A bill that would create a new state program to help people on the edge of eviction stay in their homes or apartments is headed to the House after passing the Senate Tuesday.
The bill would add jobs in the Department of Justice to create a diversion program to resolve landlord-tenant disputes before they result in legal actions. It would also set a floor on how much a renter must owe before they can be evicted and allow tenants to stay in their homes if all back rent, fees and costs are paid.
If enacted the program would cost the state $1.3 million the first year and $3.6 million by the third year and require two deputy attorneys general, one legal administrative specialist and one legal assistant.
About 18,000 Delaware households end up being evicted, supporters said, at a rate that’s 2% higher than the national average. While 69% of those are likely to be eligible for legal representation, about 4,000 tenants probably would accept it, the bill’s financial note says.
Sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, said one of the points of the program was to offer pre-eviction help rather than post-eviction help. He said he had not realized the critical insecure housing has on every aspect of a person’s life until he became chair of the Senate Health Committee.
“Long before the pandemic, Delaware has had … an underfocus on housing and an underfocus on the way in which unstable housing has this tremendous impact in so many ways,” he said. “We can try to bring stability to the process that does not reward bad tenants for being bad tenants.”
Those who are in danger of losing their home need to have legal representation, he said.
Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover South — whom Townsend called “my friend, my spirit animal” — said he agreed that housing in Delaware is a huge issue. He asked whether there is an arbitration program now and questioned whether the government needs to get into the private contracts between a landlord and a renter.
“Is it worth the government intervening and providing counsel for one side,” he asked.
Townsend said that there is a post-filing mediation, but he believes it would better to have the talks before the eviction.
Bonini pointed out that one of the problems in Delaware is that rents are “crazy high,” which he joked was a technical term.
“Is there anything we can do … or what can we do to help solve that market problem,” Bonini said. “I agree that we have a real issue, but I think we’ve got to figure out how to get more housing is part of the solution.”
Townsend agreed and said that would be a future conversation and include talk about housing stock, density and transportation modality.
Helping people avoid eviction will help the poor, blacks and Latino families as well as others struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, supporters said. Evictions have been prohibited during the pandemic, and many expect to see a flood of them when the proceedings can legally start again.
Daniel Atkins, executive director of the Community Legal Aid Society, said eviction processes take about six weeks from beginning to end in Kent and Sussex Counties and eight to 10 weeks in New Castle County.
Atkins said the point of the bill was to change the process and get the parties to the table earlier to reach amicable resolutions. The program will not provide representation for appeals if the appeal doesn’t have merit, he said.
Asked to testify by Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, Kevin Wolfgang of the Delaware Apartment Association, said he appreciated all the meetings that Townsend had with real estate groups but didn’t understand the bill sponsor’s hurry.
“Frankly, this has been two weeks of discussion and really only one week of significant discussion,” Wolfgang said. “And that’s just not enough time to really have a robust and thorough conversation of such a comprehensive bill.”
Wolfgang also said it is not common for landlords to get attorneys involved and he believes that once renters have them lawyers, landlords will hire them, too, and the costs and time investment will rise sharply. And he said there were lots of questions about how the program would operate.
Townsend countered that the substitute bill incorporated changes that the apartment and other real estate groups wanted.
The diversion program will not be created until 270 days after the bill days effect — a 90-day increase at the real estate groups request — and that won’t come until 180 days after the bill is signed.
That adds up to 450 days, or 15 months from the date the bill is signed, Townsend said, and therefore plenty of time to work on how the program actually operates.
The bill passed 13-7 with one person declining to vote.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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