Case backlog, hope for rent assistance keep Delaware eviction filings low

Charles Megginson Business, Headlines

Landlords may be waiting to see how rental assistance programs can help before filing for eviction.

 

Two weeks after the federal eviction moratorium ended on Aug. 26, Delaware has not yet seen a significant spike in eviction filings. 

Some experts say that could be yet to come. 

A backlog of eviction cases and the availability of hundreds of millions in federal rental assistance funds may be encouraging landlords to seek alternative remedies to eviction — or wait to see how things pan out, officials say.

Although the CDC’s moratorium prevented courts from removing tenants from their rental properties, it did not prevent landlords from filing for eviction. 

In the year and a half since March 15, 2020, there have been 9,275 eviction filings, according to Eviction Lab, which tracks filings in Delaware and compares the data to pre-pandemic figures.

This compared to more than 18,000 evictions in 2019 alone, said John Whitelaw, advocacy director for the Community Legal Aid Society of Delaware. 

Almost no filings during the pandemic have resulted in actual evictions. Now that the moratorium has been lifted, existing and new eviction filings may continue to be held up by backlogs in the court system, authorities said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Aug. 3 that it would extend the eviction moratorium in areas with substantial or high transmission of COVID-19. Then the Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 26 that the CDC had exceeded its authority, effectively ending the moratorium. 

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, many experts and advocates expected that Delaware would see an immediate increase in eviction filings, but filings have remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels, according to Sean O’Sullivan, chief of community relations for Delaware’s courts. 

In some cases, tenants have moved out of their rental properties before further court action. Landlords and tenants have also availed themselves to mediation options instead of going through the eviction filing process.

Because courts are scheduling many hearings via Zoom, they are no longer able to do “calendar calls,” wherein numerous cases are handled in rapid succession. This means that the already overwhelmed Justice of the Peace courts could take even longer to adjudicate individual cases, further complicating the problem, Whitelaw said.

The slow process may be a factor in landlords’ decision to seek alternative remedies to eviction.

Whitelaw said the decrease in filings during the pandemic was, in part, an indirect effect of the moratorium.

“Even though, except for the first few months, the moratorium doesn’t stop landlords from filing cases, we believe a lot of landlords simply didn’t file while the moratorium was on because they were concerned that they would not be able to evict at the end of the process, so why bother filing,” he said.

Eviction filings may also be lower than expected because some landlords are waiting to see if their tenants are able to access federal rental assistance funds.

The Delaware Housing Assistance Program, or DEHAP, provides emergency housing assistance to renters affected by shutdowns, closures, layoffs, reduced work hours, unpaid leave or financial hardship related to the COVID-19 health crisis.

“One of the other reasons why we think evictions are low is because a lot of federal money was made available to aid tenants and landlords to resolve their disputes so that they could get this money that would basically make the landlord whole and keep the tenant in their place,” O’Sullivan said.

Out of the $46.6 billion dedicated nationally through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the State of Delaware was awarded approximately $200 million in emergency rent relief funds. Additional funds have been allocated by the federal government since, bringing the total amount of assistance available closer to $300 million.

The program can assist with rental arrears and as much as three months of future rent payments, up to a maximum of $2,000 per month for 15 months. 

Despite the abundance of funds, strenuous eligibility requirements and verification processes have made it difficult for many renters to take advantage of the program. 

Even though the program has the financial resources to help alleviate the problem of evictions, the Housing Authority has struggled to get the money out the door, Whitelaw said. 

The problem isn’t unique to Delaware.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, just $4.7 billion of almost $47 billion appropriated by Congress for rental assistance had actually reached tenants and landlords by July. The slow pace has not changed significantly since.

Whitelaw believes that the Housing Authority may not have enough staff to handle a program of such large scale.

“It’s not a smooth, efficient process,” he said. “I don’t think that’s due to lack of goodwill, I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to do it, I think it’s hard to get a $200 million to $300 million program up and running quickly.”

Nevertheless, many landlords are waiting to see if their tenants will qualify for housing assistance before filing for eviction, another factor which could lend itself to lower filing statistics, Whitelaw said.

“Many landlords just want to get paid,” Whitelaw said. “So to the extent that that money is still available, that’s going to have an informal way of reducing the number of people who actually get evicted because a significant number of landlords are willing to let that play out before they make a final decision on what to do.”

He said if the housing assistance program is able to get more rental assistance out the door, they could significantly address the COVID-caused eviction problem.

Whitelaw noted that still wouldn’t address the underlying problem which caused 18,000 pre-pandemic evictions in 2019: the lack of affordable housing options.

“One of the things that COVID has done is shine a spotlight on a huge shortage of affordable housing,” Whitelaw said. “That’s why there are so many evictions and why there were so many evictions before COVID. 

“Many tenants can’t afford their rent when they’re paying 40% to 70% of their income in a rent payment. Obviously that is not sustainable over the long-haul.”

O’Sullivan said he anticipates that evictions will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Whether that will happen and when largely depends on whether the housing assistance program succeeds in getting more aid to tenants, according to Whitelaw.

He said there is more than enough money to meet the current need.

“That’s the message,” he said. “DEHAP has enough money to solve the exodus of money that went from the economy because of COVID. They just have to figure out how to get it out the door.”

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