Neo-Feudalism In Delaware

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.

Pot-Nets Dockside entrance
Pot-Nets Dockside entrance

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.

Left to right, Debbie Reed and friend Barbara Byers
Left to right, Debbie Reed and friend Barbara Byers

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.

 Left to right, state constable, Don Ayotte
Left to right, state constable, Don Ayotte

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.

11 thoughts on “Neo-Feudalism In Delaware”

  1. “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.”

    Apartment tenants and land tenants are in very different circumstances which could not be covered by the same laws. And, no, this is not an equal protection issue, since they are not at all in the same situation.

    For example, if you are the landlord of an apartment, you have a variety of legal duties, such as maintaining the habitability of the premises. If, for example, the apartment is not maintained in habitable condition – working plumbing, heating, electrical wiring, etc. – the tenant has certain rights in relation to the landlord’s duty to maintain a habitable unit.

    None of those obligations and rights have any relationship to the situation of someone who is leasing a plot of land on which the owner of the unit is entirely responsible for maintaining their unit. The landlord in that situation has zero duty to do repairs and maintenance of the housing unit itself.

    The idea that the landlord-tenant code should be the same for both circumstances is foolishness.

  2. Not as far as eviction procedures, utilities and non-material rights are concerned. In Sussex County, sewer hookups are the responsibility of the tenant. Also, there are problems associated with tree trimming, etc.

    Additionally, land tenants may also be subject to unreasonable lease provisions and restrictions.

  3. Love to see that you guys are working on helping people who are essentially defenseless. Aside from what you said above, which isn’t much, what suggestions do you have for the Sussex County delegation to the General Assembly for changes in the laws? Press the folks you’ve helped put in power. Become community organizers.

  4. The underlying problem is the closed-loop, special interestinterest driven nature of politics in Delaware. The First State is ranked 48 in state integrity.

    Stay tuned for a three-part series on establishing an independent Office of Inspector General .

    Lobbying the existing General Assembly is not likely to produce significant public interest reforms. It is necessary to alter its political composition.

  5. It is essentially a matter of modifying the existing Delawre Tenant-Landlord Code to establish the same standard of eviction procedures and protection from unconscionable lease contract clauses, while exempting land lessors from functionally inapplicable obligations of landlords who own rental housing units.

  6. @Hopeful Observer

    The existing laws regarding the type of actions taken by Tunnell Companies LP and other land barons are allowed by law, but like you stated Hopeful Observer, this exposure is only the tip of the iceberg.
    We are doing more research on these laws that give broad powers to these people to make victims of the elderly and disabled, who live on fixed incomes and have no defense against the power of money and powerful law firms.
    The office of an elected independent Inspector General might be a first step in the right direction.
    We will continue to expose this type of behavior.

  7. Don’t pay for a trailer on somebody else’s land.
    Have you ever seen an old trailer being transported down the road?….Neither have I.
    It cost more than the trailer is worth just to move them.
    It’s a fool’s paradise.

  8. @fbh

    I agree with you but they weren’t old trailers when the people originally moved them there. They became old and the land value skyrocketed.
    Not only did the trailers grow older but the people who own them grew older also.
    Using your calculations fbh, we must them treat the owners of these trailers with disrespect and take their property when we’ve jacked the price of living there so high, they can no longer pay the price.

    Hmmmm, shades of “elder abuse.”

  9. Putting a brand new trailer on someone else’s property would even be a bigger mistake…….Didn’t rent control already pass a few years back anyway?

    I feel sorry for the senior citizens who are in this predicament.

    If I were the Tunnels, I wouldn’t have ever chosen to turn the Longneck area into a big trailer park

    Yes, they can make money from these properties , and they still get to own the land, but they have cheapened the entire area by doing so….and now they are at risk of bad Karma.

    Remember that you can’t “have your cake and eat it too”. This goes for the land owners and the tenants .

  10. The issue with the trailers in Rehoboth/Lewes etc is that they put the homes there when it was cheap and expected it to always be that way. Well that doesnt work. They had their little piece of the pie of ‘living at the beach’ (where most Delaware trailer owners call them ‘cottages’). Now they cant afford it because they bought something that has no resale value but they land they knowingly rented did increase (as did the taxes on the land). If i was a land owner i’d give them all notice of eviction of a year from the date of that letter and sell the land.

  11. The first word that is missing from your observations, Arthur and Fighting Bluehen, is greed. The second word that is missing is “snobbery”. The community owners who made a minimum of 70% profit over decades of ownership are now getting greedy and want more. The attitude of “cheapening the area” doesn’t just smack of “elitism” it stinks of it . Frankly, I am glad neither of you are my neighbors and I know you could never be my friends. This is one major problem with Delaware, nobody belongs here unless they meet YOUR standards, economically and socially. It will be interesting if you manage to chase off the undesireables, to see WHO is next in line. To the good, decent, caring friends I have in Delaware, Thank You, you make the difference.

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