DOVER, Del. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden's administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. 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 nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.
Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in 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 were automatically stayed if either party requested mediation or alternative dispute resolution. Sheriffs and constables also were prohibited from evicting people unless a justice of the peace determined that eviction would be "in the interest of justice." Under that standard, a landlord seeking eviction must have been awarded possession and demonstrated factors such as substantial economic injury or show that a tenant was uncooperative or unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A tenant might have had 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.
The state housing assistance program was relaunched in March 2021, offering up to 15 months of assistance for rent arrears from April 2020 to the present as well as assistance with up to three months of future rent. As of Monday, officials had received 6,166 applications requesting more than $34.8 million in rental assistance under the program. Funding totaling $16.4 million has been approved or paid for 2,790 applicants. Officials say 330 applications have been declined or withdrawn, while the others are under review or require additional action by an applicant or property manager.
In all, Delaware has received at least $253 million for rental assistance from various federal funds. Of that, it has distributed just $31 million so far.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
While eviction proceedings continued to be filed in Delaware, only a fraction have resulted in evictions so far. 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. Through June, however, only 468 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 June was $1,615, up 2.5% from June 2019, according to a July report by Realtor.com. Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased 3.2%, 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, but it's unclear how the lifting of the federal moratorium and of Delaware's state of emergency will affect the number of evictions.
Court officials say only 18 renters in the state have sought protection under the CDC moratorium — six last year and 12 this year.
In a recent Census Bureau survey of 7,942 renters in Delaware, 4,744 said it was "somewhat likely" they would leave their current residence in the next two months because of eviction.
Meanwhile, Delaware lawmakers considered additional protections and assistance to renters on a permanent basis during this year's legislative session. The bill would have provided state-funded legal representation to eligible tenants in evictions and other landlord-tenant proceedings. It also would have established an "eviction diversion program" and prohibited landlords from pursuing eviction for unpaid rent if the amount owed was less than one month's rent or $500, whichever was greater. The bill passed the Senate but was tabled in a House committee.
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