This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.
I recently had the pleasure of writing a report on the development and implementation of the eviction mediation program in Kane County, Illinois. While the State of Illinois had an eviction moratorium in place, and in anticipation of a surge of cases when the moratorium was lifted, the court asked RSI to develop and administer the program. By all accounts, the program had a successful rollout. During the program’s first six months, referred parties and attorneys displayed an openness to mediation, the vast majority of parties and lawyers who took the post-mediation survey indicated they had a positive experience, and 54 of 81 mediations (67%) resulted in an agreement.
For the report, I interviewed individuals who played a large role in the development and implementation of the program, including the judge, the program partners and the program coordinator. We discussed their aspirations for the program, the steps taken to develop and implement the program, the program process, and program challenges and keys to success.
Universally, the interviewees pointed to five keys to the program’s success:
- Strong court interest in the project
- The support of the eviction judge
- Good communication among the program partners
- Good administration
- Buy-in from landlords and their attorneys
The mediation program was conceived as a point of contact for multiple services to helptenants and landlords navigate the court process, obtain financial assistance, and address housing issues. It was designed within the following context:
- The courthouse was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic
- The widely held expectation that evictions would surge when the moratorium on evictions ended, with the demand for mediation rising significantly as well
- Significant rental relief (funds to help tenants pay their back and future rent) was available
- Tenants and landlords needed to know whether rental relief would be provided to them in order to reach an agreement
- The eviction process needed to keep moving forward while rental relief and mediation options were being sought
- Almost all tenants in eviction cases are self-represented, as are some landlords
- There was the potential for external funding for mediation
This context meant that the program needed to be a remote process, with cases triaged quickly and referred for other services prior to mediation. Anticipating a large number of cases, the program required a large number of mediators. RSI and the court therefore designed the program as a free, multi-step process with a full-time coordinator, legal aid and financial counseling partners, and paid mediators, all of which was possible due to the availability of multiple sources of external funding.
The individuals I interviewed outlined the multiple challenges they confronted in developing and implementing the program. The lessons they learned from working through those challenges are outlined below.
Flexibility is required, particularly when confronting uncertainty.
The program was planned while three main factors affecting that planning were very uncertain: the number of cases that would be filed, what level of funding would be available and when the predicted surge in cases would begin. These circumstances required the program partners to remain flexible during the planning phase in terms of when to ramp up their services, and it required RSI to react to the changing landscape of cases after the program launched. The ability to change procedures and to increase capacity have been essential to the continued provision of mediation to all parties interested in participating.
Communication among the stakeholders is essential.
During both the planning phase and after program launch, continued communication allowed program partners to plan and to set up efficient mechanisms for referrals. It essentially helped them to be flexible. It also served as a point of exchange of information regarding other types of services available to tenants and landlords, which helped program partners open more doors for their clients.
Judicial support is key.
The program can only function if the judges support it both by educating the parties about the resources available to them and by either strongly encouraging or requiring the parties to attend mediation. When tenants are educated about the benefits of mediation, they are more likely to want to participate.
Landlord and/or landlord attorney buy-in is required.
It is important to get the perspective of the landlords during the planning phase and to address their concerns. If the landlords and/or their attorneys do not see the value of mediation to them, they will not participate or, if ordered to, will not participate fully. Note that it is also essential to obtain the perspective of the tenants; their concerns and interests were presented by Prairie State Legal Services.
Provision of services is time-intensive.
The program was originally designed with the program coordinator (PC) conducting an intake with each party who came to her during the court hearings, letting them know about the services available and making referrals on the spot. This became untenable when the number of cases per hearing date rose to 40 or 50 and RSI found that information exchange with parties took longer than expected. To provide this kind of service would require more than one or two people. The PC, therefore, shifted to obtaining contact information from each interested party and then following up after court.
RSI’s program partners had similar challenges keeping up with demand. According to the director of program partner the Aurora Financial Empower Center (FEC), the FEC’s three counselors would not be able to assist all tenants who required help if the number of cases surged too high. Legal aid program partner Prairie State Legal Services similarly did not have the staff required to help all eligible tenants seeking their services. All of this suggests that further resources are required to provide the optimal level of service for all those who need it.
Good program administration is important.
The program coordinator’s skillful management of the program has been a key to the program’s success. Her organizational skills and development of efficient processes have made the program run smoothly.
Many thanks to the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation for its support of the evaluation of the eviction mediation program, of which the implementation report is a part. Many thanks as well, to the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation for its support of the eviction mediation program.
Go to RSI’s website to read the full report.