Last year, Democratic Sentator Spiros Mantzavinos was the single Democratic no vote in the Senate on the Tenant Right to Counsel bill. He made amends this year in voting yes, along with all other Democrats and present Republicans, on Senate Bill 1(S) in a 19-0-1-1 vote (Senator Gerald Hocker did not vote and Senator Wilson was absent. Senate Bill 1(S) gives tenants who experience financial hardship a right to free legal representation in eviction proceedings and other landlord-tenant actions. The bill also creates a pre-trial diversion program aimed at resolving landlord-tenant disputes before they reach a courtroom.
The bill 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.
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.
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.
|Senate Bill 1 – Tenant Right to Counsel||Currrent Status – Senate Passed 19-0-1-1. Sent to the House|
|House Sponsors – Minor-Brown, Lambert, Baumbach, Dorsey Walker, Griffith, Harris, Longhurst, Moore, Morrison, Phillips, Romer, Williams, Wilson-Anton||Senate Sponsors – Townsend, Hoffner, Pinkney, Gay, Huxtable, Lockman, McBride, Poore, Sokola, Sturgeon, Walsh|
|House Yes Votes –||Senate Yes Votes – Brown Gay Hansen Hoffner Huxtable Lockman Mantzavinos McBride Paradee Pinkney Poore Sokola Sturgeon Townsend Walsh // Buckson Lawson Pettyjohn Richardon|
|House No Votes –||Senate No Votes –|
|House Absents or Not Voting –||Senate Absent or Not Voting – Hocker Wilson|
“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, 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
The bill now goes to the House, where it was defeated in the early hours of July 1 last year, by a vote of 16-23-2. Here is how the vote is broken down:
|Yes Votes||No Votes||Absent/Not Voting|
|Baumbach Bentz Dorsey-Walker Freel Griffith Heffernan Johnson Kowalko Lambert Longhurst Minor-Brown Mitchell Moore Morrison Williams Wilson-Anton||Bennett Bolden Bush Carson Chukwuocha Cooke Matthews Osienski Schwartzkopf // Briggs King Collins Dukes Gray Morris Postles Ramone Short Shupe Smith Spiegelman Vandewende Yearick||Hensley Lynn (C)|
Two no votes have been replaced. Bennett has been replaced by Kerri Evelyn Harris, is very likely to be a yes vote. Smyk has been replaced by Democat Stell Parker Selby, who may also be a yes vote now, given that she is a sponsor.
Sean Lynn was apparently conflicted out, I suppose because he either represents landlords or tenants in his private law practice. Hopefully that conflict can be absolved because he could be a yes vote. These three votes, assuming everyone votes the same, brings us to 19-20-1. So we need two more votes for this bill to pass.
Speaker Schwartzkopf opposes this bill, and many of the remaining Democratic no votes were just doing his bidding at the very end of session. Does Ed Osienski still oppose this bill? How about Nnamdi and Sean Matthews?
Answering that question will determine whether this session’s Senate Bill 1 will be successful.
As I’ve heard it, the bill changes from last year satisfied Rep. Nnamdi’s objections to this bill. Have not heard that first hand from him, but that is the current story.
I want to point out that right to counsel also helps to stabilize a portion of the rental market. Evictions is how landlords who serve low income residents can raise their rents pretty substantially. Evictions is also a way to intimidate and silence renters who don’t have other options. The ability of low income renters to be able to get a lawyer in these cases should reduce how this part of the rental market is manipulated.