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Rental Relief and Eviction Mediation Work Hand in Hand to Make Housing More Stable

Eric Slepak-Cherney, August 19th, 2022

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.

Photo by Kostiantyn Li, via Unsplash

Rental assistance has been a critical component of eviction mediation programs over the past two years. With tenants unable to work for months on end and moratoria on evictions in place, past due rent amounts soared. Conducting mediations in which tenants could not pay landlords much, if any, accumulated rent would not have been fruitful. While mediation in landlord-tenant cases has a long pre-COVID history of success, the sheer number of impacted households and amount of past-due rent threatened to destabilize housing markets and leave millions without a home in the midst of a global health emergency.

The key was rental assistance: Landlords and tenants applied to government programs, which would then make payments to landlords for past-due rent and, in some instances, for a few months in the future.

Across two separate rounds of relief, Congress appropriated over $46 billion in emergency rental assistance. Through June 30, 2022, some $32 billion of that funding had been expended. The relief was allocated to individual states, under the assumption that each state would be best situated to decide how to distribute its allocated funds most effectively. Generally speaking, the states designed their rental assistance programs along a continuum, with one end being central administration by statewide agencies, and the other being delegation of administration to individual municipalities such as cities and counties. Many fell somewhere along the continuum in a hybrid approach.

Timely Processing of Applications a Challenge

The coordination among federal, state and local governments to deliver these services has been a massive undertaking, and certainly not without challenge. An analogous challenge in coordination has arisen between the executive branches of states that are charged with distributing these funds, and the judiciaries that are charged with adjudicating the eviction cases filed in their courts. The interplay between these two, particularly around the speed at which each operates, often determines the reality of whether a tenant can successfully stay in their home.

Using Illinois, where RSI operates several eviction mediation programs, as an example, we saw early on how gaps in coordination were impacting applicants. As cases began to be filed in the wake of our state’s eviction moratorium being lifted in October 2021, the processing time for rental assistance applications was significant. Anecdotally, we heard stories from tenants, landlords and legal aid providers that it wasn’t unusual for applications to take two or three months to be approved. 

Even with many jurisdictions in Illinois electing to continue their eviction cases, some for up to 28 days, the rental application process simply wasn’t going to move fast enough in many cases to change case outcomes. While judges could potentially continue cases to allow for a decision on rental assistance, they also had to balance the needs of the landlord, some of whom had already gone 18 months or longer without collecting rent.

Expediting the Resolution Process

Commendably, our state agencies responded by developing a dedicated Court-Based Rental Assistance Program (CBRAP). This rental relief program is solely for parties to an active eviction court case, and its resolution process has been expedited to stay within the timelines of most courts in the state. The program has been effective at resolving rental assistance applications in a period of three weeks or sooner, meaning that many parties know whether they’ve been approved by the time their case comes back up for their continuance date.

RSI and our fellow mediation centers in Illinois have assisted CBRAP in expediting cases by accepting referrals from the Illinois Housing Development Authority to mediate certain pending rental assistance applications. Typically, these cases are ones in which a rental assistance application has been conditionally approved but the landlord has also secured an eviction order, often from a default judgment. Because the rental assistance terms stipulate that a landlord agrees to not evict for an additional 90 days (the rent is prepaid by the award), the primary focus of these mediations has been to help the parties make sure they both understand the terms of the agreement, including that the landlord will need to vacate the eviction order to receive rental assistance.

Complementary Programs

Our work on CBRAP complements our eviction mediation programs operating in Illinois’ circuit courts. When tenants are evicted and taken to court, our mediation programs are often the first touchpoint for many parties, and thus we make a lot of referrals to rental assistance as part of our intake and triage process.

Illinois’ CBRAP is just one example of many that demonstrate how eviction diversion programs complement and intersect with rental assistance efforts. We’ve previously showcased the Philadelphia eviction diversion program, which innovatively integrated rental assistance directly into the program model itself, and also allowed for pre-filing cases to give parties more time to explore the rental assistance. A recent webinar jointly hosted by the White House and Treasury Department highlighted the significant role eviction diversion programs have played in improving rental assistance delivery. And a forthcoming post on this blog will take a look at the unique and effective approach that was taken in Hawaii on Oahu.

A Look at RSI’s Extraordinary Past Two Years

Sandy Wiegand, August 1st, 2022

Adaptation and Innovation. Those are the themes of the new Resolution Systems Institute annual report. Like many organizations, RSI has opted to sum up 2020 and 2021 together – a reflection of the degree to which we have been consumed by the urgent demands of these extraordinary times.

As we lift our heads from our work for a moment, we’re proud to review all that our efforts have helped accomplish over the past couple years.

From designing and operating three new eviction mediation programs in Illinois, to convening experts from across the US to explore the potential of online dispute resolution for family court, to curating resources for a special topic on eviction mediation, to providing evaluation of both our own and others’ alternative dispute resolution programs, RSI has been busy adapting and innovating in an effort to mitigate some of the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This work is improving outcomes. To take just one local example, our Kane County, Illinois, Eviction Mediation Program served over 100 households in the final few months of 2021, after Illinois ended its eviction moratorium on October 3. Mediators handled 66 cases, providing a vital forum for parties to hear and be heard, and leading to 45 agreements. Afterward, 89% of parties responding to surveys expressed satisfaction with the mediation experience. In addition, RSI helped navigate hundreds of community members to housing counseling, rental assistance and legal aid services.

Of course, everything RSI has accomplished in our 27 years of operation has been made possible by our dedicated program partners, generous funders, and everyone who joins us in working to increase access to justice through court alternative dispute resolution. 

We invite you to review the Resolution Systems Institute 2020-2021 Annual Report and learn more about what we’ve accomplished together. We hope you will continue to support our work and be a part of finding creative solutions that improve outcomes for disputing parties, while reducing the strain on our nation’s court systems.

Spring 2022: How RSI’s Work Has Expanded and Evolved During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Just Court ADR, May 18th, 2022

As the COVID-19 pandemic has strained finances, families and the social fabric in general, the need for and potential of well-designed alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to stitch together solutions has become increasingly apparent. Throughout this challenging time, Resolution Systems Institute (RSI) has continued to monitor and evaluate new dispute resolution initiatives and developed new court mediation programs of our own. Below is a description of some of our work during the pandemic.

In 2020, as a potential pandemic-driven eviction wave loomed, RSI began to design our first eviction mediation program. In the course of about nine months, we developed the court rules, procedures and forms the program would need to operate. We also recruited a cadre of mediators and provided them with specialized eviction mediation training through our friends at the Center for Conflict Resolution. The Kane County (Illinois) Eviction Mediation Program launched in spring 2021. Later that fall, RSI launched similar programs in Illinois’ Kankakee and Winnebago counties. Overall, our programs operate in judicial districts that serve over 920,000 Illinois residents.

To learn more about RSI’s work over the last two years in the eviction arena, we recommend you check out our blog entries on the topic, as well as our Eviction Mediation Special Topics resource. RSI is now working with Kane and Winnebago counties to bolster their longstanding foreclosure mediation programs as homeowners now begin to feel the squeeze that renters started experiencing last year.

While RSI is spearheading these new program development and administration initiatives, evaluation remains the central pillar of upholding RSI’s mission of improving access to justice. RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack recently published two reports evaluating the program development experience in Kane County: Eviction Mediation Design and Implementation in Illinois’ 16th Judicial Circuit: Challenges and Keys to Success and Participant Experience in Eviction Mediation: Summary Of Early Survey Responses in the 16th Judicial Circuit of Illinois’ Video Mediation Program.

In partnership with the University of California, Davis, RSI has also evaluated online dispute resolution (ODR) pilot programs in Texas and Michigan. The pandemic generated greater interest among courts for ADR processes that parties could access remotely. The evaluations, which will be released soon, will provide courts with a better understanding of what ODR adoption requires and what possible benefits it can provide.

The last two years have provided many of us, RSI included, with a complex mix of setbacks and new opportunities. RSI is committed to innovating and adapting to meet the challenges that courts, and the litigants they serve, encounter in this ever-changing world. We are grateful to our program partners, our funders and each of you who come to RSI in search of expertise and guidance. We hope you will continue to take this journey with us as we work towards our mission of expanding access to justice through court alternative dispute resolution.

Two New RSI Special Topics Available

Susan M. Yates, December 21st, 2021

RSI is pleased to announce we have added two new Special Topics to our Resource Center. One is about Restorative Justice and its relationship to court ADR and the other is about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in court ADR. RSI develops Special Topics from time to time to respond to issues people who work with court ADR are facing. These latest Special Topics join others on subjects such as eviction mediation, online dispute resolution and child protection mediation.

Both these Special Topics were made possible by a grant from the American Arbitration Association – International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. Thank you to the AAA-ICDR Foundation!

Announcing RSI’s National Eviction ADR Project

Eric Slepak-Cherney, May 27th, 2021

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 of Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to other court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted American society in ways that are still playing out. The fallout from a public health standpoint was tremendous and its consequences rippled into almost every aspect of society. Chief among the impacts was significant economic contraction, as  a staggering number of individuals suffered reduced or lost income as a consequence of layoffs, reduced hours, contracting the virus, or caring for loved ones who had.

Unable to afford their monthly rent, tens of millions of Americans have found themselves at risk of eviction. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and Centers for Disease Control instituted moratoriums on eviction, though each had some gaps. (The CDC moratorium has been vacated by a federal ruling. As of the writing of this blog post, that decision is being appealed and the moratorium remains in place for now).

Along with these federal protections, many states and localities enacted their own, generally more comprehensive, moratoriums. Approximately one-third of states still have an eviction moratorium on the books. However, for other jurisdictions, eviction proceedings not precluded by federal moratorium have resumed, and courts in jurisdictions where there are state or local moratoriums are expecting a significant surge of cases when those are lifted.

To address this uptick in cases, many courts are turning to mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. Subscribers to our monthly newsletter, The Court ADR Connection, are no doubt aware of various programs that have arisen in recent months. We have been diligently trying to capture and report on these efforts in an attempt to provide our core audience of court ADR professionals with information about how others are navigating this unprecedented situation.

To that end, we are excited to announce our new eviction ADR resource sharing project. Thanks to the generous funding of the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation, RSI will be able to share resources, guidance and our expertise with a national audience. In the coming weeks and months, we will be rolling out a series of resources we hope will help inform and mobilize the field to more effectively serve disputants and hopefully assist landlords and tenants in avoiding eviction.

These resources include our Eviction Mediation Special Topic, which will share program development insights; house sample documents like court rules, surveys and mediation notices; and even include a living database in which we have been collecting data on known eviction ADR programs nationwide. We also will be publishing a monthly blog series on our experiences developing a new mediation program based in Kane County, Illinois and collaborating with others across the country on eviction ADR. Finally, we will also conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the Kane County program’s first year, and publish it on our site, alongside smaller reports about the program’s implementation and quarterly progress, to contribute to the existing body of knowledge regarding ADR’s efficacy in resolving these disputes.

The COVID-19 crisis was unexpected, but now many courts are expecting or already experiencing eviction crises. To help court ADR programs meet these challenges, RSI is providing a robust mix of expertise, data, analysis and research, as well as sample forms, rules, videos and websites.We are grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for enabling us to do this work. 

To stay up to date with all these efforts, and the other work RSI is doing, please make sure you are subscribed to our newsletter. We also welcome our court ADR colleagues to reach out to us with information about your eviction ADR programs.