Paul Kiefer of Delaware Public Media discusses state legislative efforts to address ongoing housing issues
Just after midnight on the last day of Delaware’s last legislative session, a group of House lawmakers made a final push to pass a tenant rights bill.
The bill, which would have provided state-funded legal representation to tenants facing eviction — and diverted as many cases as possible from the courts to cut costs — was one of four major housing bills. on the table this year.
Of those, only one — legislation limiting when and how landowners can raise lot rents for manufactured home owners — has made it to Gov. John Carney’s office. The other two, which would have prohibited landlords from turning down applicants for rental because they were using state-subsidized vouchers or because they were previously homeless, never made it to the house floor. Broadly, the bills reflected a focus on protecting tenants as part of a broader effort to stem Delaware’s growing shortage of affordable housing and rising rates of homelessness or housing insecurity.
“It’s a little shocking to see so many of my colleagues – in the House, of course – take more interest in the position of housing provider than in the position of vulnerable tenant.”
Democratic State Senator Elizabeth Lockman
Housing Alliance Delaware Director Rachael Stucker said as homelessness increases across the state, the failure of three tenant protection bills is slowing Delaware’s ability to respond. to the crisis. “We’re really disappointed with the outcome of this legislative session,” she said, “but not terribly surprised. I think Delaware still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding that the legislature plays such an important role in making sure everyone has access to decent housing.
State Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, who sponsored the measure banning discrimination against housing voucher recipients, said housing is a blind spot for lawmakers. The Senate Housing Committee, she notes, was only formed two years ago.
Nonetheless, Lockman was caught off guard by opposition from several House Democrats — including some other Wilmington-area representatives — to the three stalled bills, which she ties to the landlords’ political influence. “It’s a little shocking to see so many of my colleagues – in the House, obviously – being more interested in the position of housing provider than the position of vulnerable tenant,” she said.
The Delaware Apartment Association, a professional organization representing landlords primarily in New Castle County, has been the most visible critic of this year’s housing legislation. Its spokespersons, including association president Debra Burgos, argued that each bill would have the unintended consequences of pushing small landlords to sell their homes – either taking them out of the rental market or transferring them to large out-of-state rental real estate companies — or driving rents even further out of reach for low-income Delawares.
Neither Burgos nor association lobbyist Scott Kidner responded to requests for interviews, but during committee hearings both claimed that the owners’ opposition to the legislation had been misconstrued as a hostility towards low-income tenants.
Testifying against Lockman’s bill prohibiting landlords from turning down applicants because of their use of vouchers, Burgos acknowledged that many members of his association were unwilling to participate in voucher programs. For example, only 42% of people with New Castle County Housing Authority vouchers are able to find housing ready to accept the vouchers. Nonetheless, she claimed that the main obstacle that voucher recipients face is a consequence of the voucher program itself. Burgos says the program’s inspection requirement is problematic, often delaying a move-in for days or weeks — a delay that costs landlords money.
“I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about some of the issues landlords have with Section 8 and vouchers,” Burgos told lawmakers. “It is not the people who accept these programs. They are good residents, overall. The owners of our association choose not to accept people because of the program, and it is broken – there are some problems with residents at the market rate.
Burgos’ objections indicated a fundamental disagreement between proponents and opponents: Are Delaware’s current housing policies unfair to renters or landlords?
From the perspective of nonprofit housing providers, the data paints a clear picture of a stacked deck against tenants: voucher recipients often wait more than five years to find a willing landlord, and less than a tenant. out of twenty are represented by a lawyer during an eviction, against more than 80% of owners. As rents rise — by more than 5% on average for a one-bedroom apartment in Wilmington last month alone — advocates say seniors and low-income working families are running out of options , and failed bills could have opened the doors to housing assistance or affordable housing for thousands of at-risk tenants.
But opponents, including state Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman, argue that landlords bear the brunt of Delaware’s landlord-tenant code. “It’s a fundamental disagreement, that the landlord-tenant code as it stands is so much in favor of the tenant against the landlord,” he said during a committee hearing on the bill offering a legal representation for tenants facing eviction.
Among the hurdles Spiegelman criticized is Delaware’s eviction process itself, which he says is complex and procedurally lengthy, often prompting landlords to pay attorneys without collecting rent from the tenant undergoing eviction.
During the negotiations, opponents, including Burgos, expressed support for some temporary measures to prevent evictions – namely state-subsidized rent assistance for tenants struggling to pay their rent – but Attempts by donors to make concessions in return for support have made no headway.
These included a last-minute amendment to the eviction representation bill reversing many tenant protections, including a minimum amount of arrears needed for a landlord to file for eviction.
While Lockman hopes owners will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach compromises, she says concessions often create holes that lawmakers may have to revisit — pointing to her bill protecting voucher recipients from discrimination like such a case. “Quite frankly, the loophole that Senate Bill 90 was trying to close was the result of a weakening amendment several years ago to a fair housing law,” she said.
“It’s a fundamental disagreement, that the landlord-tenant code as it stands is so much in favor of the tenant against the landlord.”
Republican State Representative Jeffrey Spiegelman
But as lawmakers negotiate with landlords, some are hoping to move beyond the landlord-tenant code to find ways to ease Delaware’s affordable housing shortage.
State Senator Marie Pinkney, vice chair of the Senate Housing Committee, said one strategy could be to reform zoning laws at the state level, including reversing some single-family zoning to make way for construction. higher-density housing and mixed-income neighborhoods. “It’s new for Delaware; it’s not really something that smaller states have considered,” she added. “But I think it’s worth looking at how we zone, how we can use space and where families can build their homes.”
Pinkney says lowering barriers to building dense new housing could provide a pathway to increase housing supply across the state and thereby lower average rents — a strategy currently being tested in California, which has largely eliminated the single-family zoning last year, and in cities like Minneapolis, Portland and Spokane, Washington.
But because housing policy discussions are still relatively new in the General Assembly, Pinkney says she’s not yet sure whether proposals like zoning reform would fare better than protection bills. tenants this year.
And Housing Alliance Delaware’s Stucker says that with statewide policy changes tabled through January, the state is losing its chance to use federal COVID-19 relief dollars to slow the pace of the housing crisis in Delaware. “We’ve seen an increase in federal housing investments due to the impact of the pandemic,” she said, “but our state’s inability to use that assistance due to a lack of units, a lack of local policy that supports people’s ability to use that support – for example, housing vouchers aimed specifically at relocating people who have been left homeless by the pandemic. We are losing an opportunity, and we will continue to lose opportunities, to use these investments if we don’t do something locally on the ground.