A few changes to a housing court in St. Paul, Minnesota, appear to have reaped dividends in term of fewer evictions and more settlements. The housing court instituted a housing clinic, bringing together financial services, legal services and mediation at the same place to help those coming to their eviction hearings. Along with changes to court rules and forms, the clinic has had a number of positive outcomes for both landlords and tenants. Although only one component to the changes to housing court was to increase access to mediation, the overall concept is instructive to anyone involved in ADR and housing courts.
In “Justice Served, Housing Preserved: The Ramsey County Housing Court” (Mitchell Hamline Law Journal of Public Policy and Practice, 2020), Colleen Ebinger and Elizabeth Clysdale discuss the impetus for reform, the process for identifying and instituting needed changes and the results of those changes. The Chief Judge saw a need to make changes that would improve access to justice and bring together resources for tenants that would address the root causes of eviction. To that end, he sought the assistance of the McKnight Foundation and Family Housing Fund. They, in turn, turned to the National Center for State Courts to facilitate the planning process. Other stakeholders who were included in the planning process included legal services, the local dispute resolution center, a lawyer who represented landlords, the county’s financial assistance program, the city’s housing department, as well as judges and court administrators.
The group agreed on three areas of action: implement a number of procedural changes, improve coordination among government entities, and expand access to mediation and legal services. Procedural changes included changes to forms, such as including information in the summons tenants receive about the eviction hearing that details the financial, legal and dispute resolution services available to them. In addition, the settlement form allowed the parties to check that they had agreed to an expungement, which keeps the eviction from showing up in their credit history, and the court order was changed to include the possibility of immediate expungement. Further, if expungement was contingent on the tenant making payments, both parties were now allowed to file a notice of compliance with the payments, rather than just the landlord. This meant that the tenant had more control over whether the expungement was carried through.
Coordination among government entities was improved by providing office space in the courthouse for financial assistance workers representing two different funding agencies. This allowed them to work together and allowed tenants to apply to both at the same time rather than having to wait to be denied from one to apply to the other. In addition, the court began providing all partners with information on all litigants on the calendar, which allows them to be more prepared to assist the litigants when they come to court.
To expand access to legal services and mediation, the court and partners agreed to have attorneys available for consultation at all hearings , as well as mediators, who would be particularly helpful in dealing with disputes that were not legal in nature. Further, the judge began promoting these services from the bench to ensure that all litigants knew about their right to access these resources.
After a year and a half, the court’s numbers appear to show an improvement in outcomes. The court has a goal of reducing evictions by 50% in five years. In the first 18 months, evictions declined by 8%, to the lowest eviction rate in 10 years. Settlements increased by 5%, to the highest rate in five years. The impact was highest on expungements, which doubled. On the other end, fears of increased trial numbers and longer court calls didn’t come true. The number of trials as a proportion of cases declined and court call length increased by 10 minutes on average.
Anecdotally, the response has been positive. Judges report that tenants are more prepared for trial, with a better understanding of the process and when and how to raise their legal defenses. Landlords, too, see benefits from the changes. They have said they appreciate having financial services at the courthouse. Financial assistance staff will spend time with landlords and landlord attorneys, developing relationships with them that, Ebinger and Clysdale note, bear fruit outside of the courthouse as well. For example, one of the services reported an increase in inquiries from landlords before they file an eviction, wanting to know if their tenants are eligible for emergency assistance.
Ebinger and Clysdale outline six lessons learned from the program:
- a collaborative attitude between partners is critical to success
- small changes, such as a new check box on a settlement form, can provide big dividends
- state law matters and can have its own impact regardless of changes made at the court level
- financial service providers are better situated to solving emergencies than individuals left on their own to navigate social services
- different circumstances require different interventions – some litigants will need legal assistance, some mediation and some financial assistance, thus each partner is necessary for the success of the program
- as settlements increased, so did settlement failures (e.g., tenants failing to pay arrearages as agreed to in the settlement) – along with a higher rate of settlement agreements was a greater number of affidavits of non-compliance
This approach to eviction cases is similar to the one taken by many foreclosure courts in response to the housing crisis, in which homeowners are offered an array of services (albeit not at the same time and not all at the courthouse) to help guide them through the court process and stave off foreclosure if possible. Evaluation of those programs demonstrated their effectiveness. While the data looks promising for this program, it is still early and more can be learned. It would be wonderful to know more from the tenants about their experience with the process and whether they feel they are being well-served.