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Tenants' right to representation during evictions bill clears State Senate Housing Committee

The Delaware Senate's Housing Committee hears testimony during a hearing on the tenants' right to representation bill.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Delaware Senate's Housing Committee hears testimony in support of the right to representation bill.

Revised legislation seeking to give tenants the right to representation during eviction proceedings cleared a State Senate Committee on Wednesday.

The bill is among the most prominent items on Senate Democrats’ agenda this session, and Gov. John Carney signaled his support by including funding for the plan in his 2024 budget proposal.

Last year’s version failed by a large margin in the House during the final hours of the last legislative session after landlord advocates raised a fierce opposition, arguing that appointing attorneys to represent tenants would create an uneven playing field during eviction proceedings. While upwards of 75 percent of landlords have representation during eviction proceedings – compared to less than five percent of tenants – they are typically represented by non-attorneys.

Bill sponsor Bryan Townsend and Delaware Community Legal Aid Society (DECLASI) Director Dan Atkins worked with landlord groups to address their concerns ahead of Wednesday’s Senate Housing Committee hearing. Compromises include a stipulation that tenants would generally be represented by non-attorney tenant advocates.

“In a lot of these cases, these property managers will be going up against non-attorneys," Atkins said, "which is a more appropriate response than saying we’re going to keep the ecosystem how it is with represented landlords going up against unrepresented people.”

Such an arrangement was impossible until last year, when Delaware's Supreme Court ruled that non-attorneys could represent tenants; Delaware's three legal aid organizations began hiring their first tenant advocates last spring.

Other compromises include changing a pre-filing eviction diversion program to a post-filing program, which would give tenants and their landlords an opportunity to mediate disputes — or to secure rental assistance funding — before proceeding to an eviction.

During Wednesday’s Senate Housing Committee hearing, Delaware Apartment Association President Debra Burgos and other landlord advocates said they generally support the proposal.

But Burgos urges lawmakers to expand rental assistance funding to ensure tenants at risk of eviction have resources to turn to.

“The availability of rental assistance is completely necessary," she told the committee. "With [the Delaware State Housing Authority's] funding from COVID running out, in addition to any other amendments, I would suggest that we start pushing forward on that assistance."

One landlord present for the hearing — Jerome Heisler, the Executive Manager of the Reybold Group — urged lawmakers to do away with a carveout exempting landlords with fewer than three units from the bill.

"Everyone should be given representation — there shouldn't be exemptions for anyone," he said.

Heisler, whose company owns both rental properties and manufactured home parks — including the former Timberlane community in New Castle County, the closure of which sparked a conflict between Heisler and state Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton last year — also asked lawmakers to consider extending representation rights to manufactured home owners.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Delaware had among the highest eviction filing rates in the country, with roughly 18,000 evictions filed each year.

Pandemic-era eviction restrictions ended in 2021, and though the number of evictions has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, the number of people interacting with homeless service providers has more than doubled. Families with children made up the largest share of that increase.

Homeless service providers appeared at Wednesday's hearing alongside representatives from the Delaware State Housing Authority, Department of Justice and Department of Health and Social Services to urge lawmakers to support the bill.

"There are not other places to go when people are facing housing instability and eviction," said Housing Alliance Delaware Director Rachael Stucker, whose organization operates a hotline for people experiencing homelessness. "We also get calls all the time from people who have left their unit or who are considering leaving because they can't afford to have an eviction on their record."

Housing a person with an eviction on their record, Stucker and other advocates emphasized, is exponentially more challenging than mediating between a tenant and a landlord to avoid an eviction.

DECLASI Managing Attorney Sarah Rhine offered examples from the eviction cases in which her team has represented a tenant, including a victim of domestic violence whose abuser threatened her landlord and a blind woman evicted after missing written rent notices.

A 2022 University of Delaware study found that one in five of a sample group of homeless Delawareans had been evicted from a rental unit within two years of appearing on the state's databases of people experiencing homelessness.

The bill easily cleared the Senate Housing Committee; the only Republican present for the vote, Sen. Eric Buckson, expressed mild support for the bill.

The change of tone from landlord's groups could help smooth the bill's path through the House, though the sheer number of Democratic lawmakers who voted against last year's version — including House Speaker Pete Schwartkopf — leaves open the possibility of another defeat.

The bill now moves to the Senate Finance Committee.

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