face eviction proceedings once the COVID-19 State of Emergency is lifted, Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend and Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown introduced legislation Thursday to help keep families in their homes and permanently strengthen the rights of tenants throughout the First State.

Senate Bill 101 seeks to level the playing field for all Delaware renters, nearly 1 in 5 of whom face eviction each year under a legal framework that’s heavily skewed in favor of landlords, regardless of the amount owed and sometimes in instances where the arrears have been paid in full.

The legislation would provide tenants facing the greatest financial hardship with access to free legal counsel, as well as create a diversion program to resolve most landlord-tenant disputes before they result in legal action, set a floor on the arrears that can result in eviction proceedings and allow tenants to stay in their homes if all back rent, fees and costs are paid prior to an eviction.

“Delaware and much of our nation has been facing an eviction crisis for decades, a costly and disparate reality for far too many vulnerable tenants that’s only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Townsend, D-Newark/Bear.

“We have an opportunity now to rethink how the eviction process should work in Delaware and I believe we owe it to the 101,000 renters of this state to enact a fairer, more equitable system that will help families to stay in their homes when they face temporary financial instability,” he said. “This past year, we’ve all seen how circumstances beyond anyone’s control can have wide-reaching impacts on the lives of our neighbors. No one should be cast into the streets before being given every opportunity to uphold their end of a lease agreement and yet that’s what happens to more than 18,000 households every year.”

A recent study of pre-pandemic eviction data by the University of Delaware’s Biden School of Public Policy found that 14 tenants in Delaware are evicted from their homes on an average day – a rate 2 percentage points higher than the national average.

At $45 per case, eviction filings are relatively inexpensive and easy for Delaware landlords to file. Delaware law also does not set a minimum on the amount owed before landlords can take legal action, resulting in evictions over as little as $1.

Black and Latinx families, who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, also tend to be disproportionately targeted by evictions, largely because they tend to have a lower rate of homeownership than white families as a result of longstanding income and wealth inequities. Nationally, Black renters have evictions filed against them at a much higher rate than white renters.

The issue is further compounded by a lack of adequate and affordable legal representation. Only about 2% of tenants have legal representation in Delaware eviction proceedings, compared to about 86% of landlords who are represented in court by an attorney, a property manager or other agent, according to the Biden School. Nearly a third of Delaware tenants facing eviction proceedings feel so powerless that they don’t even show up to court, resulting in a default judgment.

“98% of Delaware’s tenants who face eviction are left to navigate that hurdle without any legal representation or assistance, and Black women are more than twice as likely than white people to have an eviction filed against them, which highlights the deep disparities of eviction impacts in Black communities,” said Javonne Rich, policy advocate at the ACLU of Delaware. “The ACLU of Delaware supports SB 101 because implementing a statewide right to counsel for eviction defense would help address these disparities and ensure that low-income, Black, and Latinx families, who are disproportionately removed from their homes, would have a fair shot at housing stability and resources.”

SB 101 would address these disparities in a number of ways.

First, the legislation would create a Right to Counsel Coordinator position appointed by the Attorney General and empowered to contract with one or more nonprofits offering legal representation to tenants facing eviction proceedings whose household income is less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

“Residents facing eviction often are people already in difficult situations. They’re working but struggling to make ends meet, so they definitely can’t afford a lawyer to help them, while most landlords have someone representing them,” said Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, the lead House sponsor. “Getting evicted — especially when it’s avoidable — makes a bad situation worse. If these residents have access to legal representation, they stand a better chance of resolving these cases and staying in their homes, which is better for everyone involved. I hope this bill will level the playing field and help Delaware families avoid homelessness.”

Studies have shown that tenants represented under similar right-to-counsel protections adopted by at least eight major cities throughout the country have resulted in tenants winning or settling their eviction proceedings in more than half of cases. Represented tenants are also twice as likely to remain in their homes as unrepresented tenants. Much of the nonprofits’ work is expected to focus on connecting tenants and landlords with rental assistance programs.

“No family should be evicted without having access to counsel, said Daniel Atkins, executive director of the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society Inc. “Ensuring people facing eviction have legal help is not just humane, but it is also good public policy. An independent advisory firm has found that for every dollar invested in eviction right to counsel, the State of Delaware will save $2.76 in costs that it otherwise would have spent on sheltering, rehousing, and otherwise dealing with the ramifications of evictions and homelessness.”

SB 101 also would establish that eviction proceedings cannot be brought in Delaware for any less than $500 or 1-month’s rent, whichever is greater. Currently, about 1 in 10 eviction cases in Delaware are filed over less than $300, according to the Biden School study.

The legislation would further create a residential eviction diversion program modeled after Delaware’s Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program, which has helped more than 62% of participants stay in their homes since its creation in the wake of the Great Recession. Tenants in the mediation process also would be provided with a designated housing counselor, and most landlord-tenant disputes would have to pass through the diversion program before any formal legal action could be undertaken.

Finally, the bill would allow tenants to stay in their homes if they pay all past-due rent – as well as any applicable court costs and fees – after a possession judgment has been awarded, but before an eviction takes place.

SB 101 is slated to be considered by Senate Housing Committee on Wednesday, May 12.