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EXPLAINER: In Delaware, few tenants actually get evicted

July 15, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes.

Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent. Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to oust tenants who are behind on their rents.

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As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they would face eviction within the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Delaware:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Delaware, like many other states, halted eviction proceedings briefly last year as businesses closed and thousands of people lost their jobs. Democratic Gov. John Carney modified his emergency declaration to allow eviction proceedings to resume in July 2020, but proceedings have been automatically stayed if either party requests mediation or alternative dispute resolution. Sheriffs and constables have been prohibited from evicting people unless a Justice of the Peace determines that eviction would be “in the interest of justice.” Under the “interest of justice” standard, a landlord seeking eviction must have been awarded possession and demonstrated factors such as substantial economic injury or a tenant who is uncooperative or unaffected by COVID-19. A tenant might have to demonstrate COVID-related financial difficulties.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Delaware received $14.5 million under the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for rental assistance in 2020. Under the first two versions of the Delaware Housing Assistance Program, which ran from March to April 2020, and from August to December 2020, the Delaware State Housing Authority provided $14.8 million in rental assistance to 4,201 households.

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The DEHAP program was relaunched in March 2021, offering up to 15 months of rental assistance for rent arrears from April 2020 to the present and assistance with up to three months of future rent. Officials have received more than 6,900 applications requesting more than $33.3 million in rental assistance under the program. As of mid-June, $3.7 million for 696 applicants had been approved, and 433 renters had received payments totaling $2.47 million.

In addition to the $14.5 million in CRF money, Delaware has received $200 million in Emergency Rental Assistance funds in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and $38.5 million of the $152 million in ERA funds the state was allocated in the American Rescue Plan Act.

Despite receiving $253 million, Delaware has distributed less than $20 million in rental assistance.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

While eviction proceedings continue to be filed in Delaware, only a fraction actually result in evictions. From January through May, Justice of the Peace Courts issued 1,619 judgments in landlord-tenant cases, resulting in landlords requesting 725 writs of eviction. In that same period, however, only 393 evictions were completed.

Even without COVID-19, most landlord-tenant judgments in Delaware do not result in evictions. In 2019, 9,124 judgments resulted in 4,389 writs requested, with 3,045 evictions.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

In the metropolitan area encompassing Wilmington, Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, the overall median rent as of May was $1,600, up 3.2% from May 2019, according to a June report by Realtor.com. Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased 4.7% to $1,800.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

The availability of rental assistance has resulted in fewer landlord-tenant cases being filed in Delaware, and it’s unclear how the lifting of the federal moratorium and of Delaware’s state of emergency will affect the number of evictions.

However, court officials say only 18 renters in Delaware have sought protection under the CDC moratorium.

In a recent Census Bureau survey of almost 6,800 renters in Delaware, 1,216 said it was “very likely” they would leave their current residence in the next two months because of eviction. Another 1,136 said it was “somewhat likely.”

Meanwhile, Delaware lawmakers are considering additional protections and assistance to renters on a permanent basis. A Senate-passed bill provides state-funded legal representation to eligible tenants in evictions and other landlord-tenant proceedings. It also establishes an “eviction diversion program” and prohibits landlords from pursuing eviction for unpaid rent if the amount owed is less than one month’s rent or $500, whichever is greater.