When COVID-19 hit the US at the beginning of 2020, no one could have anticipated the way the pandemic would impact society. Millions would be affected directly, and virtually every American would be touched in many indirect ways. It would change the economy, with millions facing unemployment or underemployment. As a result, the country faces an unprecedented housing crisis with millions of households unable to pay rent, often resulting in smaller landlords struggling to maintain their buildings.
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 have faced and continue to face large numbers of eviction filings. And many of those courts are turning to ADR as a key response to this crisis.
Diversion 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 operate in judicial districts which serve over 920,000 Illinois residents.
In each of these programs, our full-time staff conduct intake to assess each party’s needs, including whether they have had access to an attorney or rental assistance. After connecting them to available resources, staff explain the mediation process, and schedule parties to sit down with a trained neutral via Zoom. Our mediators do 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 them getting a potentially devastating eviction on their record.
Due to the emergency nature of this crisis, RSI established these programs with tremendous speed, expediting a program development process that typically takes about a year into about one-third the time. Even at that speed, we took great care to ensure that our programs offer our hallmark procedural safeguards and markers of quality. We will be monitoring and evaluating these programs as they continue to operate and sharing our findings with the field at large.
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 one at present. To that end, we are creating and maintaining 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.