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Delaware's rental vacancy rate drops to 2.6 percent, underscoring severity of housing shortage

Dover Housing Authority.jpg
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
Homes owned by the Dover Housing Authority.

New US Census Bureau data reveals that Delaware’s rental vacancy rate is the third lowest in the country – a metric that housing and planning agencies say underscores the scale of the state’s housing shortage.

Delaware’s vacancy rate in the second quarter of 2022 stood at 2.6 percent – less than a third of the vacancy rate just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only Vermont and Connecticut have lower vacancy rates.

Vacancy rates are a key indicator of housing crises that can be difficult to remedy. Kent County Planning and Zoning Director Sarah Keifer says that housing construction and renovation simply has not kept up with demand, placing pressure on low-income – and even moderate-income – households who can no longer compete for scarce, and increasingly expensive, rental units.

“If they’ve got nowhere to go, effectively we’re in a position where there is little to no competition in the market," she said. "If you’re a renter, there’s little to no recourse if you start seeing increases in rents. You don’t have alternatives.”

Those barriers are especially high for people with less-than-stellar credit scores or evictions on their record, says Carrie Casey, the Manager of New Castle County’s Department of Community Services – the agency responsible for the county’s housing voucher program.

Anyone that has any type of barrier or doesn’t make a good income is going to be out of the market or can’t access housing," Casey explained. "And if they do, they might be living in substandard housing because that’s the only unit they can afford.”

While constructing or restoring enough homes to catch up with demand could take years, Casey says that New Castle County’s newly approved comprehensive plan – which, among other goals, signals the county’s intent to encourage higher-density home construction, particularly near workplaces – could play a role in eventually remedying the shortage.

In the meantime, the waiting lists for Delaware State Housing Authority’s public housing, rental assistance demonstration and housing choice voucher programs have remained closed since March; the number of applicants stands at roughly 13,000 people, with waiting times of three to six years.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.