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Bill guaranteeing right to representation for tenants facing eviction passes in House

 Housing advocates rallied at Leg Hall on Tuesday in support of the bill.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
Representatives from DECLASI, the ACLU, Housing Alliance Delaware and other advocacy organizations rallied at the capitol on Tuesday in support of the bill.

A bill guaranteeing most tenants the right to representation during eviction proceedings passed in Delaware's House of Representatives on Tuesday after three years of advocacy and negotiations — likely the final hurdle before the bill becomes law.

After a late-night House vote at the end of last year’s session defeated an earlier version — a vote that saw several House Democrats join Republicans in opposition — Senate Democrats agreed to some adjustments to satisfy landlord advocacy groups opposed to the bill. Those compromises include adding a stipulation that tenants will generally be represented by non-attorney advocates. While the vast majority of landlords have legal representation during eviction proceedings, those representatives are often not attorneys, and the bill's backers agreed that providing non-attorney advocates for tenants would offer a more level playing field.

The bill's sponsors also agreed to change a pre-filing eviction diversion program to a post-filing diversion program. House sponsor State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown argues that even the post-filing diversion program could substantially reduce the number of eviction cases that reach a court.

“Based on the experiences of states and large cities that have enacted legislation like this, we expect many cases will be resolved in mediation, which will benefit tenants and landlords," she said.

In cases that do reach a court, only some tenants will be eligible for legal representation. The bill includes income-based eligibility requirements and excludes tenants whose landlords own three or fewer properties.

The three organizations already offering legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings – including the Delaware Civil Legal Aid Society – say they cannot yet accurately estimate the number of cases their attorneys and legal advocates will handle in a year; before the COVID-19 pandemic, Delaware courts heard roughly 18,000 eviction cases per year.

Civil Legal Aid Society Delaware Director Dan Atkins says that while the three organizations have roughly a dozen full-time attorneys and three qualified tenant advocates ready to take on additional eviction cases, they will need to aggressively recruit to meet demand if the bill passes; Gov. John Carney's proposed 2024 budget includes funding to support the initial hiring.

Despite modest support from landlord advocacy groups and a co-sponsorship from Republican State Sen. Eric Buckson, the bill passed in the House on a party-line vote.

A technical amendment was added to the bill Tuesday, so it needs to return to the State Senate before it can reach Gov. Carney’s desk.

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