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.
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.
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.
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