Pandemic-era protections for renters are falling away. Will Delaware see a wave of evictions?
Measures at the state and federal level aimed at protecting renters from displacement during the public health crisis are ending. Experts in Delaware expect an increase in evictions in the short term, but say rental assistance could help prevent a longer surge.
“We think evictions will rise, but we think that it will be significantly moderated by the existence of a robust housing assistance program,” said John Whitelaw, advocacy director at the Community Legal Aid Society of Delaware (CLASI). “If we don't have such a fund, there will in fact be thousands of unnecessary evictions … because there is still lots of unpaid rent out there.”
In Delaware, eviction filings have not yet shown the pandemic surge that experts feared. In fact, the state’s Justice of the Peace courts have seen just a fraction of the landlord-tenant filings they’ve come to expect in a normal year.
The courts say around 600 Delaware households have been evicted so far this year. That’s few compared to the evictions in a usual, non-pandemic year—which, according to Eviction Lab, were as high as 6,600 in 2011 and, according to the AP, around 3,000 in 2019.
The Governor banned eviction filings during the first few months of the pandemic. Once they began accepting them again, the courts faced a backlog of cases, which acted as a de facto protection for renters. Court officials continued to see lower-than-normal filings, and theorized that landlords and tenants were resolving their issues outside of the court system or hesitating to file actions because of confusion over eviction moratorium rules.
Protections drop away
Two measures that likely dampened landlord-tenant filings and evictions in Delaware are disappearing.
Earlier this month the Governor’s emergency order, which for more than a year directed the courts and constables to only evict tenants when it was “in the interest of justice,” expired. The CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium—which was put in place last September to prevent those who couldn't pay rent due to a substantial loss of income or medical expense from becoming homeless or living in close quarters—ends Saturday.
Justice of the Peace Court Chief Magistrate Alan Davis says few eviction cases filed in Delaware were paused due to the CDC moratorium, which required renters to prepare their own declaration stating their eligibility.
“It's like two or three handfuls statewide over the entire period that the CDC order has been in place,” he said. “[However], there may have been plenty of cases where the tenant gave the appropriate notice to the landlord before the case ever got to court.”
Court officials say more than 400 cases were stayed under the Governor's order.
“That was the primary reason that a case was stayed, was that it didn't meet the interest of justice standard for the writ [of possession] to be issued,” Davis said.
These cases can now move forward—and may result in evictions.
“We expect there to be a significant uptick for at least a short period of time as those cases get through the system to a resolution,” Davis said. “A future beyond that, I find very cloudy.”
The courts are also no longer requiring that landlord-tenant cases go through an online dispute resolution system aimed at diverting any preventable evictions. The system, deployed last November, helped connect parties to the Delaware Housing Assistance Program. It was effective at resolving a large portion of disputes, Davis says—when it was used.
“What we sensed was that the participation rate was really low,” he said. “Landlords were signing up pretty regularly. They’d file their action, and then they would sign up for alternate dispute resolution. The tenants were very reluctant to get involved.”
Money for rent is available
More than a hundred million dollars in rent help is currently available to Delawareans. It may be key to preventing an increase in evictions in the coming months or years.
“Money is still the name of the game,” CLASI’s Whitelaw said. “The majority of, although not all, evictions are about money. [If] there is a reasonably accessible, sizable fund that will assist tenants in paying the rent to landlords that is owed, that is going to be the single most important factor in reducing involuntary displacement.”
Court officials agree.
“We might see an uptick in the filing of cases and a resulting uptick in evictions, but as long as the DEHAP money is there, I suspect we're gonna see lower than normal filings as cases get resolved in an alternative fashion,” Davis said.
The third iteration of the Delaware Housing Assistance Program, or DEHAP, launched in March of this year. Since then, it’s received more than 6,100 applications, seeking close to $35 million.
DSHA says nearly 2,800 applications were approved—for a total of more than $16 million in assistance. Close to 1,000 applications are currently under review. About a third of the applications are awaiting a response from the applicant or property manager, and few hundred were declined or withdrawn.
The program is paused July 28 through Aug. 11 for application portal changes.
“We're upgrading to be able to work more efficiently and effectively. I think we've had some delays along the way,” said DSHA Director of Policy & Planning Marlena Gibson. “Our volume has been high and we want to be able to process everything as quickly as we can.”
Gibson says she doesn’t expect the pause in the program to result in unnecessary evictions.
“It's a short downtime,” she said. “I think cases aren't likely to move all the way through from filing to court dates in this short time. So, I think if folks are looking at the documentation that's available, pulling together their information and are ready to apply when the new portal opens, they should be in good shape.”
The amount DEHAP has given out so far hardly makes a dent in its total funding. Of the $200 million for the current round, DSHA says at least $127 million is still available through Sept. 2022. DSHA expects to get even more funding for rental assistance through Sept. 2025.
“The only limiting factor is really how many applications we get,” Gibson said. “Running out of money is not an immediate concern.”
The current version of DEHAP can help with rental arrears from April 2020 through three months of forward rent, up to a total maximum of 15 months and $2,000 per month. The program can also cover late fees and court fees. Gibson says the application portal changes will allow DEHAP to fund utility assistance, security deposits and first month's rent for households that are moving into new units. Payments are made directly to the landlord.
To be eligible for rent help through DEHAP, a renter must live in Delaware; have past-due rent, an eviction notice or a housing cost burden; qualify for unemployment insurance or have been negatively impacted by COVID-19; and fall under certain income thresholds.
To apply, you must provide your landlord’s name, address and contact information; a copy of your lease or rental agreement; a list of everyone who lives in your household; and income documentation, such as tax documents or pay stubs, for all adults in your household. You can sign up for an automated email or text message to tell you whether additional documentation or information is needed. For utility assistance, you must provide a utility bill and a past-due notice.
Renters who need help with technology access or the application can contact the West End Neighborhood House, the Latin American Community Center, NCALL Research or La Esperanza.
Once your application is complete, the system will contact your landlord to confirm that they want to participate, and the amount of rent that is due. You can call the Delaware State Housing Authority at 866-935-0407. Application guidance is available on the DEHAP website.
This article has been updated.