Co-authored by Don Ayotte and Wolf von Baumgart
What are the laws that dictate forced eviction and seizure of property for non-payment of land rent in Delaware and their emergent issues?
Recently, Debbie Reed and her husband Paul, who owned a manufactured home on land leased in the development of Pot-Nets Dockside on Long Neck RD in Sussex County were evicted, after a twenty-four hour notice, pursuant to an order of Justice of the Peace Court, No. 17. It is interesting to note that the Eviction Notice did not, per se, specifically and clearly cite the applicable statutory authority by relevant sections and the Reeds were not notified that the clock was ticking on eviction and possible dispossession other than by posting on the unoccupied home.
However, the story is not quite that simple concerning the eviction of these two elderly and disabled ex-citizens of Pot-Nets. Their dockside mobile home on leased land owned by Tunnell Companies LP, heavily damaged by flood waters during a recent storm , was condemned.
Days before the eviction, Paul Reed was in a rehabilitation nursing home after a hospital stay, while Debbie was consulting a doctor about surgery for a fractured hip. Debbie hired two local men in an attempt to move their belongings. While she was in another room of the house, they stole $500.00 from her purse and left. She had no more money, until her social security check.
Three days before the eviction, friends of the Reeds contacted me (Don Ayotte) and asked for help. Upon hearing of her plight, my colleague, Wolfgang von Baumgart also volunteered to help the couple move their belongings into their new home thirty-five miles away.
On the day of the eviction, we arrived at 8:00 am of the third day of our efforts to finish the move as the state constable was scheduled to arrive to execute the court order. At 12:45 pm, January 15, five Pot-Nets security guards and a corporate agent preceded the constable, who did not expect a media presence. After a brief interview regarding details of the eviction, the state constable, aided by Pot-Nets security, inspected the premises and padlocked the doors.
This case is only one in many with developments that started as mobile home subdivisions on land owned by various “land barons” in Delaware’s Indian River Bay area. When the land-lease mobile home industry started in the 1960’s and 70’s, land in eastern Sussex County was cheap and the owners such as Tunnell and others became very wealthy by renting out affordable waterfront and adjacent properties.
That was then and this is now. The same properties’ real estate values have skyrocketed and many of the mobile homes are aged and cannot be relocated due to Delaware laws restricting the age of movable manufactured housing. The ultimate problem existing with these “land barons,” is that this extremely valuable land is now occupied by land tenants that are for the most part elderly and are on fixed incomes, who face major rent increases. The recently evicted Reeds were paying $900.00 per month in land rent and could no longer afford the rent, due to their reduction of income.
The problem is legally complicated by the fact that Delaware law has created two classes of tenants who come under different chapters of Title 25 the Delaware Code. While most tenants come under the Delaware Tenant-Landlord Code, owners of manufactured homes on leased land fall under the Delaware Manufactured Housing Code, which affords a much lesser degree of protection of tenant’s rights. This raises a basic constitutional issue of equal protection under the law. This, in turn is a symptom of special interest driven politics in the First State.
The issue is further complicated by rising land prices and redevelopment pressures, as the same area of scenic waterfront land could yield a much higher income from construction of condominiums or similar high-density development, after the land is cleared and rezoned.
To date, this problem has not been addressed by the Delaware General Assembly, largely due to pressures from powerful special interest groups. Owners of manufactured housing on leased land in Delaware are, therefore, at a major disadvantage that is akin to legally institutionalized feudalism.