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Politics & Government

Tenant representation bill stalls in committee

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Delaware Public Media
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A bill seeking to provide legal representations to tenants facing eviction in Delaware stalls in a House Committee.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend’s bill would direct the Attorney General's office to contract legal service organizations to represent tenants during eviction hearings. Notably, the bill would not require that tenants' representatives be attorneys: an attempt to increase the pool of representatives available, and an option already available to landlords.

It also sought to create a pre-trial eviction diversion program Townsend says could drastically reduce the number of eviction trials. Delaware is currently among the five states with the highest eviction rates in the country.

But representatives from the Delaware Apartment Association argue that using state dollars to pay for tenants’ legal representatives, rather than rental assistance, would be a mistake.

“Most cases that show up in the Justice of the Peace Court are people that cannot pay their rent for whatever reason, and there really is no merit to that case," she said. "There is not much that an attorney can do to maintain that person in their home with the current laws. Rental assistance is the most effective way to not only help the resident, but also the landlords.”

Burgos adds landlords would need to raise rents to pay for rising legal costs, exacerbating Delaware’s affordable housing shortage.

But Townsend argues many cases in which a person can’t pay rent can be resolved without eviction.

“Even then, when nonpayment of rent is the issue, there are many reasons why someone might be having trouble paying the rent that don’t need to rely on a state-funded account for the landlords to dip into," he said, "but can involve a variety of solutions, like right-sizing a tenant by getting them into a different unit in the same complex.”

Townsend notes that Delaware’s affordable housing shortage presents a hurdle for tenants struggling to pay rent – and those hurdles are even larger for people who have been evicted.

He also argues that the diversion program could save the state millions currently spent on issues arising from housing instability, including rising homelessness.

Delaware’s Attorney General supports the bill, and the legislature appropriated funding for the tenant representation program last year. Townsend says he may try to have the bill reconsidered before the end of this year’s legislative session.