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Delaware Headlines

New online dispute resolution system aims to help prevent evictions amid the pandemic

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Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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A new online system the Justice of the Peace Court is using may help prevent evictions in the First State. 

Delaware’s JP Court launched an online dispute resolution system earlier this month. It’s designed to help landlords and tenants work out their differences before an eviction case goes to trial. 

Landlords and tenants message back and forth, and court mediators are available to help. Any agreement will be approved by the court. If the parties don’t reach one, the case will go to trial - and could end in an eviction. 

The more than 2,400 landlord-tenant cases filed since the state’s moratorium lifted in July are required to go through the dispute resolution system. 

“We’ve implemented a system that’s not exactly perfect yet,” said Chief Magistrate Alan Davis. “But we expected that. We just needed to get it out there and have an opportunity for people to use [it].”

Landlords and tenants who do use the system are presented with information about the Delaware Housing Assistance Program—which offers grants of up to $8,000 for eligible renters hurt by COVID. 

Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) Director Anas Ben Addi says he hopes his agency’s partnership with the courts can prevent evictions. 

“Let’s see if DEHAP can play a role to be the sweetener to broker a deal between the tenant and landlord,” he said. “So if they have a work out plan, let’s use DEHAP as the down payment. ”

DEHAP has given out more than $8 million in rental subsidies during the pandemic, according to DSHA. The program only covers rent arrears and current rent due through December 31, 2020. That’s because the program is funded with federal coronavirus relief funds, which must be spent by Dec. 30. 

Ben Addi says DSHA has $20 million dedicated to the rental assistance program.

“It’s very interesting, because usually it’s a dollar issue,” Ben Addi said. “This is a deadline issue.”

DEHAP received more than 5,600 applications when it first launched at the end of March. The program was forced to stop accepting applications because of the volume of demand, but launched again Aug. 10. Ben Addi says his agency streamlined the application process and added more application processing capacity. 

Delaware officials have not yet seen the “wave” of evictions that experts predicted would result from the pandemic recession. In fact, the courts have seen fewer eviction filings per month than they would in a normal year. 

“I’m still at a loss as to why we don’t have the filings we expected,” said Davis. 

He thinks that landlords and tenants may be working to resolve their issues outside of the court system or applying for DEHAP on their own. 

“I think that some landlords may think they don’t have any options,” said Davis. “I think that some tenants are doing everything they can to stay in housing. That’s only an educated guess, but I suspect there’s a lot of factors going into the reason why we haven’t seen the filings.”

Davis says he can’t predict whether eviction filings will increase in January, after a narrow nationwide eviction moratorium from the CDC expires. But he says evictions themselves will, as the earliest pandemic-era eviction cases are scheduled to go to trial in late December and early January. 

Ben Addi hopes the deadline on the federal coronavirus relief money will be extended, so his agency can keep helping renters and homeowners. He also hopes the partnership between the courts and the housing authority can continue beyond the pandemic—to help reduce evictions even after the public health crisis is over.

JP Court hopes to eventually apply the new online dispute resolution system to other types of cases—like debt collection.

 

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