Why Delaware rental assistance program can be slow to dole out aid as evictions rise

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Since the spring, struggling renters have been able to take advantage of about $300 million in federal funds to prevent them from being evicted in Delaware.

But the timeline between applying and receiving aid can take more than a month, leading some renters to potentially face eviction anyway despite qualifying for the program. Delaware Housing Authority officials say they are updating the program to make it more streamlined.

Delaware ended its eviction moratorium in August after halting eviction proceedings due to the country's pandemic-induced economic collapse. Since the start of the pandemic, aid has been sporadic due to funding lapses, data shows.

The state provided aid between March and April 2020, and again from August to December 2020. The program was then relaunched in March, paying up to 15 months of rent arrears and three months of future rent. Renters can apply for aid every three months.

Delaware still has millions left to help renters

While several large states and cities have exhausted their federal rental assistance, according to the Associated Press, Delaware has about $150 million left of its first round of funds remaining before it will dip into its second round, about $152 million that it has to spend by 2025.

"There is not a concern about resources to continue the DEHAP (Delaware Housing Assistance Program) program," said Marlena Gibson, the housing authority's policy and planning director.

Since the program relaunched this past March, the state has paid $28.8 million in federal Emergency Rental Assistance to 4,194 households. Before that, the state paid out $14.8 million in rental assistance for 4,188 households.

The average assistance per household is about $7,800, according to Gibson.

Over the past few weeks, the state has given out $2 million per week in rental assistance, according to Gibson.

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Most cases approved; evictions also increase

An applicant, left, is assisted by a volunteer with filling out the paperwork needed at a rental assistance fair for Jackson residents at the Mississippi Trademart in the state Fairgrounds, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. Several hundred applicants attended the two-day fair to apply for rental assistance through federal financial aid covering 15 months, and utility bill assistance for gas, electricity, water, sewer and trash removal. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
An applicant, left, is assisted by a volunteer with filling out the paperwork needed at a rental assistance fair for Jackson residents at the Mississippi Trademart in the state Fairgrounds, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. Several hundred applicants attended the two-day fair to apply for rental assistance through federal financial aid covering 15 months, and utility bill assistance for gas, electricity, water, sewer and trash removal. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The program has received more than 12,650 applications, which includes duplicate applications from landlords and their tenants, as well as multiple applications from one household, she said.

The program has approved 4,848 cases since March. At least 991 cases (not households) have been denied, primarily due to duplication or non-response, according to Gibson.

Since March, 1,035 evictions have been completed — a significant majority of the 1,394 completed evictions since the start of the pandemic.

When the eviction moratorium was lifted in August, the Justice of the Peace Courts saw an increase in eviction numbers, according to court administrator Mark Hitch.

As of Friday, 22 eviction cases in Delaware have been finalized but not completed by a constable, and 10 have been submitted by not finalized, according to the Justice of the Peace Courts.

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While aid process could take weeks, evictions could take longer

The assistance program can take weeks to months to process an application for aid, leading some to worry about eviction anyway even if they qualify.

The state's average response time between receiving an application and doling out aid was 63 days between March and June of this year, according to Gibson.

Since August, after the state updated its software system, the average response time is 58 days.

Right now, eviction cases are typically completed in about three and a half months, thanks to the holiday season clashing with an abundance of post-moratorium filings, according to Justice of the Peace Court administrator Hitch.

"This is most likely a small benefit for the DEHAP program however," Hitch wrote in an email.

But for some, the aid could still come too late.

Kathleen Patterson has witnessed the delay when helping people in Wilmington through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity organization.

She said she's met at least three people who applied for aid, but haven't seen a penny for weeks to months after they filed their application, and in some cases face eviction anyway.

"Some that we're meeting with, their landlords had been very patient and have tried to work with them," Patterson said. "But in the end, they need to get funds. So they have, in some cases, filed the eviction notice with court dates."

Like with the state's unemployment system, renters find the application process confusing, she said.

"Why does it take six weeks to process emergency assistance?" Patterson added. "I feel guilty if it takes me two weeks ... to decide I'm going to assist them with just a portion of their rent."

The length of time between when someone applies for aid and when they actually get it "is affected by many factors," Gibson wrote in an email. Following up repeatedly with the applicant or landlord slows the process down, she wrote.

"We continue to work to improve and expedite processes for our applicants," Gibson wrote.

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State promises to make upgrades

The Housing Authority has almost 60 processors, and since August has updated its program to accept more types of documents that may be easier for households to provide.

The department has also expanded communication methods to get in touch with an applicant, such as through email or text, and has created a seven-day deadline with at least four outreach attempts before withdrawing an application if there's no response.

The deadline was created so that auditors can manage their caseloads, and applicants can reopen their withdrawn applications, Gibson wrote.

The state gives aid based on whether the household is below 50% of the area median income and has one member who has been unemployed for more than 90 days. The housing authority works with Justice of the Peace Court to prioritize applications with active eviction cases, Gibson wrote.

"The changes we have made at DSHA on staffing, systems management, and process have created positive change for our clients," Gibson wrote.

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Democrats pushing bill to protect people facing eviction

In the meantime, Democrats in the General Assembly are trying to add legal protections for people facing eviction when they return to session in January.

They are pushing a bill by Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Democrat from Newark, that would give the right to free legal counsel to people whose income is no more than twice the federal poverty guideline.

It would also create a diversion program to resolve most landlord-tenant disputes before they result in legal action.

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People who have had trouble receiving rental assistance are encouraged to tell their story to Sarah Gamard. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: As evictions rise, why Delaware can be slow to dole out rental assistance