Senate Housing Committee to tackle myriad issues

DOVER — New to the slate of standing Senate committees this year will be one focusing on housing.

“There is a housing crisis in this country. From redlining in the postwar era to rising debt, homelessness, and a lack of affordable housing, Delawareans of every background are still struggling to access perhaps the most fundamental component to economic security,” the Senate Democratic caucus posted on Facebook a few weeks ago.

“For far too many retirees, college graduates, and working people of all backgrounds, housing expenses strain budgets to the breaking point, even with dual incomes or multiple jobs. As COVID-19 has turned stagnant wages into a complete lack of income for many and the one-time stimulus check has long dried up, we must elevate housing issues to the forefront of our consciousness.”

While members say the specific priorities for the Senate Housing Committee are still being determined, they have several things in mind. Homelessness, affordable housing, housing in safe areas, the threat of evictions and foreclosures due to the COVID-driven economic crash — all of these fall under the committee’s purview.

“It is one of the truly central issues to peoples’ lives and to community stability and prosperity,” said Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat who will chair the committee.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, many households in Delaware spend more than half their income on housing, and nearly a quarter of renters are “extremely low-income.” There are just 57 affordable units for rent for every 100 households making 50% of their area’s median income.

Minority residents are especially impacted.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Marie Pinkney, a New Castle Democrat elected in 2020, noted many new developments are being built around the state but are out of the price range for a lot of Delawareans. She’s also interested in establishing more shelters that can not only offer people temporary shelter but can prepare them for success in the future, keeping them off the streets.

She cited as an example the New Castle County Hope Center, run out of a former Sheraton hotel located along Interstate 95. The center opened in December after New Castle used federal COVID relief money to purchase the struggling hotel, and it has welcomed dozens of people in need so far.

“I think COVID presented a really unique paradigm for a lot of things but especially in regard to housing,” Sen. Pinkney said.

Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency order contains provisions halting most evictions and foreclosures while the pandemic rages, but eventually those will fade, and many Delawareans could face crises when they do.

Sens. Townsend and Pinkney identified the effects of COVID, along with creating and expanding emergency housing and examining the impact of so much of Delaware’s housing supply being geared toward retirees, as key issues the committee will consider.

Hearing from advocates and people impacted will be important for determining a specific priority list, Sen. Townsend said, describing it as too soon to have exact legislative proposals.

He’s hopeful simply having a body to tackle problems related to housing will be a major boon for Delawareans: “Part of the change here is just for the first time on the Senate side acknowledging the importance of this issue.”

The House has had a standing committee looking at similar issues for some time.

The 151st General Assembly kicks off Jan. 12.