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Few Delaware renters invoked the CDC's first eviction ban in court. More may rely on its extension

Sarah Mueller
Delaware Public Media

The temporary eviction moratorium the CDC reinstated this week covers counties experiencing substantial or high transmission of the coronavirus—including all three in Delaware. 

Tuesday’s order revives the moratorium put in place last September that expired Saturday. The CDC says it’s a public health measure that targets places where cases are increasing quickly, a situation “which likely would be exacerbated by mass evictions.”

The order, set to expire Oct. 3, is not a blanket ban on evictions.

It prevents landlords from evicting only tenants who present a signed declaration stating that they cannot pay rent due to loss of income or medical expenses, that they have tried their best to get rent assistance and make partial payments, that they are below certain income limits, and that they would likely become homeless or have to live in close quarters if evicted. The burden is on the tenant to present this information. 

It’s unclear how big of an impact the renewed moratorium will have in Delaware. From September 2020 through July 2021, the CDC’s order stopped just 18 eviction cases filed in Delaware courts, according to court officials. But it may play a bigger role in preventing eviction filings. 

“It’s [probably] not only the 18 people who did it,” said John Whitelaw, advocacy director for the Community Legal Aid Society of Delaware (CLASI).“I do suspect that landlords, once they got this, decided not to file.”

Far more cases were paused under Gov. John Carney’s pandemic emergency order, which expired July 13. For more than a year it directed the courts and constables to only evict tenants when doing so was “in the interest of justice.” The standard paused more than 400 eviction cases, according to court officials. These cases can now move forward. 

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 week after the Governor’s order expired, new eviction filings in Delaware spiked to a level not seen since March 2020, according to data from Eviction Lab

“That’s a real problem, if that’s in fact going to be sustained,” Whitelaw said. “If this reflects the pent-up demand of eviction cases that the landlords want to file but they’ve been holding off [because of] the Governor’s order, then this is just the beginning of a real tragedy.”

With the “interest of justice” standard gone, more tenants may rely on the reinstated CDC order to stay in their homes.

Landlords push back

But not everyone is happy with the moratorium extension. Groups representing landlords out of Alabama and Georgia have alreadyfiled a lawsuitto block it.  

Jeff Sheraton, who owns more than a hundred rental properties in New Castle County and heads the group Greater Wilmington Housing Providers, supports the challenge. He calls the moratorium extension “frustrating.”

 “You’re asking landlords to essentially house people for free,” he said. “I know the moratorium says that the rent’s still due, but there’s a lot of people out there that if they can’t get evicted, they’re not going to pay rent. … It’s an enormous burden that landlords thought we were kind of coming to the end of.”

Sheraton says his business has seen a similar number of tenants behind on rent as before the pandemic, but that their debt has “ballooned.” He says few of his tenants have presented a declaration under CDC’s eviction moratorium. 

“The state ‘interest of justice’ standard was far stronger than the CDC standard,” he said. “So in Delaware, there’s really no reason that you would ever—at least in my opinion—have needed to present that declaration in the first place. Now that it’s standing on its own, I’m sure that we’ll see a little bit of a difference.”

A need for faster rent assistance

Sheraton says instead of instituting a moratorium, the government should create an “efficient” program to help people pay their rent. 

“Landlords would be happy,” he said. “Tenants would be happy as well because they’re staying in their house. But we really can’t do it for free.”

There are millions of dollars available in Delaware for landlords whose tenants are struggling to pay rent. The current version of the Delaware Housing Assistance Program (DEHAP) can help with rental arrears from April 2020 through three months of forward rent, providing tenants a total maximum of 15 months rent and $2,000 per month.

But the program went down for two weeks, right around the time the Governor’s order ended and the CDC’s moratorium lapsed.

“Inexcusable,” Whitelaw said of the timing. “Terrible, terrible, terrible.”

DEHAP should be up and running again Aug. 11, with an improved application portal. 

The third iteration of the program launched in March of this year. Since then, it’s received more than 6,100 applications, seeking close to $35 million. 

But Sheraton says the program has worked much too slow getting money out to landlords. He says the application portal, which requires most of the documentation be provided by renters, is cumbersome and inaccessible. He says once applications are approved, it can take months for the money to reach landlords. 

“DEHAP really has come in and helped a lot of people,” he said. “[But] DEHAP was really slow to act, really slow to get money out, and now we’re seeing it unfortunately kind of just fall apart.”

The Delaware State Housing Authority, which administers DEHAP, says nearly 2,800 applications have been approved since this spring—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.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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