The foreclosure mediation program in Cook County, Illinois, which serves Chicago and many of its suburbs, has done what all ADR programs should do. It has tracked specific measures of success, identified areas for improvement, made changes to make the program work better, then looked at the data again to see the effect of those changes. The program’s latest report shows that the changes have indeed improved what was perhaps its biggest problem.
In its first two years – 2011 and 2012 – the program suffered from long delays in case progression, with cases taking well more than a year to complete the program. The program consists of three stages: housing counseling to explain the foreclosure process and to help homeowners gather the necessary documents for lender review, legal aid counseling to determine whether the homeowners have any defenses to foreclosure, and mediation to facilitate negotiation between the homeowner and lender. Initially, homeowners and lenders almost always negotiated in mediation. Homeowners without an attorney were (and continue to be) provided free representation by volunteer attorneys at the mediation. The major cause of the delays was the lack of legal aid attorneys to represent the homeowners.
To remedy this, the court hired case managers in 2013 – attorneys who attend court hearings and triage the cases in which the homeowner is self-represented. If the homeowner has been trying to come to an agreement with their lender, the case managers then work with the homeowner and lender to ensure that documents are exchanged, communication is maintained, and required steps are completed prior to the next status date. Case managers can facilitate agreement between the homeowner and lender as well. The program also encouraged housing counselors who were helping the homeowners to facilitate agreements with the homeowners’ lender. These changes appear to have had a dramatic effect. The time to complete the program has been reduced to 12 weeks. A drop in filings has likely been an important factor in this, but there has also been a large increase in pre-mediation agreements over the past two years. These agreements have reduced the need for legal aid attorneys to represent the homeowners, opening up a bottleneck in case progression.
At the same time, the percentage of completed cases that end in an agreement increased tremendously, while the percentage of agreements that were for home retention has declined. The reason for these trends is not addressed by the report. Did the increase in facilitating agreement prior to mediation have an effect on outcomes? Has it had an effect on whether the homeowners complete the program? These would be interesting areas for the court and program to explore.
In the meantime, though, the county, the court and the program should pat themselves on the back for identifying areas for improvement and then implementing changes. It is often too easy to either terminate a program that has less than stellar outcomes or to let such a program wither and die.