SB99 pertains to landlord eviction requirements.

Bill would ban landlords from evicting tenants for crimes

Jarek RutzHeadlines, Education

SB99 pertains to landlord eviction requirements.

SB99 pertains to landlord eviction requirements.

A bill that would strip crime-free housing ordinances from Delaware sparked conversation about domestic abuse, racist motives and local control in the Senate Housing and Land Use Committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 99, sponsored by Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-New Castle, would ban municipal ordinances from requiring the eviction of tenants for criminal activity by a tenant, member of the tenant’s household or a guest in the house. 

The legislation is a recommendation of the African American Task Force, established under the 150th General Assembly. 

A 2020 statewide analysis report from the Delaware State Fair Housing Consortium lists the removal of crime-free housing ordinances and legislation banning them as one of its goals for ensuring that people have equal access to housing. 

Pinkney pointed out that at least six municipalities in Delaware have crime-free housing ordinances.

Generally, she said, they require landlords to include an addendum on their lease agreements prohibiting a tenant, member of the tenant’s household, or a guest from committing a criminal activity within a specified distance of their unit.

If any of those parties commit a certain number of criminal activities within a specified time period, the landlord must initiate an eviction. If a landlord does not file to evict the tenant, the landlord may lose their rental license.

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Sonya Starr, policy director at Housing Alliance Delaware, said crime-free housing ordinances are particularly concerning because it discourages victims of domestic abuse to call law enforcement.

The definition of criminal activity can be vague, she said, and can include low-level offenses such as trespassing, loitering and disorderly conduct. She noted how honking a horn would be considered disorderly conduct and consequently would fall under a crime-free ordinance. 

The Delaware State Housing Authority supports SB 99.

“These ordinances are problematic because the way they define criminal activity is vague, and it does not require an arrest, charge or conviction to occur,” said Javier Horstmann, the group’s chief policy advisor. “Oftentimes, just having the police respond to a residence can be considered an instance of criminal activity, irregardless of the reason for the call.”

Crime-free ordinances disincentivize tenants from calling first responders in emergency situations, which is a worrisome issue for persons experiencing domestic violence, he said.

“Furthermore, these ordinances can be abused by neighbors or other community members with racist motives who may, for example, call the police in order to lodge frivolous noise complaints,” he said. “At a time when there is a severe shortage of low income housing, we cannot allow these types of ordinances to displace tenants based on vaguely defined criminal activity.”

Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Dover, called the bill “heavy-handed” and said it would take away local control of municipal officials.

“We have elected councils in these municipalities, who I believe the state has a duty to respect,” he said. 

He said he supports the premise of the bill, but that municipal officials should be consulted first, and they should be the ones to make the change, rather than laying down a legislative mandate on them.

“Instead of working with our municipalities, we’re telling them what to do,” he said. “As a county councilman, that’s exactly how we feel when these types of actions are done that impact how we do business.”

Marcia Scott, executive director of the Delaware League of Local Governments, said the group opposes SB 99 because it preempts local control. 

“The existing ordinance ordinances adopted by six Delaware municipalities were well-intended and adopted to address serious problems with criminal activity that creates unsafe living conditions for all,” she said. 

The legislation would hurt the ability for local policymakers to enact, modify or consider ordinances that best meet the needs of their communities, she said.

“Everyone has the right to live in a rental unit or apartment complex that is safe, well-maintained and free from criminal and illicit activity,” she said. 

Because Senate committees do not take votes in public, the votes on SB 99 were not immediately clear. Committee members will sign the back of the bill with their votes, which will be reported hours later on the state’s bill tracker.

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