Tenants’ rights bill stalls, foreshadowing eviction emergency

Coalition of advocacy groups call on Rep. Stephanie Bolden to allow bill out of committee.

 · December 13, 2021
Representative Stephanie Bolden
Rep. Stephanie Bolden Facebook

Delaware is buckling under a housing crisis, and children and families are bearing the brunt of it. Leaders from housing and advocacy organizations in the state recently collaborated on a new set of polling and analysis showing the imminent need for Senate Bill 101, which would ensure all tenants facing evictions a right to legal counsel.

The group, representing four Delaware organizations and an individual advocate affected by destabilized housing, stated that whether or not SB101 can pass the General Assembly next year will depend on support from Rep. Stephanie Bolden (D-Wilmington), who represents Delaware’s second district and is vice chair of the Housing and Community Affairs Committee in Delaware’s House of Representatives. They shared data showing the immense strain on the state in general as the housing crisis increases in scope, and also the unique struggles of Bolden’s constituents.

Carrie Casey, Manager of New Castle County’s Community Development and Housing Department, shared that there are currently approximately 200 children and 200 adults in the Hope Center. The Hope Center, a former hotel, opened just a year ago — it began accepting residents on December 15th, 2020 — and focuses on getting residents back on their feet. But without protections against potentially illegal evictions, people are at risk of needing to re-enter the Hope Center, if they are pushed out of their homes again without being given the chance to defend their rights.

The numbers shared by Casey reflect a growing trend in the state of Delaware. In a separate phone call, Sarah Spangler Rhine, the Policy Director for Housing Alliance Delaware, pointed out that while homelessness increased about 35% in Delaware in 2021, all of that increase is due to families with children being pushed out of their homes. The data is spelled out in HAD’s yearly report, Housing and Homelessness in Delaware: Crisis to Recovery. The report shows that while the number of homeless adults has slightly decreased from 2020 numbers, the number of homeless children has shot up.

Homeless children and families were the main focus of this press event as well. “What happens today will continue to impact children and families for decades to come,” said Ann Aviles, an Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and the moderator for the call.

Those impacts were spelled out by Javonne Rich, ACLU of Delaware Policy and Advocacy Director, and Dan Atkins, Community Legal Aid Society Inc (CLASI) Executive Director. Rich shared how evictions affect women more than men, and they affect Black people more than white people, based on Eviction Lab data. The intersection of those factors lead to worse outcomes for Black women than any other population group. Rich said, “Black women disproportionately experience evictions more than either brown households or households headed by Black males.”

Bolden’s district, Rich emphasized, has the highest rates of poverty in the state of Delaware. At 32%, RD2’s rate of poverty is more than double that of the rest of the state, according to the recent Census Report. Not only is 66% of the housing in RD2 occupied by a renter, but over half of the households are headed by women, Rich said. This gives Bolden a unique opportunity, and responsibility, to act. “Representative Bolden can defend women and communities of color in that district, and across Delaware,” Rich declared.

Destabilizing families and children increases the financial costs to the state and to our communities, Atkins pointed out. As families face evictions and housing loss, the state sees an increase in strain on the foster care system, along with worse outcomes in education and health for young children. “We as a community are subsidizing this housing crisis,” Atkins said. He implored the state to take action by passing SB101, pointing out that stopping the eviction crisis would save the state two-to-three times as much money as they spend on alleviating all the effects of continually forcing families to leave their homes.

The group was joined by Jim Williams, a Public Policy Polling Representative, to explain the methods and results of the polling commissioned in Bolden’s district, RD2. The final report showed 80% of RD2 residents are people of color, 66% currently rent, and 53% of renters either have been evicted or know someone who has been evicted. Support for statewide right for legal representation is overwhelming, with more than 71% of residents supporting it. Those in favor of this legislation surpassed the numbers of renters in the district. Williams said the PPP asked the question two different ways, and no matter the phrasing of the question, “well over two-thirds said they support the right to legal representation.”

The mood of Bolden’s district reflects the data coming out statewide that shows increased rates of evictions. “The eviction crisis we have today…means we have communities and families that are destabilized,” Atkins said.

When asked about Bolden’s response to the campaign to give her residents the right to representation, Rich said, “We know that Rep Bolden did not support moving SB101 forward this year. However, she has the unique power to defend residents in that district.” Rich and the other advocates on the call agreed they hope Bolden supports the measure in 2022. When the bill was introduced in the 2021 General Assembly, the chairs of the House’s Housing and Community Affairs committee did not advance the bill, with Bolden casting the decisive “no” vote according to reporting at the time. However, only the Senate’s votes are recorded in the bill’s publicly available history.

Bolden’s office was asked for comment via both email and phone call multiple times. As of publication, she has not responded. The committee’s Chair, State Representative Kendra Johnson, representative for District 5, did not respond to multiple email or voicemail requests for comment.

The research shows that enacting this legislation would save the state money. The legislation would also be able to rely on funding from the American Rescue Plan and other federal sources. The Delaware Housing Authority allows stimulus funds to be used for rent that is owed, which has done a big part in slowing evictions, according to Atkins. If the state of Delaware does not use the money from the CARES Act or the ARP, it will be returned to the federal government.

In her work at NCC’s Housing Department, Casey has worked to disseminate CARES Act funding. She pointed out that the CARES Act provides money to fund salaries for counsel for renters who are facing eviction. The money is there now, and there is time to use it before it expires.

A conversation with Eugene Young, Director of the Delaware State Housing Authority, included discussion of one way the state is currently using federal funds. Young shared that the Housing Authority’s rate of application reviews for rental assistance has quadrupled since he began his work there at the beginning of the summer. “We’ve been working closely with [Justice of the Peace Court] Chief Magistrate Allen Davis, we’ve been working closely with advocates as well, and a variety of stakeholders, to make sure we’ve been able to get money out,” Young said. “We’ve gotten approximately $40 million out to those who are in need, and we look forward to strengthening our relationships with these stakeholders to make sure no one slips through the cracks.”

The Housing Authority is continuing to supply millions of dollars per week to Delaware residents facing evictions. In tandem, Delaware’s rate of evictions has dropped this year to be half that of pre-pandemic levels, according to Young. Atkins also credits the Housing Authority’s efforts to the slowing of evictions that Delaware has seen this year. But Atkins also believes it is underutilized, and now that the federal eviction moratorium has lifted, there is an urgency to ensure that landlords at least engage in the process of allowing a tenant to apply for assistance.

Atkins expressed excitement about the partnership with the Housing Authority, and their proposal to use “community navigators” to engage impacted communities around this issue. All the organizations on the call recognized the importance of involving both tenants and landlords in the process, and how that engagement benefits both parties.

According to Atkins, “In other communities, where at first the landlords were a little apprehensive about it, but then the experience that the Stout report shows is that landlords find it’s actually helpful. They’re able to resolve cases much more quickly when tenants are represented.” The Stout report is independent research commissioned by CLASI to investigate the costs and benefits of providing tenants facing eviction a right to counsel.

Justice of the Peace courts also advocate for legislation providing tenants a right to counsel. “Courts work better when both sides are represented,” Atkins continued. “This uneven representation helps no one, ultimately. No one.”

DeBorah Gilbert White, a tenant in New Castle County and a community advocate and author, shared, “I did not know the system, and there was no one there to assist me with navigating it.” White was evicted from her apartment in November 2011, and stayed with family and at motels and shelters until she was able to rent another apartment in March 2012. The advocates all agreed that people like White need to know their rights, and the state can and should do more to protect its residents from being forced out of their homes.

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About the Author

Rae works in the tech industry as a software developer and international conference speaker. Her interest in journalism started in Ohio, where she was a founding member of the cooperative community news website in Akron called The Devil Strip. Since moving to Delaware in 2020, she's volunteered on progressive political and issue campaigns, and focused her investigative writing energy on racial justice issues. Read more from Rae Krantz.