Lawmakers seek to boost protections for First State renters
A new bill introduced in the General Assembly aims to give more protections to renters.
The bill’s sponsors and advocates say the playing field between landlords and tenants is largely skewed toward landlords and they want to help to level it.
State Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend (D-Newark) and State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown’s (D-New Castle) bill would provide tenants facing financial hardship free legal counsel in eviction proceedings. It would also create an eviction diversion program and allow tenants to stay in their homes if they pay all past-due rent before an eviction.
Townsend says only about 2% of tenants bring legal representation to eviction proceedings, compared to 86% of landlords.
“I believe we owe it's more than 100,000 renters in our state to enact a fairer, more equitable system that will help vulnerable families stay in their homes, when they face economic hardships,” Townsend said.
Currently, about 1 in 10 eviction cases in Delaware are filed over less than $300. This bill creates a floor of $500 or 1-month's rent, whichever is greater.
The Community Legal Aid Society’s Daniel Atkins notes the cost of providing legal counsel would be over $5 million less than rehousing evicted families. Additionally, homelessness in Delaware increased by 26% from 2019-2020, the largest increase in the country.
“A half of Delaware renter households are cost-burdened," Atkins said. "That means they're paying more than 30% of their income on rent. A quarter are severely cost burdened. That means they're paying more than half of their income for rent.”
State Rep. Larry Lambert (D-Claymont) says the legislation is about economic dignity. And Javonne Rich, policy advocate at the ACLU of Delaware, adds that communities of color face much higher eviction rates.
“The pandemic has exacerbated job and wage loss for communities of color, and with more people at risk for evictions, this could widen the disparity gap for years to come, unless we make smart policy decisions now,” Rich said.
People of color are far more likely to rent due to long standing income and wealth inequities, which was only exacerbated by the pandemic. Townsend says the goal is to ensure that people are not forced out of their homes due to circumstances beyond their control.
The bill will start in the Senate Housing Committee.