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.
RSI began operating our first eviction mediation program in spring of 2021, based in Kane County, Illinois. Here, Program Coordinator Christina Wright answers questions posed by Executive Director Susan Yates about the program.
Susan Yates: Please tell us a little about who this program serves.
Christina Wright: We primarily serve very low-income renters, including section 8 and those with housing vouchers. Many are living on zero wages or social security. Family sizes vary from 1 to 5, and I rarely see families larger than 5. The families are both in large cities, like Elgin and Aurora, and in rural areas like Elburn. Kane County is a large jurisdiction that spans urban and rural populations. Those receiving services from our program are primarily white, Latino and black, and comprise all genders. English and Spanish are the primary languages spoken. Many participants have already utilized other community/government programs. Some receive these benefits, while others have been repeatedly denied, and have run out of good options.
SY: How does this program operate?
CW: The process begins when an eviction case is filed with the court. Once the case begins, parties are eligible to participate in the mediation program. Either the landlord or the tenant can initiate the process by contacting the program. Most first contacts are made during a court appearance. However, landlords are required to deliver a notice of the program to tenants during service, so some enrollments begin when a party reaches out prior to the first court appearance.
By initiating contact with the program, participants compel the other party to participate. The program coordinator is tasked with connecting the parties to coordinate a virtual mediation date. All mediations are currently being conducted via Zoom. Once a date is settled, the coordinator schedules a trained mediator to serve for that case. Mediators work in 4 hour shifts and may mediate 1-4 cases during that time. On average, mediations take about 50 minutes.
Mediations are confidential, so while the ultimate outcome is reported to the court, the details of the process remain private. There are many different potential outcomes to an eviction mediation, but the most common agreements involve move out dates and/or payment plans. Once an agreement is made, the mediator completes a court order that is submitted to and signed by the judge. This ends the mediation process and, typically, the court case. By coming to a mutual agreement in mediation, future court dates and eviction orders are prevented.
SY: Eviction mediation programs are often described as eviction diversion programs. What are the aspects of your programs, other than mediation?
CW: We work with the community to provide solutions to the more common problems we see related to eviction, such as financial need. Our partners help participants apply for financial relief programs that help with things such as rent and utilities in hopes of preventing evictions based on past due rent. Participants can consult with attorneys to meet their legal needs and housing counselors to help them find affordable housing.
SY: Tell us a little more about your partners in these programs. What do they do? How do parties get in touch with them?
CW: We have partnered with several other community organizations in an attempt to provide as many services as possible to those in need. Prairie State Legal Service offers free legal representation to those who qualify. The Aurora Financial Empowerment Center helps clients with a variety of consumer needs, as well as assisting applicants with financial aid applications. Consumer Credit Counseling Services and The Neighbor Project provide housing counseling services. We provide referrals to these organizations that let parties contact them directly.
SY: Who are your mediators? What kind of training do they have? What are their professional and/or personal backgrounds?
CW: Our mediators come from a diverse set of backgrounds. Many are attorneys and arbitrators, while others are counselors, teachers, executives and retired from many other careers. All of the mediators have completed a 30-hour (or longer) mediation certification, many through our partners at the Center for Conflict Resolution. They also have all been trained on the unique needs of eviction mediation. Some have also chosen to receive additional training in a variety of styles of conflict resolution. Our mediators reflect many different races and genders, speak multiple languages, and because of the virtual nature of the mediations, reside across the country (and some even internationally).