Experts and advocates predicted a wave of evictions once moratoriums lifted. That has not panned out locally, at least not yet.
It's been a month since Delaware allowed landlords to start filing eviction court proceedings again. The Justice of the Peace (JP) courts stopped processing them in March when Gov. John Carney ordered a moratorium on evictions because of the pandemic.
So far, Delaware has not seen a surge in evictions. In the first three weeks after they started accepting them July 1, Delaware’s JP courts received fewer than 500 landlord-tenant filings—less than a third of what’s usually seen in a given month, according to court officials.
Except for emergency evictions, no Delawarean who has missed rent because of the pandemic has been forced from their home yet.
The courts need to process close to 1,500 pending eviction cases from before the pandemic before they tackle the new ones. This backlog —as well as a new requirement under Carney’s emergency order that all landlord-tenant filings be evaluated for possible diversion to mediation—mean eviction cases from during the pandemic shouldn’t expect to go to trial before October.
“It’s a long time, I recognize,” said Chief Magistrate Alan Davis. “I realize both landlords and tenants are hurting.”
Davis says the JP courts had to develop the mediation program from scratch.
“Putting all kinds of policy and procedures and processes around it and trying to answer every question that we can before we roll it out,” he said. “We have to take the time to be able to do it right.”
A landlord-tenant filing in JP court cannot alone remove a tenant from their housing. A landlord must win a judgement in order to request a writ of possession, which after an appeal period is issued to a constable, who can then remove the tenant. Landlord-tenant conflicts are often resolved through informal negotiation or stipulated agreement after a filing is made. The whole process typically took 45 to 60 days prior to the pandemic, says Davis, but will almost certainly take longer now.
The delay in processing the new landlord-tenant filings offers a safeguard for struggling renters.
“There’s still kind of a de facto moratorium process in place even though the official moratorium has been lifted,” said Stephen Metraux, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research and Service who researches homelessness, during a UD webinar on housing Thursday.
Metraux made a prediction based on the 1,500 eviction filings Delaware usually sees during a given month.
“If you take into account that over three month of evictions have accumulated during the moratorium, and that these numbers will almost certainly increase due to COVID, the number of eviction filings can conceivably accumulate to over 10,000 cases if that has not already done so,” he said.
But according to the data court officials provided Delaware Public Media, pandemic-era eviction filings made through July 24 had not come close to approaching that estimate. At that point northern New Castle County (JP Court 13) had seen 302 landlord-tenant filings, southern New Castle County (JP Court 9) had 38, Kent County (JP Court 16) had 67 and Sussex County (JP Court 17) had 60.
It’s unclear why the numbers aren’t higher, but experts have several theories.
Metraux says eviction moratoriums, rental assistance and homelessness prevention programs help.
The $600-per-week federal unemployment assistance that ran out Friday likely helped stave off eviction filings. The Delaware State Housing Authority rolled out a multi-million dollar rental assistance program in March, but had to shut it down the next month after it was swamped with applications. Landlords may be trying to work with renters. Renters who have savings are likely spending them.
Chief Magistrate Davis adds landlords may be waiting to file to watch how a new standard the court is using plays out.
A higher standard for eviction
Carney’s June 30 order directed the courts to not to seek the removal of a tenant unless it is in the interest of justice.
“The mere existence of the fact that you could bring an action will no longer be enough ... to qualify you for the actual eviction,” said Davis. “That’s kind of lawyer-speak for, you’re going to have to show us something else.”
Davis declined to offer a legal interpretation of the standard, but gave the example of a landlord who claims the aggregate impact of several delinquent renters hurts their ability to continue to provide housing.
“We don’t want to not allow for someone to be evicted if it’s going to cause broader homelessness,” said Davis. “I’m not saying that’s a specific factor that’s going to be looked at, but that’s the kind of … argument we would expect to hear.”
Jeff Sheraton, a member of the landlords association Greater Wilmington Housing Providers, says the new standard has created uncertainty.
“Frankly, none of us know what that means,” he said. “The court really can’t tell you what that means.”
Sheraton says he and other landlords recently asked Chief Magistrate Davis about the standard, and were told ‘in the interest of justice’ will mean more than the tenant simply owing the landlord money.
“We’re all a little scared as to what that means,” Sheraton said. “Some of us have tenants that we're trying to evict that haven’t paid rent since December.”
Sheraton owns Sheraton Properties, which rents out roughly 130 units in New Castle County. He says the court has yet to process several eviction filings he’s made. He argues the backlog of court filings hurts landlords, as mortgage, taxes and repair costs pile up.
“Timing is everything,” Sheraton said. “When you file, if a tenant stops paying, every day it gets delayed costs you money. … The older your case is, the more threatening it is to you, for sure.”
But Sheraton argues landlords don’t want evictions either.
“Landlords don’t want that vacancy,” he said. “Especially now— trying to re-rent a house? You’re going to do everything you can to work with the tenant and keep them, get them back on track, even if it means waiving some rent or waiving a couple late fees or whatever it may be. It’s really in both parties’ interest to just get through this.”
Too soon to tell when evictions will come
Experts predict the increase in evictions will still happen — perhaps in a delayed surge or one that’s spread out over a longer period of time.
“It’s too early to say there’s not going to be a large number of evictions,” said John Whitelaw, advocacy director at the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI).
Whitelaw says the volume of calls his organization receives from renters seeking legal assistance has gone down during the pandemic. This is likely because delinquent renters were not being served notices of legal proceedings for several months.
The picture of pandemic evictions will become much clearer by the end of August, Whitelaw says.
The full impacts of the expiration of federal unemployment benefits Friday and the July 24 end of the federal moratorium on evictions that applied to renters in homes with federally backed mortgages have yet to be seen.
“It’s difficult to see how there won’t be problems given the amount of money that has left the economy,” said Whitelaw.
UD’s Metraux predicts the tidal wave of evictions many are expecting may present differently.
“The lines of defense that have fallen into place suggest that what I’ve described as the tsunami of unemployment should not be repeated with a tsunami of housing displacement,” said Metraux. “The metaphor of a steadily rising tide will probably more likely fit this process … one which is likely to be more gradual and stretch out for months.”
“We do have stormy seas ahead,” he added.