DOVER — In a bipartisan vote Tuesday, the Delaware State Senate advanced legislation that gives tenants a right to representation in eviction proceedings and other landlord-tenant actions.
Senate Substitute 1 to Senate Bill 1 would help level the playing field between landlords and Delaware’s 100,000-plus renters, 1 in 5 of whom face eviction each year, by connecting tenants experiencing financial hardship with access to free legal representation. The bill also creates a pre-trial diversion program aimed at resolving landlord-tenant disputes before they reach a courtroom.
“The downstream impacts of evictions on our economy and on our public health are massive and have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend (D-Newark), the legislation’s lead sponsor. “Housing instability caused by unnecessary evictions means more people living in government-sponsored shelters, more children moving from school to school and into our foster care system, and more sick people seeking care in hospitals instead of local doctors. It means poorer physical and mental health, damage to personal credit, loss of personal property, and increased risk of lost employment.”
A 2020 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. And At $45 per case, eviction filings are relatively inexpensive and easy for Delaware landlords to file.
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 because of longstanding 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.
“We have an eviction crisis on our hands in Delaware that disproportionately impacts families of color,” said Delaware Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. Executive Director Dan Atkins. “Senate Bill 1 is a measured and appropriate response to this crisis that connects those families to the resources and assistance they need to avoid homelessness.”
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 1 seeks to address these issues in two key ways.
First, the legislation creates a Right to Representation Coordinator position appointed by the Attorney General and empowered to contract with one or more nonprofits — like Delaware Community Legal Aid Society — to offer legal representation by an attorney or non-attorney advocate to tenants facing eviction proceedings whose household income is less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. More than $1.3 million in funding to build out this program is included in Governor Carney’s recommended FY2024 budget.
“All Delaware families should have safe and affordable housing,” said Governor John Carney. “We committed to the largest housing investment in Delaware’s history in the FY24 recommended budget. This includes funding to support a tenant’s right to representation in eviction proceedings. I want to thank Senator Townsend and advocates for their work on this legislation.”
Additionally, the legislation would establish 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 many landlord-tenant disputes would have to pass through the diversion program before any formal legal action could be taken.
The legislation does include some key protections to protect responsible landlords. First, it exempts “mom and pop” landlords who rent three or fewer family-owned properties and who are not represented by an attorney. It also does not guarantee counsel when an attorney review deems the tenant’s case lacks merit. These provisions were not included in the “Right to Representation” bill that failed to become law in the 151st General Assembly.
“Facing the loss of your home is a traumatic event that can have devastating impacts on families and individuals. The impact of this type of disruption can last a lifetime and lead to costs that ripple through our economy, our health care and criminal justice systems, and our society,” said House Majority Whip Melissa Minor-Brown, (D-New Castle). “Given the current state of housing in Delaware, residents deserve fair representation in these matters.”