When COVID-19 hit the US at the beginning of 2020, it transformed our society, including the economy. For years, unemployment and inflation persisted, threatening an unprecedented housing crisis with millions behind on rent. Landlords, particularly those with a single or small number of units, risked foreclosure without the expected income stream.
State and federal governments intervened in a number of ways, including moratoria on evictions and providing rental relief funds. Even after these interventions, courts across the country faced large numbers of eviction filings. And many of those courts turned to ADR as a key response to this crisis.
Mediation programs offer courts a number of benefits. They provide an effective speed bump against the deluge of cases, allowing for better use of judicial resources. Court mediation programs are an excellent first point of contact for triage of cases and referral to other crucial services such as legal assistance and rent relief. And with proper design and oversight, they can offer participants procedural justice and a potentially more efficient form of resolution.
Above all else, the goal is to help avoid eviction wherever possible, mitigate the fraught potential of housing insecurity and avoid foreclosures downstream.
Working on the Front Lines
Building on our proven track record operating mediation programs in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis, RSI secured the support of several courts across northern Illinois to establish eviction mediation programs. Beginning with Kane County, serving west suburban Chicagoland, and expanding into Kankakee (south suburbs) and Winnebago (Rockford metro area) counties, our programs operated in judicial districts that served over 920,000 Illinois residents.
In each of these programs, our full-time staff conducted intake to assess each party’s needs, including whether they had access to an attorney or rental assistance. After connecting parties to available resources, staff would explain the mediation process and schedule parties to sit down with a trained neutral via Zoom. Our mediators have done their best to help parties explore their options, including how to keep the tenant in the home, or allow them to move out on terms that avoid a potentially devastating eviction on their record.
Because of the emergency nature of this crisis, RSI established these programs in about one-third the time it typically takes. Even at that speed, we took great care to ensure that our programs offered our hallmark procedural safeguards and markers of quality. We launched the Kane County program in May 2021, followed by programs in Winnebago and Kankakee counties beginning in September and December 2021, respectively.
Since then, RSI has had the opportunity to examine the implementation of the Kane County eviction mediation program and analyze survey responses, thanks to generous funding by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. We invite you to read the reports on our Program Evaluations page to learn how participants rated the program, as well as what key personnel see as challenges and keys to success. RSI will continue to monitor and evaluate these programs and to share our findings to support courts’ efforts to develop their own eviction diversion programs.
Sharing Our Expertise
RSI has a national reputation as a thought leader in the field of court ADR. To that end, court administrators, judges and ADR practitioners look to us for expertise, particularly in moments of urgency such as the pandemic. To that end, we have created and maintain a living resource on how eviction diversion is evolving in response to COVID-19.
Our Eviction Mediation Special Topic is a central hub for everything courts need to know. We have included key program development considerations, and sample forms and notices other programs can emulate. It has aggregated the best available studies on eviction mediation, and other essential tools. We have also developed and are regularly updating a database of other court-based eviction mediation programs nationwide.
Over on the Just Court ADR blog, we are regularly posting about both our experiences in the field and key national developments. Leveraging our web presence and extensive network among key leaders, we are shaping the conversation around eviction ADR.