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Proposal to bar municipalities from requiring eviction for "criminal activity" advances in Senate

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would prohibit municipalities from enacting laws requiring landlords to evict tenants for criminal activity by the tenant, a member of their household or a guest.

Only six Delaware municipalities have so-called “crime-free” ordinances: Blades, Dover, Greenwood, Harrington, Smyrna and Townsend. The ordinances generally threaten landlords with the loss of their rental license if they do not initiate eviction proceedings when a tenant or someone in their household engages in criminal activity, though said "activity" is loosely defined.

Some, like Dover and Harrington, don’t enforce their ordinances. But fair housing advocates argue that ordinances elsewhere have created an unfair playing field for renters.

Delaware State Housing Authority Chief Policy Advisor Javier Horstmann told members of the Senate’s Housing committee this week the ordinances often use a broad definition of “criminal activity” that creates an unfair standard for tenants.

“These ordinances are problematic because the way they define criminal activity is vague and it does not require an arrest, charge or conviction to occur," he said. "Often, having police respond to a call can be considered criminal activity, regardless of the reason for the call.”

Horstmann and others note the ordinances can become a disincentive to seek help from police during a crisis; Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence Director Dr. Nick Beard noted that domestic violence victims may avoid calling for help given the risk that their abuser's actions or a police response could result in their eviction.

State Sen. Marie Pinkney’s bill would not prevent landlords from exercising discretion to evict tenants for criminal activity. It also would not target laws like Wilmington's "nuisance property" ordinance, which allows the city to revoke rental licenses from properties with a record of repeated criminal activity; Pinkney noted that other municipalities could look to Wilmington's ordinance as a model.

But Delaware’s League of Local Governments opposes the bill, arguing it undermines local control.

“The league is opposing [the proposal] because it creates a legislative mandate, it preempts local control and the ability of local policy makers to enact, modify or consider ordinances that best meet the needs of their communities," said League spokesperson Marcia Scott.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor.

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