DOVER — The House Appropriations Committee voted 3-2 Thursday against a bill that would have given tenants a right to free counsel in eviction proceedings.
Supporters of the bill said it would have leveled the playing field between tenants and landlords, pointing to the fact that landlords are vastly more likely to be represented in such cases.
Rachel Stucker, executive director of the nonprofit organization Housing Alliance Delaware, said the legislation would have saved the state money by avoiding evictions, citing a report by the consulting firm Stout Risius Ross. The report estimated that for every dollar spent on providing free representation to tenants, the state would save $2.76, most of it by avoiding costs related to emergency shelter and transitional housing.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that the legislation didn’t pass,” Ms. Stucker said. “We know that we have a housing and homeless crisis in this state … and the right to representation bill simply helps level the playing field so that some people may be able to stay in their home and not be homeless or displaced.”
Potential savings aside, the legislation would have cost more than $6 million to implement through fiscal year 2024, according to the fiscal note for the bill. The bill had only a partial source of funding, noted committee chair Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna.
Reps. Kim Williams, D-Newport, and David Bentz, D-Christiana, voted for the bill, encouraging their colleagues to let the full House vote on it.
“I think it’s been discussed at length,” Rep. Bentz said.
Voting against were Reps. Carson; Stephanie T. Bolden, D-Wilmington; and Kevin Hensley, R-Townsend. Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, was absent. Rep. Bolden declined to comment on her “no” vote. Reps. Carson and Hensley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Opponents of the legislation argue that granting tenants the right to a taxpayer-funded lawyer did little to address the core reason behind evictions — failure to pay rent. The state would be much better off expanding the Delaware Housing Assistance Program, which provides rental assistance to tenants, they said.
“The concern is that this bill does not do what they’re trying to accomplish by providing affordable housing and keeping people in their homes,” said Debra Burgos, president of the Delaware Apartment Association.
Daniel Atkins, executive director of the Community Legal Aid Society, claimed at the hearing that landlords actually stood to benefit, as the bill would have reduced the cost of representation across the board by allowing tenants to use nonlawyer advocates and landlords not being compelled to use costlier attorneys. Landlords are already able to be represented by nonlawyers; a recent Delaware Supreme Court rule expanded that ability to tenants.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. We are paying right now for this system that allows this eviction churn that gives us one of the five highest rates of eviction of any state in the country,” Mr. Atkins said.