Delaware lawmakers are introducing legislation that creates a statewide right to counsel for tenants facing eviction in the wake of the challenges presented by the global novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, Delaware state Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend (D-Newark) and Rep. Larry Lambert (D-Claymont) introduced Senate Bill 101, which seeks to provide protections for the renters and tenants in the state who might soon be faced with the consequences of losing their jobs and source of income due to the pandemic, as part of the Delaware Right to Counsel for Eviction Defense Campaign.
"I'm not the first person to recognize that COVID has laid bare inequities in our society, and this includes long-standing injustices that are baked into Delaware's eviction process," Townsend said Thursday. "There's more we can do for the 18,000 households who face eviction in Delaware, each and every year, whether there's a pandemic or not. We have an opportunity and, frankly, an imperative to rethink how the eviction process should work here in Delaware, and I believe we owe its more than 100,000 renters in our state to enact a fairer, more equitable system that will help vulnerable families stay in their homes when they face economic hardships."
Delaware's eviction laws "stack the deck" against renters by a system "skewed in the favor of landlords," Townsend said, and families that are already struggling financially can too easily be forced into homelessness over issues as small as $1 owed in back-rent. He noted one-in-five renters are taken to court every year in Delaware, with one-in-ten taken to court over less than $300. Of those cases, 86% of landlords have legal representation, while roughly 2% of tenants have the means to obtain legal representation. Meanwhile, tenants win 50% of their cases when able to obtain representation, which is about twice as often, he said.
The measure's primary state House sponsor Larry Lambert said its an issue which creates not only greater financial struggle, but adds an extra layer of stress to individuals already dealing with difficult challenges, and he fears it will become an ever-increasing issue as the state crawls its way out of the pandemic.
"We've come to this space where there's so many positives, where we are returning to normalcy, some of our barriers are being lifted as we get a hold of this pandemic. However, we're also coming into a space where many of our renters are facing eviction," Lambert said. "I've had residents come to me with tears in their eyes, scared of evictions, confiding in me about the struggles that they've had, their fears, the nightmares that their children are having."
Senate Bill 101 will:
- Allow Delaware's Attorney General to empower a Right to Counsel Coordinator to contract nonprofits who can provide free legal counsel to tenants.
- Create a Residential Eviction Diversion Program modeled after the state's Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program to avoid cases reaching court altogether.
- Establish a baseline that eviction proceedings cannot be brought to court over less than $500 or one month's rent, whichever is greater.
- Grant the ability for tenants to stay in their home even after a possession judgment has been awarded, so long as the tenant pays all past-due rent and applicable court costs and fees.
"This legislation is about economic dignity," Lambert said. "Our working families have made significant sacrifices during this pandemic. These are the days, these are the times where we have to listen, where we have to step up and meet them where they're at."
There are also significant hurdles evident in examining who is evicted and how often, officials said. Policy Advocate for the ACLU of Delaware Javonne Rich said, though everyone deserves safe and stable housing despite their circumstances or background, gender and race often play a prominent role.
"For many reasons--including racist economic and housing policies and practices--Black and Brown people are less likely to own homes than white people and are more likely to rent." Rich said. "On average, evictions are filed against Black renters at nearly twice the rate of white renters, and the disparities are worse for Black women."
While the problem is a national one, it's also particularly pronounced in Delaware.
"From 2019 to 2020, Delaware experienced a 26% increase in homelessness. That is the largest increase in the entire country. Half of Delaware's renter households are cost-burdened. That means they're paying more than 30% of their income on rent. A quarter are severely cost-burdened. That means they're paying more than half of their income for rent. Delaware's landlord tenant system does not do enough to protect tenants," said Daniel Atkins, Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. "This disparity is not unique to Delaware, but its stark, and it's pronounced, here in Delaware."
SB 101 is scheduled be considered on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, during a Senate Housing Committee meeting.