Bill would create legal fund for manufactured housing

DOVER — To the delight of the handful of advocates watching, the Senate approved legislation Thursday that would create a shared legal fund for residents of manufactured housing communities.

The measure, which passed the House in March, now goes back to the other chamber because senators attached an amendment. While the House vote was close, with no Republicans supporting it, the bill did not receive a single vote in opposition in the Senate Thursday.

The bill would redirect money contributed to an existing manufactured housing fund to establish a new pot of money residents could use to file a lawsuit in protest of an eviction, a rent increase or another issue.

Currently, residents of a manufactured housing community must pay $2.50 per month to cover administrative costs for the Delaware Manufactured Home Relocation Authority. Landlords are required to pay $2.50 per occupied lot.

Under the legislation, landlords would contribute $2 to the fund, while the $2.50 paid by residents would be divided between the existing trust fund and the new legal fund. Fifty cents from each tenant would go the Delaware Manufactured Home Owner Attorney Fund, which the Department of Justice would use to contract with an attorney to represent residents in court if necessary.

As for the money landlords would no longer send to the state each month under the bill, landlords “can do with that 50 cents whatever they want,” said Sen. Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat and the Senate prime sponsor. “They can actually take that 50 cents and put it in their profits or they can start their own legal fund.”

Supporters say the measure protects tenants living in manufactured homes on leased land, ensuring they can afford legal representation. State law currently places restrictions on rent increases in manufactured housing communities, requiring a landlord to meet certain criteria to raise rent, but, according to Sen. Ennis, many tenants cannot afford to fight hikes they feel are unjustified.

Residents, particularly those who are retired, often use their life savings to settle in a manufactured home, and they frequently have few options when faced with a large increase in rent or an unfair rule, the senator told his colleagues.

“Passing the bill would provide a legal voice to manufactured homeowners on these lands who are fearful of retribution — or eviction in some cases,” he said, noting he has heard many “horror stories” from residents.

The bill would also help communities start homeowners associations, said William Kinnick, president of the Delaware Manufactured Home Owners Association and one of about 15 or so advocates for tenants who was present for the vote.

Watching intently from the balcony, those spectators broke into applause when the bill passed.

Even an amendment filed by Sen. Ennis that would place conditions around using the fund didn’t faze Mr. Kinnick.

While the original bill would have allowed any tenant to use the legal fund, the amendment would restrict access unless the rent increase combined with the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers in the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Atlantic City area is at least 3 percent. Additionally, in order to tap into the fund, a legal challenge must be approved by either a majority of homeowners in the community or the neighborhood homeowners association.

The change was a compromise to gain support in the Senate, Sen. Ennis said, describing the amendment as not his preferred option.

Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, was the only person to speak in opposition to the bill, saying he believes it could drive landlords out of the market, thus leaving tenants high and dry.

“What I’m afraid of is these policies in the long run might end up hurting the folks we’re trying to help, because I know it happened in my district,” he said.

Despite his concerns, he ended up voting for the proposal.

According to Dover City Councilman Fred Neil, who has pushed for expanded protections for owners of manufactured homes, the fund will generate about $132,000 a year.

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