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Senate Passes Tenant Right to Counsel Bill

Republicans continued to show their disdain for the working man and the downtrodden yesterday after voting against a tenant being evicted from having an equitable right to counsel to fight off that eviction. For reasons passing human understand, Democratic Senator Spiros Mantzavinos decided to join the evil landlord cabal in voting no.

The Delaware State Senate passed Senate Bill 101(S), which would provide tenants facing the greatest financial hardship with access to legal counsel, 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. 

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. 

SB 101(S) would address these disparities in a number of ways.  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.  The bill would also 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 many 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.  

SENATE BILL 101 SPONSORS YES VOTESNO VOTES
Townsend, Pinkney, Gay, Lockman, S.McBrideSenate Passed 13-7-1. Brown, Ennis, Gay, Hansen, Lockman, Paradee, Pinkney, Poore, S.McBride, Sokola, Sturgeon, Townsend, WalshBonini, Hocker (not voting), Lawson, Lopez, Mantzavinos, Pettyjohn, Richardson, Wilson
Minor-Brown, K.Johnson, Lambert, Bentz, Longhurst, Morrison, Wilson-Anton
CURRENT STATUS — Sent to House for consideration

“I want to thank my colleagues in the Senate for voting today to help ensure our neighbors can stay in their homes when they face temporary financial instability,” said Sen. Townsend, D-Newark/Bear. 

“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,” he said. “This legislation will restore balance to the system and produce better outcomes for families   who are struggling to keep food on the table and roof over their heads.” 

“With so many residents across our state facing eviction and homelessness, this bill is long overdue,” said Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, the lead House sponsor of SS 1 for SB 101. “By providing vulnerable tenants with these important resources, we can begin to remove the barriers that lead to the vicious cycle of housing insecurity and homelessness.” 

Delaware politics from a liberal, progressive and Democratic perspective. Keep Delaware Blue.

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