As the state has begun to reopen, the problems that have emerged as a result of the pandemic have not just simply gone away. The positive is that businesses are reopening and many are able to return to work; however, this is not the case for everyone. One problem that continues to be the source of anxiety and fear among many clients I speak to is the threat of eviction. Thousands of Delawareans have lost their jobs, and they are struggling to make ends meet. Paying rent is one of their biggest expenses.
As a CLASI attorney in the Public Benefits and Housing Unit, part of my job involves handling housing matters, including eviction defense, for tenants residing in subsidized or public housing. Recently, our office has seen an increase in housing cases that we fear is only the beginning.
Under the Governor’s Declaration of a State of Emergency, there is a moratorium on evictions in Delaware that placed a hold on evictions (with some exceptions), late fees and the shut off of utilities. The Justice of the Peace Court, which handles evictions, also issued an order postponing hearings. Evictions continue to be on hold until the Governor lifts or amends the emergency order.
While evictions may be on hold, the work done by CLASI and the other two legal services agencies in Delaware (Legal Services Corporation of Delaware and Delaware Volunteer Legal Services) has not ended. CLASI continues to assist tenants in various matters, and we are advocating for various measures that would prevent mass evictions during this pandemic and help families stay housed.
Looking to the future
According to Eviction Lab, a project at Princeton University that tracks eviction data across the country, Delaware has the second-best pandemic renter protections in the country, which is commendable. But the hold on evictions cannot last forever. Without putting other protections in place, once the hold is lifted there will be a flood of evictions for nonpayment of rent.
Many individuals were already struggling prior to the pandemic, but those situations have worsened as a result of the pandemic. It has made a bad situation worse, and the threat of homelessness is one that many clients have expressed is their biggest concern. While thousands of Delawareans have filed for unemployment, unfortunately not everyone is eligible. And for some who are eligible, there has been a delay in receiving benefits due to the overwhelming demand on the system. In the meantime, tenants are forced to decide what expenses they can afford to pay, choosing between rent, food, medical expenses, and other essential needs.
While the Justice of the Peace Court is working to implement procedures for handling eviction cases during the pandemic, and the Delaware State Bar Association has put out a call for service to handle the onslaught of cases that may be filed, there is more that can be done.
What can be done?
- Create a tenant emergency fund. Prior to the pandemic, CLASI received a grant to provide representation to tenants, and the grant included a small fund that could be used to assist tenant facing financial emergencies that could lead to evictions. Programs like these work, and cases that would otherwise cause families to be evicted can often be resolved for only a few hundred dollars. According to a University of Delaware study published by the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration’s Center for Research and Service, there were approximately 11,000 eviction cases filed in the Justice of the Peace Court 13 (New Castle County) alone in 2017. Of the cases looked at that were eviction matters related to nonpayment of rent, more than 10% were for less than $300.
- Allow landlords to receive monetary judgments and not evict a tenant if the tenant a) missed payments due to the COVID-19 crisis, and b) is able to make ongoing payments.
- Provide relief to property owners, such as loan forgiveness, in exchange for keeping a tenant in their housing.
- Establish a tenant right to counsel. A study published by University of Delaware notes that in the more than 300 random cases, landlords were represented 86% of the time, while only 2% of tenants were represented. Our experience has shown that when tenants are represented, they have superior outcomes and can often avoid eviction.
The bottom line is that the temporary hold on evictions will end, and the threat of homelessness for thousands of individuals is real. It is important to remember that the crisis created by the pandemic resulting in the loss of income was not the fault of renters or landlords. Having compassion, understanding and patience is key to working together as a society to address these issues. In many cases, landlords who themselves have their own financial obligations have been willing to work with tenants; however, this will not always be the case. It is important for the community to know that we are still here for them and the work done by the three legal service agencies continues through this difficult time.
Housing and Public Benefits Unit
Community Legal Aid Society, Inc.